Duncan Bowie looks at differing assessments of what went wrong for Labour
Not surprisingly, a year after that terrible election defeat, we are seeing a number of new books reflecting on the recent dramatic years of Labour Party history. While some books take a longer perspective, such as Panitch and Leys’s Searching for Socialism, Gabriel Pogrund and Patrick Maguire’s Left Out presents a detailed study of Corbyn’s leadership circle.
This was a depressing read. Pogrund and Maguire are both journalists, respectively for the Sunday Times and The Times. This therefore would not be expected to be a sympathetic study. They are nevertheless well informed about the inner workings of the Labour Party leadership under Corbyn. What is most depressing is the extent to which the study focuses on personalities and so little on policies. Moreover, there is little in the book about Labour’s response to external events and surprisingly little on the overall direction of the Labour Party, Corbyn’s relationship with his shadow cabinet or even of the role of Momentum, though Jon Lansman as an individual makes a number of appearances.
This is all about the infighting amongst the select group of Corbyn’s advisors. So, it is Karie Murphy, Seamus Milne and Andrew Murray who dominate the narrative. Ian Lavery, the neanderthal Labour Party chair, has a surprisingly significant role as leading Brexiteer and self-appointed representative of the Northern red wall. Len McCluskey is the only union general secretary who has a significant role; Frances O’Grady, the TUC general secretary, clearly had little influence (she does not appear in the index!). Corbyn’s on-off relationship with John McDonnell is a central theme.
What comes as a shock is not so much the incidents referred to in the blurb somewhat sensationally as “jaw-dropping revelations” but the general nastiness – not just in the relations with the pre-existing party general secretary, Iain McNicol, who is seen as the enemy of the leadership group (and is finally driven out into the House of Lords), but the infighting within the Corbynite group, with Corbyn himself unable to take decisions and batted between his competing advisors. Corbyn is presented as a nice person (we all know that) unable to say no to anybody, protective of his old friends, some of whom are appointed to the most sensitive and inappropriate positions, and unable to dismiss any of his advisors or staff for incompetence or damaging interventions. It sometimes appears that Corbyn would prefer to return to his previous oppositionist role on the backbenches and is really uncertain as to whether he actually wants to be Prime Minister and actually have to make decisions which actually matter. It is his wife, Laura Alvarez, who comes over as the driving force (and on occasions a source of sanity).
Much of the narrative is driven by the antisemitism crisis, and Corbyn’s inability to see himself as part of the problem. As a lifelong anti-racist, he failed to make a clear distinction between criticism of Israel state policies and hatred of Jews and fell into the trap made by the Zionist lobby and their promoters in the Israeli government and the London Israeli embassy. Corbyn’s carelessness in both his past and present associations hardly helped his case. The fact that his personal secretary could invite herself to his first meeting with the MI5 director, wearing a Palestine badge, and then attack MI5 for Islamophobia, is just one example of the inability of Corbyn to manage important relationships, just when MI5 was apparently prepared to discount Corbyn’s historic associations with militant Irish republicanism.
The other dominant narrative is the internal struggles over the line on Brexit, with Corbyn unable to hold a line between those who still held the historic left Eurosceptic position – that the EU was still an international capitalist conspiracy – such as Lavery and Murray, with which he clearly still sympathised, and those like John McDonnell and Emily Thornberry who were taking a more nuanced approach to arguing for a second referendum. I’m not sure Corbyn was ever convinced that ‘constructive ambiguity’ was a viable position – it just became a default position as a result of an ability to develop a coherent alternative line. The consequence of course was that Labour lost Leaver seats while failing to hold on to Remainer votes, while failing to shift the debate back to matters such as inequality, employment, education, health and housing which might have won or at least held on to Labour votes. For readers who consider the book a hatchet job by two right-leaning journalists, I suggest you read Owen Jones’s book This Land, as Jones, formerly a cheerleader for Corbyn, retells many of the incidents recorded in Left Out, with a demonstration of the dysfunctionality of Corbyn’s office which is perhaps even more severe.
Andrew Murray’s The Fall and Rise of the Labour Left was written in early 2019 on the back of a false optimism generated by Labour’s showing in the 2017 election, which many on the Labour left regarded as a victory, rather forgetting that Labour did not actually form a government as a result. Murray clearly believed that the Labour Party and the Labour left were on an unstoppable path to power. While Murray spends much of the book reviewing the roles of an array of alternative left parties and groupings (and the history of the left in the Thatcher and Blair eras), it is perhaps odd that at no point does he mention his own membership of the Communist Party of Great Britain and its Stalinist successor organisation, the Communist Party of Britain, which he stayed in till November 2016; or his pro-Russian fixation – he had worked for the Soviet Novosti press agency.
Murray’s book is both boring while demonstrating how out of touch with the real world – in Britain, never mind the wider world – the clique around Corbyn actually were. Yet Murray was at least conscious that political direction was important; whereas, judging from the Pogrund and Maguire book, the main focus of the leadership group seemed to be the personal power of individuals within the clique, for whom Corbyn and the Labour Party as a whole were just tools to be manipulated to strengthen their personal positions and their ability to conspire against, and to be rude to, the elected Labour politicians. It is not surprising that so many members of the shadow cabinet – never mind the PLP, the wider Labour Party and the electorate as a whole – were not just lacking in a belief that Labour was fit to govern the country but were alienated by this performance.
This is a part of our history that is best forgotten. We can only hope that it is also forgotten by the wider electorate before we face another General Election.