Jeremy Corbyn
Labour Party Leader Jeremy Corbyn arrives prior to the launch of the Labour Party Election Manifesto, at Bradford University in Bradford, England, May 16, 2017. Getty Images/Leon Neal

Who is Jeremy Corbyn and how did he send such a shockwave through global politics? Millions of people around the world are asking that question as British election results appeared to show stunning gains for the Labour Party less than a year after the Brexit vote. I tried to find some answers by calling up community organizer Arnie Graf, who worked for Saul Alinsky's political apparatus and was an early mentor to Barack Obama. More recently, Graf was hired as a special adviser to the UK Labour Party during the post-Tony Blair years when it found itself in the political wilderness. During his time working for the party, Graf said that Labour — like the U.S. Democratic Party — had become alienated from the working class.

In a podcast interview, Graf contextualized the Corbyn surprise, and discussed what it may mean for the future of global politics in this populist moment. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of our discussion.

Sirota: The Labour Party has been out of power for a long time in Britain. It had been in power under Tony Blair. What happened between the time that Tony Blair was running the country until this point? Why did Labour find itself out of power?

Graf: For one, we went through the bank crisis and the country hit a bad recession and very high unemployment. The Labour government wasn't really able to blame the banks because the favored government at the time had a policy of what they called "a soft touch on the banks." They got blamed for the recession, for mainly overspending. Then, when they tried to get people to pay attention to banks, it was very difficult for them to do that because they had a policy of, as they called it, "a soft touch on the banks."

Sirota: When you were hired by the Labour Party in 2011 to help them, what did you find?

Graf: What I found in the beginning was that people had really a lot of disdain for Labour, that they blamed Labour for way overspending, and put all the blame on Labour for the recession and unemployment. All I found was a lot of anger and disillusionment from people in the community… They were discouraged, because the economy was bad and the decay of a lot of the cities, even in the North, and particularly in the North, were emptying out. Their Main Streets were [also emptying out]. You'd go and see a lot of vacant stores, and you had the payday lenders, and the casinos filling them in.

Sirota: What do you think prompted back then voters to move towards the Conservatives in the face of those problems?

Graf: A lot of what was coming out from the conservatives was that: a) you couldn't trust the Labour economy, look what happened; and b) a lot of it is because of immigration. They were not strict on it. Labour was not strict on immigration. Labour didn't really tell the truth on immigration. They told people in the country that, I forget the number now, but X amount of immigrants had come into the country when it was really four or five times the amount. What Labour was saying wasn't being seen by people in this reality. Somewhat like here, immigration became a huge issue. There was a lot of blame put by people in the country on immigration as the problem.

Sirota: That, of course, led to what was seen as the culmination, which was the vote for Brexit. Yet now less than a year after Brexit, the Labour Party is making big gains. What do you make of the sudden shift?

Graf: It was clear that PLP, the Parliamentary Labour Party, was really against Corbyn. It was kind of threatening a revolt or whatever… I think what happened was what I remembered Theresa May was, she was a Home Secretary. She was always, what would I say, left-footed. You know what I mean? Even when she was coming out under Cameron, when she was in his cabinet, and she publicly never came across well, even though she was talking about cracking down on immigrants. It came off [as] ham-handed. She didn't seem to have much touch with people when she was saying these things.

Nevertheless, Jeremy was so far to the left that people were convinced that he could never do well because Miliband wasn't nearly as far to the left as Jeremy. Some of the blame, anyway, for his losing so bad was that he wasn't in the center enough. He went to the left and the country had rejected that.

I think [May] overplayed her hand. She got caught in so many lies. First, she promised running that she would not call an election for five years. Then she, I assume, saw how badly Corbyn was performing in the polls and then decided, "Well, if I call it now, I'll clobber him."

From my perspective, I'm sure others would say this, too, I guess, but she ran a horrible campaign. Just horrible. She's not good in public. Whatever else you can say about Jeremy, he's been the same person for whatever, 50 years. He's passionate about things that he believes in.

Sirota: Do you think there are lessons or comparisons between what American politics is going through and what Britain and British politics are going through?

Graf: There are similarities and then there's some huge differences. There are similarities, except that Corbyn, if we're comparing Corbyn's left, and Bernie Sanders' left, Corbyn is far more to the left and known by a lot of the progressive community across the country. Here's been out there for 35, 40 years on every issue from Trident, to foreign policy, to domestic things.

I think potentially if our country, if a Republican Congress, votes in the kind of austere budget that has been voted on every year in Parliament starting with Cameron and Osborne, and then her promising to do even more, the local councils which live on a lot of the national money, they're less federated in a sense than we are, then I think we could conceivably see that if we go through four years of re-austerity. You have a lot of people, I think, who are middle of the road, would have not voted for Corbyn because his politics are too far left. However, they began the white elderly, the dementia tax he offered and then took away, took back because it had such a bad reaction, the country, to it. The continuing decrease in money that local councils had across the country to provide services and he just pounded away on it.

She decided not to show up. Everything that I read, but then heard from some people, was she just doesn't, not just the debate that she didn't show up, she's just not out in the country doing. Or there are set pieces she wouldn't act and react with a crowd, or try to get a crowd.

