Conference conversations: Alex Sobel, Monique Charles, Li Andersson, and Mat Lawrence.

Position:ROUNDTABLE - Interview

Alex Sobel MP on Labour's growing support, the role of the 'soft left', and the party's approach to Brexit

James Stafford (JS): Your seat is a university seat, with lots of staff and students. Given that the Liberal Democrats held it at their nadir in 2015, what were the key factors that meant that you were able to win it this year?

Alex Sobel MP (AS): I think the most important factor this election was the manifesto, and the ideas in the manifesto. It was a manifesto that looked like it offered a way to solve many of the issues most affecting people in my constituency.

The biggest change wasn't, in fact, among students--it was among people around the same age as me. People in their 30s and 40s, with children, worried about their jobs, their housing, school cuts--this was a big issue. All the schools put out the teaching union leaflets detailing what the level of schools cuts were going to mean, which we added to by leafleting at school gates, and people were saying, I voted Liberal last time, but I'm going to vote for you this time, because I care about those issues --about schools, housing, jobs--and we know that you'll do something about it if you get in. And we've been door-knocking since the election, and that is still there. Those people who came back to Labour, or voted Labour for the first time, they are not going anywhere. So I'd say that is the biggest single factor.

The second important factor was young people; whether that was young people working in the so-called 'gig economy', for Deliveroo or firms like that--we had a lot of Deliveroo riders, call centre staff, bar staff--or students, living in private rented accommodation. We have a lot of private rented accommodation. They'd never voted in many cases, partly because in many cases they move around a lot, but they registered to vote this time. We had 13,000 new voter registrations, the biggest increase of anywhere in the country, and the people that registered voted. I think we were the biggest because people knew it was so marginal.

JS: You're the Treasurer of Open Labour. How would you describe the organisation's role in the party?

AS: I think the party needs organisations within it that are supportive of the leadership's broad political agenda, but also are trying to create an open and inclusive environment, and a forum for debate looking at long-term issues facing the country. Open Labour is an unapologetically democratic socialist organisation. It's opposed to the economic models that we saw governments of the left implementing in the 1990s and 2000s. We should never have supported the introduction of academies, trusts, PFI deals. But that's looking backwards. We need to look forward and ask about the next models.

JS: There are sections of the party leadership, and indeed of Momentum, which increasingly adopt parts of the 'soft left' outlook you describe. What does Open Labour do that's distinctive?

AS: There's a whole debate now going on in the party about how we speak to each other. I don't think either side of the party has a monopoly on abuse, but we're really trying to change that discourse. People have said things that are unacceptable, and we really need to try and change that. I think Open Labour is at the heart of that.

For us, it's all about coalition building--putting solutions out and building a coalition around them across the party. For example with Momentum, the example you gave, where they might broadly agree on a soft left position; well then you work to identify what you agree on, and try to find allies on an issue with the traditional right of the party, the New Labour side of the party, so on. It's about pragmatic coalition building within the party, around specific issues.

JS: Would it have been helpful for the party to have a Brexit policy formally agreed at conference?

AS: I think the problem on that is that the Brexit process is very complex. We are testing the entirety of EU law in this area. Here's a scenario: you adopt a policy at conference which it turns out won't actually work, you have an election in a few weeks and then you win. You're then told well that's party policy, you have to do it. You turn round to Michel Barnier and present him with your policy and he says no. What happens?

JS: That's kind of a Labour party variant on the problem with the Europe referendum itself, isn't it? You're saying delegates don't have enough information to decide party policy, and that fixed mandates can't resolve the issues.

AS: Yes, it is like the referendum problem. I think a policy commission and consultation led by the Brexit team is definitely something we should be looking at as an alternative. Brexit is going to take up a lot of parliamentary time, it's going to take up a lot of headspace for people in the country, I think we need to devote a lot of time to it, alongside our electoral work with the public. An up-and-down vote at conference on something that's very complex and is changing all the time probably isn't the way to do it.

JS: There's a tension here within the party. There's a big space for some kind of civil society consultation process that Labour would be well-placed to lead. But as the election showed, we tend to make more progress when we're talking about nearly anything but Brexit.

AS: With Brexit, you can't run and you can't hide. And actually, including a lot...

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