The Tab talks with Eddie Marsan and Aaron Bastani

Two heavyweight Twitter lefties go head to head


On Thursday night (22nd November) two prominent Twitter commentators went head to head with each other over the current path of the Left in British politics. On the proposition, we had Eddie Marsan, claiming that the Left has lost its way by abdicating responsibility for ideology. Leading the opposition was the self-proclaimed “literal Communist” Aaron Bastani, who opposed this motion with a long list of polls and statistics.

Eddie Marsan has a very personable vibe while relaxing with a pint with me during the interview, a marked difference from his fiery performance opposite Bastani in the chamber just an hour before.

The Tab: As a rather prominent critic of the direction of the Left of the Labour Party, who could you see unifying moderate voices in the Parliamentary Party and leading a successful coup against Jeremy Corbyn?

Eddie: David Lammy.

The Tab: Why’s that?

Eddie: Because I read a book of David’s called Out of the Ashes which offered great insight into the London riots. He’s also been a fantastic advocate for the Windrush generation and the victims of the Grenfell Fire.

I think that he’d be a great leader of the Labour Party, but I think there’s a lot of other talent in Labour too. It’s got Yvette Cooper, Stella Creasy, Hilary Benn. I flirted with the idea of joining other parties to put emphasis on Europe, but I can’t give up on Labour when they have such talent.

The Tab: What would you make of claims that these people would do well in student areas and cities where there’s a lot of support for multiculturalism, but in Tory England they might not do as well?

Eddie: I think they would definitely do better in Tory England than Jeremy Corbyn would. I also think that Labour’s missing something by not supporting a People’s Vote and exposing Tory lies. At the moment, it’s not a Tory Brexit, it’s a Brexit – Corbyn is as much a part of Brexit as Theresa May or Boris Johnson. This country is being run by ideologues and we need pragmatists to regain control.

The Tab: You’re quite well-known for being extremely anti-Brexit on Twitter. How do you think Labour MPs should negotiate this minefield when many of them have marginal seats in Leave-heavy areas?

Eddie: I think they should tell the people the truth. They need to say that they understand the difficulties people are facing, why they felt the way they did, but that this isn’t the solution.

The Tab: With the left overwhelmingly dominating the institutions of the Labour Party from the NEC to the Shadow Cabinet, what do you think Labour moderates should do next?

Eddie: I don’t know. Part of me would like a new party, but I honestly don’t know. They have to do something before we lose the next election.

The Tab: Is it at all plausible in the world of Trump and Brexit to return to the politics of third way centrism that arguably provided fertile soil from which such so-called populist movements have grown?

Eddie: Yeah, I think definitely, because centrism is getting rid of ideology and being pragmatic with policy. You can’t run the world using an ideology that was born in a world that doesn’t exist anymore. You have to be prepared to adapt.

The Tab: Your Twitter bio is a quote saying that “tyranny is the deliberate removal of nuance”. Do you think that politics today is deliberately unnuanced, and how do we reinject nuance into the conversation?

Eddie: We need to stop personality politics, with people like Nigel Farage and Jeremy Corbyn being worshipped. You start telling people complex truths and trusting them to handle them, rather than simple lies.

Eddie’s anti-Brexit, pro-new Labour stance has earned him some ire from more self-identifying “radicals” on the Left, but he is clearly convinced of the strength of his arguments and so were the audience, who voted for his motion that the Left has lost its way.

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Aaron Bastani is just as you would expect in real life from his Twitter persona – chatty and relaxed but with a slight mocking glint in his eye, maybe due to being surrounded by the Cambridge establishment that he is so politically against. He seems to revel in bold and controversial statements that he backs up with facts and figures, and he does not hold back in the interview below.

The Tab: I’ll start off with a bit of Cambridge context. Several CULC (Cambridge Universities’ Labour Club) members have actually boycotted tonight’s event, claiming that the Union is a predominantly conservative establishment. They believe that the Left won’t get a fair hearing here, and that it contributes to Left disunity. What’s your take on this?

