Since its publication in 1935, The Strange Death of Liberal England has inspired countless imitations, most of them forgettable. George Dangerfield’s account of how the party of Asquith and Lloyd George went from government to near-extinction was so successful because of the way it took a sledgehammer to received wisdom. The homages it keeps inspiring, on the other hand, are seldom more than vehicles for the sort of bland truisms that give political journalism a bad name.
It was only a matter of time before Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party got this treatment. Lewis Goodall, political correspondent for Sky News, obliges us with Left For Dead?: The Strange Death and Rebirth of the Labour Party.
Like Dangerfield, Goodall is a journalist rather than an academic historian. So, as we are frequently reminded, he has had a ringside seat for the three years Corbyn has been leader. He initially imagined the book would be an update of Dangerfield’s central thesis that the UK’s Liberal Party, and parties like it across Europe, failed because they were offering “answers to a set of questions that nobody was asking any more”.
Before last year’s election, that seemed to be Labour’s fate. It was a party without purpose that appeared to have lost touch with its voters. Yet unlike its sister parties on the Continent, it is not dead or arguably even dying. Instead, Goodall declares with a self-satisfied grandness that turns out to be characteristic of his prose style, that Corbyn has demolished the “fundamental assumptions of every political strategist and two-bit hack to have ever worked or wandered in Westminster”. Corbyn did not lead his party to oblivion in the general election, as most of his MPs – sometimes invoking Dangerfield’s book – predicted he would. Instead, he led them to 40 per cent of the vote. He won seats and denied Theresa May, who ran an abysmal campaign, a majority.
Labour is on the precipice of government. But it is defined by contradictions that could yet deny it power. Labour’s electoral success last year was largely fuelled by disenchanted Remainers, but it is led by a Eurosceptic. Corbyn is old, but draws his support from the young. He is not of Labour’s mainstream tradition but is a product of its political failures: far from sealing the left in its tomb, Tony Blair failed to offer a moral critique of capitalism and created the circumstances for a revival of socialism. Yet on domestic policy, Corbyn’s offer is not too different from that of Ed Miliband or Gordon Brown.
Above all, Goodall argues that Corbyn and Labour have been lucky despite these contradictions. Politics is realigning. Culture and education now drive voting behaviour as much as geography and class, a shift, he points out, that has been “turbocharged” by Brexit. The result is a Labour Party that wins in the former Tory stronghold of Canterbury but loses mining towns such as Mansfield in Nottinghamshire (where Corbyn’s team is now focusing its campaigning efforts). This isn’t a new insight, nor is it all that strange, even if Goodall often writes as if it’s all a secret only he is privy to. But it’s at least right.
Facing this structural challenge, can Labour win again? Is it destined to lose the good working folk who, according to Goodall, don’t pay attention to this politics lark and prefer “a pint or two”? It’s a good question, and one that will define the direction of British politics in the coming decade.
The problem is that Goodall, a child of the Blair years who grew up on a Birmingham council estate in the shadow of its Rover car plant before going to Oxford, appears to think the fact that he is asking it is more interesting. The result is a book that offers too much dull memoir, suffocated in prose that veers from the tweely conversational to the stodgily academic. It is only fitfully as clever as it thinks it is and never as funny, especially in its many footnotes.
There are interesting nuggets, such as Team Corbyn’s admission that he could have lost the 2016 leadership election had there been a third candidate. But most of the analysis will be familiar to followers of politics, and instead we learn much more about Goodall. His personal recollections, though heartfelt and sometimes arresting, muddy rather than illuminate his argument.
Most gratingly, in the purely political sections – what the book is ostensibly about rather than the frequency with which he ate fish and chips as a kid or the fact that his parents like Mrs Brown’s Boys – Goodall gratuitously inserts himself into the narrative. Politics is about what he has done, be it a film for Newsnight, an interview for Sky, or a perfunctory point made 20 pages ago. People such as John McDonnell or Corbyn do or say things “not more than ten metres” away from Goodall. They are his ensemble cast. This conceit might make sense if he weren’t, by his own admission, someone we mainly see on mute gym televisions.
Instead, it obscures Goodall’s essentially sound answer to the important question: “What is Corbyn’s Labour, and who is it for?” The author does a much better job of posing another: “What is this book, and who is it for?”
Left for Dead?: The Strange Death and Rebirth of the Labour Party
William Collins, 352pp, £20
This article appears in the 19 Sep 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s next war