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7 May 2024

How the Corbynite left hit self-destruct

Andy Beckett’s The Searchers charts the rise and fall of Tony Benn’s heirs, but fails to confront the obstinacy and intolerance that undid them.

By Jonathan Rutherford

This is a story about four left-wing Labour politicians – John McDonnell, Jeremy Corbyn, Ken Livingstone and Diane Abbott – and how they carried forward the cultural revolution of 1968. Inspired and guided by the older Tony Benn, the fifth “searcher” of the title, they single-mindedly enlivened a moribund London Labour politics and transformed the political culture of the capital as it emerged from its postwar decline. In their comradely, disputatious and occasionally angry relationships with one another they shared a political heritage in Benn’s democratic socialism.

In 1981 his bid for the deputy leadership had bitterly divided the Labour Party. He narrowly lost and, unforgiven, suffered the political death of internal exile. A similar fate of banishment awaited three of those he inspired. In 2015, when Corbyn won the leadership of the Labour Party, they took their London politics of economic radicalism and social liberalism on to the national stage. Like all stories of hope and human desire, it ended in tragedy.

Andy Beckett has written a sympathetic and absorbing political history of the main actors of the hard-left Socialist Campaign Group. McDonnell is the intense and thoughtful one, the strategist whom Beckett describes as influenced by the Italian communist theorist Antonio Gramsci. McDonnell will prove to be the most adept in the tactical pursuit of power. Corbyn is the believer who likes people. He wants them to like him, and generally when they meet him they do. Some will come to revere him. Livingstone is the great political talent, and like Corbyn a political obsessive. His cheeky-chappy patter disguises his dark political arts. Abbott stands a little apart and slightly aloof, more guarded in public. She has had to force a trail through racism, insults and ignorance to become the first black female Labour MP. They have all had a tough fight to make their way in Labour politics, but Abbott has had the hardest. It never got easier.

The 1960s was a brief period of social change and upward social mobility. These four individuals – the working-class Abbott, McDonnell and Livingstone, and the middle-class Corbyn – were able to establish themselves as activist leaders of a new metropolitan middle class that eventually came to dominate Labour politics. They pursued their ideal of socialism with tenacity and no little courage, earning themselves both love and hate – the latter at sometimes shocking intensity. And as Beckett makes plain in his title they won “many enemies”.

Of whom I was probably one. There is a brief mention of my role in Labour Together, the organisation that set itself the task of “winning the philosophical, intellectual and policy arguments within Labour”. The purpose was to “build the organisational capacity and political leadership to carry out this project”. That was the idea. Not unlike the project of these four politicians, then. Like them, the 1968 cultural revolution inspired my teenage years. Like them, although I was younger, my politics was formed in the late 1970s and 1980s with the rise of a humanist brand of Marxism and identity politics. But in the end I opposed their political ascendancy in the party.

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I moved into the North Islington constituency in 1983, the year Corbyn was elected its MP. The area was gaining notoriety as the home of the socialist intelligentsia. In fact it was dilapidated. Across the road was a small park where men would sleep rough and gather to drink. Corbyn lived on the other side of the park. My son and his friend wrote to him: could they speak to him about their school project on the environment? To their delight, he replied and one Saturday morning he came round to our house and discussed it with them. One doesn’t forget such small gestures of kindness.

These days, if I wake up in the night I might hear the passing murmur of conversation on the street outside. In the 1980s it would have been the smashing of a car window or someone squaring up for a fight. The neighbourhood was on the slide. It was checked by investment from the Greater London Council (GLC) which rebuilt the semi-derelict houses in the street. Families moved in, domesticating the local area and bringing order.

This was Ken’s London. He had become leader of the GLC in 1981 and appointed McDonnell the chair of its finance committee. They supported a counterculture of urban festivals, music, protest, smart leftist branding, cooperatives, community organisations and campaigning groups. The South Bank was opened up to the public. And then in 1986 Margaret Thatcher’s government abolished the GLC.

So began the wilderness years. McDonnell withdrew from front-line politics into a series of jobs far removed from the limelight. Livingstone became a media celebrity. In the 1987 general election he won the seat of Brent East, while Abbott won in Hackney North and Stoke Newington. They joined Corbyn in parliament while McDonnell did the hard yards as a community activist in his home town of Hayes. He became an MP in 1997. And then in 2000 Livingstone left to serve the first of two terms as the new mayor of London, ambitious to build a city state with its own “London nationalism”.

By 2015 Tony Benn had died – the year before, aged 88 – and Livingstone was no longer mayor. McDonnell, Corbyn and Abbott, all now in their sixties, were marginal if troublesome figures in the Labour Party. As Beckett writes, it felt like the Labour left “was passing into history”. But the cooling embers were about to burst into flame. Labour lost the May general election, Ed Miliband resigned, and there was a contest for a new leader.