Aaron: They’re allowed to privately do what they wish. There’s obviously going to be a right-wing bias in a place such as Cambridge, but if we persuade even one person as a result of tonight’s debate then it’s a valid exercise ultimately.

The Tab: You’ve recently come under fire from certain parts of the press in the UK for calling poppies “racist”. This is quite surprising considering that Jeremy Corbyn wears poppies publicly and has taken part in the Cenotaph ceremony. How do you reconcile these things?

Aaron: I actually didn’t say that. I said the Poppy Appeal is often prone to military triumphalism which is racist. I don’t think the poppy is racist, my friends and family wear it, I don’t think they are racist. But I do think for a significant minority that it is about colonial glory, which the left should condemn.
What’s more, the moralistic tone that it has conceals the material failings in how veterans are treated by the state – everyone works themselves up into frenzy over poppy debates, while we have thousands of homeless veterans. It’s bizarre that care for veterans is outsourced to an unaccountable charity.

The Tab: You call yourself a communist – literally a communist, one might say – and fighting to liberate working class people from class oppression. Why do you think then, that support for Jeremy Corbyn comes predominantly from middle class urban professionals rather than the so-called working classes?

Aaron: Now that’s not true. The most likely person to vote for Jeremy Corbyn is a young BAME woman – they’re not the most likely to be middle class or highly educated. I was on a train in South London two days before the General Election, and there was a young black kid on there. He was moaning on his phone about “Jeremy fucking Corbyn” being all his friends would talk about. Now this clearly shows how the major change is the young, who are for the first time in a long time genuinely enthusiastic about a political movement.
So, I think the picture is a lot more complex. Using language like working class and middle class is very vague, and we need to be a bit more sophisticated in our analysis.

The Tab: Being more sophisticated then, how do the Left reach beyond the young and BAME people in inner cities and student towns to the people who haven’t been persuaded by the leftist alternative?

Aaron: Yep. There’s a really important point. Labour and the Tories both seem to have reached a natural ceiling at about 40% of the vote each. Getting that next 5% of the vote in order to get a majority is going to be a lot more difficult.
Labour’s voter base is more likely to be female and the young, so we’re going to have to be winning men – old and young. How do you do that? I think if you want to get into the psychology of the younger man in the towns that matter – such as Hull, Grimsby, Barnsley – you can say that they’re wannabes. I don’t mean that in a discourteous sense. They want a Prime Minister who personifies a certain machismo, and Jeremy Corbyn certainly doesn’t do that. Right now, nor does Theresa May which is obviously to Labour’s advantage.
Winning those people over with a cultural narrative but also a material one of what Britain can be, while also being anti-imperialistic and progressive, is very, very, very hard.

The Tab: You’re a prominent and some might say notorious user of Twitter, I was wondering whether you think that 280 characters is long enough for a nuanced debate that doesn’t descend into tribalism.

Aaron: I think you should only be able to tweet once every 24 hours. Imagine how much more thoughtful everyone would be with their tweets, their retweets and their replies.
I have a suspicion that social media is doing something very bad to us – there’s a book, called Hooked, which looks at the effects of social media on our brain chemistry.
That said though, there’s clearly a lot of positives that’ve come out of these media. The decrease in the cost of entry into the media has had transformational consequences for not only politics, but music and art. We see it everywhere, from Jeremy Corbyn to Bernie Sanders. Even though I often hate Twitter, I think it’s a net positive.
I think it’s up to you guys [the young] to work out how we can keep these benefits without continuing to have an unhealthy relationship with social media.

Despite losing in the Union vote that night, Aaron is still a formidable debater with insightful and nuanced answers. He has been personified by many in the press as a left-wing thug and yet the press has also oversimplified and mis-characterised his stance on many issues – such as the poppy.

And yet, he calls for Labour’s leadership to be “more macho” to win over young men, a tactic surely taken out of the far-right’s playbook. Coming from a left-wing political environment which emphasises feminism and progressive values, this was provocative to say the least.