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Why Corbynism failed

Two new books explain how the failure of Labour in 2019 was not only a problem of strategy and organisation, but also of morality.

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In 2017, Jeremy Corbyn had just a handful of allies in the parliamentary party; he started his general election campaign more than 20 points behind the Tories; his own party’s central office was staffed by his internal opponents; and he controlled few, if any, of the levers of power within the Labour Party.

Yet he oversaw the party’s first election gains since 1997 and the biggest increase in its vote share since 1945, and he deprived Theresa May of her parliamentary majority. Meanwhile, the Corbynite ranks in parliament were boosted by the addition of charismatic younger politicians such as Dan Carden and Laura Pidcock.

Corbyn’s prize was the Labour Party itself. Within less than a year of the 2017 election, he had secured changes to the selection of MPs, the election of his preferred candidate as party general secretary, and the public obeisance of many of his former enemies. He came within touching distance of Downing Street in 2017, so imagine how he would fare in complete control of Labour.

The answer, it turned out, was “worse”. The 2019 general election result was Labour’s poorest since 1935. Boris Johnson won the Conservatives’ biggest majority since 1987, picking up a slew of formerly safe Labour seats, including Pidcock’s North West Durham constituency. Labour became the first mainstream political party to be investigated by the Equalities and Human Rights Commission (a body created by the Labour Party) – for its ineffective handling of anti-Semitism in its ranks. Corbyn’s personal ratings, which by the close of the 2017 campaign had risen to make him the most popular active politician, had plummeted, making him the most unpopular Labour leader ever to fight an election. Left Out is the story of how Corbynite hegemony turned to defeat, and to dust, written by two journalists – Patrick Maguire and Gabriel Pogrund – who had a front-row seat as it unfolded. I know because for most of the period involved, I had a seat right next to one of them, covering the events alongside Maguire when he was the New Statesman’s political correspondent.

One of the many bad habits from those times that I indulged in while reading this book was trying to guess the author’s sources. Maguire and Pogrund have, I am certain, spoken off the record to almost everyone who mattered on both sides of Labour’s civil war. And in a major coup, the authors have managed to get as wide a range of protagonists as Richard Burgon, Tony Blair, Karie Murphy, Peter Mandelson and Andrew Murray to speak openly and publicly.

As you’d expect, the focus is largely on Westminster and the salaried staff at the top of the Labour Party and trade union movement. This isn’t a book about the history of British Euroscepticism, the origins of anti-Semitism on the left or in British society as a whole, the intricacies of trade policy or the consequences of ten years of public spending restraint, although those topics do, indirectly and directly, shape much of the book.

This is, ultimately, the story of a disaster. Many of the people Maguire and Pogrund spoke to have one aim in mind: to minimise their own share of the blame and to outsource as much of it as possible to someone else. This leads to one or two scenes that feel a little bit too perfect: I know that James Mills, John McDonnell’s first spin doctor, believed that Corbyn’s reaction to the poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal – when he failed to condemn Russia – had cost Labour the election, because he told me so at the time. But I find it hard to believe that he really did kick a bin across the room and shout “That’s fucking cost us the election” when he heard the news.

It also results in a couple of eyebrow- raising (and strongly denied) anecdotes about Corbyn and his wife, Laura Alvarez, who surely refused to cooperate with Maguire and Pogrund. Alvarez is reported to have sabotaged a photo opportunity with ITV by demanding that her husband make her an oatcake, while Corbyn himself is said to have believed that a Commons amendment put forward by the Conservative MP Alberto Costa was in fact the work of the Portuguese prime minister Antonio Costa.

But, more importantly, the book contains a huge and detailed trove of revelations about Labour’s warring elites, from the jaw-dropping news that Ian Murray, now Keir Starmer’s shadow secretary of state for Scotland, almost became one of the founder members of the doomed Independent Group, to the precise details of how Corbyn’s decades-long friendship with his shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, was put under perhaps fatal strain.

Part of the book’s success is that the attempts by most of the participants to burnish their reputations fail. This was an era of Labour politics in which almost everyone involved deserves to come off badly, and in Left Out, they do. We are told that the strategy chief Seumas Milne is tactically astute but ultimately lazy, arriving late to every meeting. Labour’s deputy leader Tom Watson is simply lazy. The back-bench MP Gareth Snell convinces himself he must vote for a Brexit deal, working with Lisa Nandy and the Conservative chief whip Julian Smith to craft amendments, before going missing at the last moment again and again. The vast majority of Labour’s Remainers come to the cause belatedly and in a self-interested bid to save their own seats from the surging Liberal Democrats.

There are a handful of exceptions on both sides of Labour’s inner conflict, and the most surprising name on the list is Karie Murphy, who ran Corbyn’s office. Yes, Maguire and Pogrund report that she faced allegations of bullying, that doubts about her management style forced Corbyn’s oldest – but usually warring – allies Diane Abbott and McDonnell to band together to remove her, and that she had a tendency to believe that she could bludgeon her way through any problem through force of will. In one scene, Murphy declares, in a hush-hush meeting with Theresa May’s Brexit team, that “I’m just going to cut through the shit and tell you: I’m a negotiator.” This declaration fails to break a deadlock produced by immovable political pressures on both sides.