Should Corbyn carry the torch of the left into the leadership contest? As the deadline for nominations approached he ummed and ahhed. Finally, he agreed. Abbott immediately tweeted out the news before he could change his mind. A short while later McDonnell and his wife were at the Globe Theatre on the South Bank. McDonnell got a call from Seb Corbyn, Corbyn’s middle son, who was working on his father’s campaign. He said: “Dad’s worried about running. He’s worried that he might win”.

He did. In an astonishing populist revivalism, Corbyn united a coalition of the “defeated idealists of the 1970s and 1980s” and the “discontented of the early 21st century”. His election in September 2015 stupefied the political class. And then, a year later, it was knocked sideways by Brexit. The old rules of the game had been torn up. The polarising politics of friends and enemies was back in force.

The centrists and moderates who dominated the Parliamentary Labour Party had no conception of how to respond to the Corbyn leadership. He had attracted a huge influx of new members and created a plebiscite that underwrote his leadership. MPs opposed to Corbyn found themselves under increasing pressure in their constituency Labour parties. In an attempt to unseat him, 20 shadow ministers resigned. They tried a second time to remove him in a leadership contest in 2016. The problem was they had no political alternative to offer. Corbyn increased his vote. They bided their time until the next general election. With Corbyn as leader Labour would suffer a catastrophic defeat.

The 2017 election confounded them again. Labour, after an energetic campaign that was picking up support, lost but increased its vote. A few more weeks of campaigning would have seen it victorious. This was the high point for the four remaining searchers, a “victory” that was actually a defeat. And then the past and their allegiances began to catch up with them. Corbyn’s dramatic elevation into national politics brutally exposed his shortcomings. His naivety in dealing with foreign relations culminated in his questioning Moscow’s involvement in the Novichok poisoning of the former Russian spy Sergei Skripal in March 2018. His support, along with Livingstone and McDonnell, for Irish republicanism and anti-Zionism provided the right-wing press with a rich supply of stories about his meetings with extremists, conspiracy theorists and anti-Semites. Did Corbyn like the country he wanted to lead? His sympathies lay with the historical victims of British imperialism. Its enemies were his friends.

His desire to please everyone and to avoid difficult decisions created a leaderless party. Without political authority, intolerance, intimidation, mob persecutions on Twitter and the booing of journalists became regular features of Labour’s politics. A sanctimonious, cult-like politics grew up around him that identified his enemies and mobilised against them. Beckett makes elaborate efforts to distance Corbyn from the anti-Semitism that took hold and grew in this environment. In doing so, he more or less denies its existence, and cannot admit the paradox that the left too can be a source of evil as well as good.

Livingstone was the first to fall. In 2016 he was suspended for suggesting Hitler supported Zionism. He formally resigned in 2018. The following year Labour suffered a fourth, crushing election defeat. In 2020, under the new leader, Keir Starmer, Corbyn was suspended for stubbornly refusing to accept the scale of anti-Semitism in the party following the investigation by the Equalities and Human Rights Commission. The banishment was completed in March 2023 when the National Executive Committee (NEC), Labour’s ruling body, vetoed Corbyn standing as a Labour MP. The final act came a month later in April 2023 when the Observer published a letter from Abbott in which she argued that Jews, Irish people and traveller communities experience prejudice but not racism. It was sufficient excuse to suspend her from the party. Only McDonnell remained, leading a diminishing and marginalised hard-left faction. The influx of new members under Corbyn went into reverse. By summer 2023, the NEC reported a fall of nearly 170,000 from the peak of 564,000.

Each of Beckett’s five politicians confirmed Enoch Powell’s observation that all political lives end in failure because that is the nature of politics and of human affairs. What were they searching for? They came to represent a politics in search of redemption. The dogmatism and attacks on those perceived to be its enemies did not come from a searching, so much as the belief in a true path from which there can be no deviation. Politics came to stand for a religious quest for the puritan ideal of the city on the hill. That way lies the road to hell, paved with good intentions.

Beckett ends his book in 2023 with a visit to a talk by Bernie Sanders at the Royal Festival Hall. Looking around at the packed audience, Beckett recognises its similarity to Corbyn’s mass meetings. He reflects that it does not look like a Britain whose political time had gone for good. This may be true, but for the searchers of this book and their particular brand of London socialist politics, it has.

The Searchers: Five Rebels, Their Dream of a Different Britain, and Their Many Enemies
Andy Beckett
Allen Lane, 560pp, £30

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[See also: Why Labour is confident of a majority]

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This article appears in the 08 May 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Doom Scroll