Sirota: You wrote a Baltimore Sun op-ed last year. The headline was, "Politicians Should Trust in the People They Hope to Represent." You recounted your work in community organizing, in groups like the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) that were founded by Saul Alinsky. You wrote: “I'm appalled at the disdain that so many people running for high office, and their top staff, have for so many of the people they want to represent." Do you think the Democratic Party and the Labour Party have had too much disdain for working-class voters?

Graf: Yeah. At the time when I was there, I felt it was very similar. A colleague of mine told me once that after Kerry lost, a wealthy donor to us, to IAF, had invited him to hear [John] Podesta talk and give a recap and an evaluation of why they lost. Basically, he said they lost because working white people don't understand their own self-interest. The Democrats were becoming a party of these, I felt anyway, elite liberals. I felt that you could be seeing that in England. The Labour Party, it was strong in certain places, the big cities.

Sirota: What do you make of the crux of that argument?

Graf: I think the crux of it is that they do disdain working white people. They think of them as all bigoted. That was similar in England. It was a London/Manchester-based party, Birmingham. Like the Democrats are to some degree coastal, are considered to be a coastal party, the leadership at the party at that time were mostly Oxford- and Cambridge-educated. While they were intellectually for working white people, they had not many candidates who were working white-income people running for MPs. Very few staff that came out of working, white, income people. They were mostly college- and master-degree people, both on the top staff, and regional directors. There's 12 regional directors in the country, party structures and regions. Ed and people round him were, they call them Oxfords there, Oxford/Cambridge.

I felt like they didn't come out of the experiences that a lot of the country came out of, the people of the country. They had an intellectual understanding industry was collapsing, and manufacturing was collapsing. The heart of Labour had been the North, where the Industrial Revolution was, and coal mines. I think they just didn't have a lot of feel for, or regard for, those folks. I think the Democratic Party is in the same place.

Sirota: Is the takeaway from the election just that Theresa May ran a bad campaign and Corbyn was the stand-in beneficiary of that? Or is there a bigger takeaway about politics in the world and politics in Britain? Does it represent something bigger?

Graf: I think it does potentially. She ran an awful campaign. I mean awful. The number one hit tune over there was, "Liar, Liar, Liar." It became the number one song. I don't know if you heard it, but it's about Theresa May lying all the time. Because she would say something and then she would take it away. In her own manifesto, she rejected them. She had nothing to say except, "Vote for me. I'm strong and stable." Then she would come with things, which would be devastating to people, and not seen as caring at all. She was seen as a deformed Margaret Thatcher. Deformed politically, I mean. I think that can't be underestimated.

But I also think that after all these years, at least six years, of this pretty difficult austerity, reminds me a little bit of Kansas where people were all for cutting taxes, and individual responsibility, and not spending so much money and all that, as they kept cutting, and cutting, and cutting to the bone. I think it's just like in Kansas. I don't think it's exactly the same, obviously, but you wind up with even the conservative Republican legislature overruling [Sam] Brownback, right? I think it took quite a toll. Then she was proposing to do even more cutting and wouldn't get out and explain things.

[Corbyn] ran a good campaign. He picked up on that. You'd have to say he was very authentic because he's the same guy, he's been saying the same thing. He changed a little bit, like on Trident. He changed a little bit about terrorism, you know, being a little tougher. But for the most part, he's been saying the same thing over, and over, and over again. He's got a lot of young people. They have a bit of a different racial dynamic there. They're the most diverse country in Europe, but it's still only 13% people of color.

Sirota: Do you think the Democratic Party here in the United States will look at the U.K. election results and see some lessons in it?

Graf: Money is different in England. It's much more regulated. It's true the Tories have much more money because they get money from wealthy people. Even in what they call the short campaign, that's the last seven or eight weeks, they can't advertise on television. You don't have to be that tied to money interests.

Remember, you're running in a whole lot of people. It helps if people respect the leader of the particular party, but a lot of people, as I understood it, this is just from three or four people, a lot of the MPs that ran ran locally. Many of them didn't even have Corbyn stuff on their leaflets. They ran on that, "The government, the Tory government, is destroying our ability to have any services in our area." That's different than in our country. People were getting pretty fed up with the vast cuts.

I don't know exactly how to tie it in. The Democrats are much more tied to financial interests than the Labour Party was, and even the Tories, because you're limited on money there. Although, they probably outspent Labour three or four to one, I would imagine.

I think the smart Democrats, they'd get out into the working, white class communities, not just to try to turn them on a vote, but understand them and understand what's going on. Why in Kansas would they go against Brownback? Oklahoma's down, and many of their school districts, four days a week. It's hard for me to imagine that some of the many parents there are saying, "How the hell is my kid going to compete? We don't even have a full week of education anymore."

I think if the Democratic Party would get into some of these Midwestern states, and other places where they barely lost, and talk to people, and respect them, and ask them really what is the result of what's happening, the way apparently Corbyn and his team did... People can discount momentum for being too far left or being just part of the Jeremy Corbyn wing, but they put a lot of people on the street."