But reading about the challenges she faced, I thought: if I had to work with this bunch of jokers, I’d bully them too. The worst of the lot is surely Corbyn himself, who manages to combine indecision, stubbornness, and an unwillingness to deliver bad news in one fantastic package. I had many conversations with shadow cabinet ministers and close members of Corbyn’s inner circle convinced that their latest rough treatment at Murphy’s hands was unlicensed action. But, even when I was pretty sure that the order had come from the top, I had never really considered what it must have been like for Murphy. When she speaks to the authors about how she “never” went beyond Corbyn’s instructions, I felt more than a pang of sympathy: I appreciated for the first time how wearying it must have been to be continually tasked with doing the Labour leader’s dirty work. But perhaps she simply does a better job of rehabilitating herself than many of the others in this book.

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Rehabilitation is also the central motive in the Guardian columnist Owen Jones’s This Land. His aim is the conscious rehabilitation of “Corbynism” as a movement and a moment in British politics, although he tempers this with what he sees as a no-holds-barred critique of Corbynism as an organisational and tactical force. As with Left Out, it is an account of the Corbyn era by someone who saw it up close.

The difference is that Jones was, as he writes, both an “observer and a participant”: not just someone who wrote about Corbynism, but someone who lobbied members of the party’s ruling National Executive Committee when they held the fate of Corbyn’s leadership in their hands. Jones had worked for McDonnell for three years; and had, prior to Corbyn’s election as leader, been the most prominent mainstream advocate for what we now think of as Corbynism.

Jones reveals early on his book that McDonnell offered him a role as an “unofficial adviser”, which he turned down, believing it to be incompatible with “journalistic ethics”. I know that Jones agonised throughout the Corbyn era about how to reconcile his positions as journalist-activist: bluntly, as he has admitted, he struggled to marry his view that Corbynism as practised was strategically naive and incompetently orchestrated with his sense of obligation to the movement and his beliefs.

Those beliefs are why, like Left Out, This Land is a story of palace intrigue, not particularly concerned with the structural forces underpinning the rise of Corbynism or the challenges it faced. Jones, for the purposes of this book at least, regards those forces as self-evident.

The biggest contribution of Jones’s book to our understanding of Corbynism is its confirmation that the essential parts of Left Out are true. Seumas Milne is indeed gifted but lazy, or, in the immortal words of Joss MacDonald, one of Corbyn’s speechwriters: “He doesn’t do his job. That’s a big weakness as executive director of strategy.” (Or, indeed, in most jobs.) Jones confirms that anti-Semitism in the Labour Party was a real problem, both before the Corbynites controlled Labour’s levers of power, and also afterwards, when they had no one to blame but themselves. And yes, Corbyn was hopelessly ill-suited to the role of leader.

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Both books make the same diagnosis: that the Labour left would have been better off had McDonnell become Labour leader in 2015. Both books end with McDonnell – “Labour’s lost leader” as Jones describes him.

The shadow chancellor was certainly a more ruthless and effective politician than Corbyn. He was no more of an instinctive pro-European, but he understood quicker than most the need to pick a side over Brexit. And he moved swiftly to strengthen the party’s line after the attack on the Skripals. But being a good leader is not just about ruthlessness. It is also a question of morals and character, which none of the authors explore. This works fine for a tale of palace intrigue, but less well when the argument is over the merits or otherwise of a lost leader.

This Land’s chapter on anti-Semitism sums up the problem. Considering Corbyn’s 2012 defence of a mural consisting of a series of anti-Semitic tropes, and the way his inner circle handled the story when it erupted in 2018, Jones writes that, “It was a classic failing of the Corbyn era: resisting taking an unavoidable step, then suffering self-inflicted damage, and gaining no credit whatsoever for finally bowing to the inevitable.” But the central problem wasn’t the bad political decisions taken in 2018. It was that in 2012 Corbyn’s response to the removal of a mural with visibly anti-Semitic tropes was to ask, “Why?” This suggests he was either unable to recognise anti-Semitism when he was staring it in the face, or even that, despite his strong denials, he supported it.

McDonnell understood that Labour’s inability to demonstrate contrition on the racism within the party was a political albatross; and it ultimately contributed to the party split that did more than anything else to block Corbyn’s path to No 10. There is no evidence, however, that McDonnell understood that it was also a moral failing. The fact that as a backbencher he continues to appear on Zoom meetings with people expelled from Labour following allegations of anti-Semitism suggests that for him it was a question of optics and strategy.

Someone who shares or tolerates the same blind spot as Corbyn is not a “lost leader”. A book that argues he was has not understood the problem with Corbynism, which was about morality, as well as organisation and strategy. The biggest tragedy is that we all have to live with the consequences of its failure: a powerful Conservative government, and potentially ten years of Tory rule.

Left Out: The Inside Story of Labour Under Corbyn
Gabriel Pogrund & Patrick Maguire 
Bodley Head, 384pp, £18.99

This Land: The Story of a Movement
Owen Jones 
Allen Lane, 352pp, £20

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

This article appears in the 25 September 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The autumn of discontent