By May 2017, in the weeks after Theresa May had called a snap general election, the Labour Party was floundering. With no visible chain of command, and fractures opening up between Jeremy Corbyn’s office and the party’s headquarters in Westminster, the opposition was a study in drift and indecision. As Philip Cowley and Dennis Kavanagh write in The British General Election of 2017, the hiring of Andrew Murray as an adviser to Corbyn was a clear sign that “things were not going entirely to plan within Labour”.
A veteran activist on the radical left, Murray, 61, is chief of staff to Len McCluskey, the general secretary of Unite, and had also chaired the Stop the War Coalition from its founding in 2001 until 2011. Joining the phalanx of Corbyn advisers, and as a friend of Corbyn, Murray brought organisational experience and personal authority to Labour’s electoral campaign.
The media greeted the appointment with derision. The grandson of the 2nd Baron Rankeillour, an imperial governor of Madras in the 1940s; the son of Peter Drummond-Murray of Mastrick, a stockbroker and Slains Pursuivant between 1982 and 2009; an employee of the Soviet news agency Novosti in the late 1980s and a frequent contributor to the Morning Star; a militant trade unionist and member of the pro-Stalinist Communist Party of Britain until 2016 – Murray was a thoroughbred of the British establishment with a damning ideological rap sheet, a kind of living anachronism through which the history of the left could be discerned in all its perfidy.
Despite the scepticism and hostility directed towards him by the press, those involved in the 2017 election generally regard Murray as the key author of Labour’s advance, as a rejuvenated party delivered 12.9 million votes – the highest share of the popular vote since 2001 – winning the overwhelming support of young people and robbing the Conservatives of a parliamentary majority. Barely a year after the EU referendum, the momentum of British politics seemed to be behind Corbyn and the left. Three years later, Labour has been routed.
I met Murray one recent afternoon at the Unite head office in central London. But for a receptionist and an assistant, the building seemed deserted – few people had returned to work from their Christmas holidays – and Murray was alone in his top-floor office, backlit by a large window still decked out with Christmas cards, with commanding views over Holborn.
Polite, and measured in style, Murray, who has grey hair and smooth features, with a slight puffiness under the eyes, does not appear to embody any of his component parts: aristocrat, Soviet fellow traveller, combative firebrand. He is cool, unassuming and speaks in soft, nasal tones.
“There’s a fruitful debate to be had about the reasons for Labour’s defeat in the election,” he said. “But a key question for the left remains how we revive the sense of social solidarity that has been undermined by changes in the capitalist economy.”
In September 2019 Murray underwent bypass surgery after a heart attack, and missed the Labour Party conference in Brighton. Writing for New Statesman at the time, he said that it was only the third conference he had not attended since 1978. But after more than 40 years of arguing, organising and campaigning, “a socialist government is once again in reach”, as he put it.
It was this sense of imminent triumph that inspired him to write The Fall and the Rise of the British Left (Verso, 2019). A lucid, perspicuous account of how Thatcherism – and its subsequent enablers under New Labour – broke the progressive left, and how the left returned from the margins of political life, the book is an honest reckoning with both the promises and limitations of socialism at what Murray believes is a “propitious moment to seek radical change”.
But the election of 2019 was a sharp lesson in the challenges of campaigning on a social democratic platform, as Labour’s most radical prospectus since 1973 – which pledged to nationalise key industries, including the Royal Mail, the railways and broadband, raise the minimum wage and build more council homes – withered on contact with the electorate.
Murray conceded that there was “a loss of clarity” as to what Labour was prioritising in its manifesto, and that it had made a fatal miscalculation on Brexit as the party became associated with parliamentary deadlock. “Labour stopped having a solution,” he said, “and we became identified more as part of the problem; we let the agenda slide away from us.”
He mentioned the party’s misguided decision “to focus exclusively on what Labour can do through parliament”. As he writes in his book, “strength in the world outside parliament is not a bolt-on – it is the prerequisite for a serious political challenge within the Commons, and the more so for lasting social change”.
The notion that parliament is only one site in which the left should focus its energies is prominent on the Corbynite left. Echoing Tony Benn, who in 1979 wrote that parliamentary democracy was “little more than a means of securing periodical change in the management team”, Murray told me that Labour’s campaign to transform society was “too weak, too anaemic”.
It was also underpinned by a strategic myopia. “Labour presented an offer of hope at the election. But you can’t just conjure hope out of thin air; you can’t just come into a situation in which people are politically browbeaten, apathetic or sceptical and in a month-long electoral campaign expect to turn that around.”
Nor was Labour able to withstand the deeper shifts transforming Britain’s political geography, with the loss of its northern English strongholds a process that pre-dated Corbyn. “There has been a lot of talk about the ‘Red Wall’,” Murray said, “which is not a phrase I had heard until this election. But the first Red Wall to fall was, of course, the central belt of Scotland in 2015, where class politics got overwhelmed or subsumed by nationalism and unionism. One of the things I misjudged was that I imagined a left-wing leadership of the Labour Party would be able to retrieve the situation in Scotland. But there’s no sign of that happening yet; one has to be frank about that.”
Beyond Labour’s failure to address its present deficiencies – a poor leadership, the failure of the right wing of the party to champion the manifesto, anti-Semitism, and an unfavourable public image – Murray has been reflecting on the party’s defeat, as well as the fortunes of the left across Europe and in the US, from a longer historical perspective.
While the financial crash of 2008 led to a renewed sense of ideological potency and import for the left, and a belief that capitalism had reached its denouement, the reality was that progressive movements amounted to little more than a restless minority gnawing at the edges of the existing order. Overstatement of a capitalist crisis was accompanied by overconfidence in the demand for socialist cures. Episodes of direct action and political victory after 2008 – protests, occupations, sit-ins and the election of Corbyn as Labour leader in 2015 – served only to mask the left’s still-enfeebled state.
For Murray, the left endures in the long shadow of historical defeat, culminating in the collapse of the Soviet Union and the fall of the Berlin Wall. For him, class power is buttressed by “a certain idea of common sense, which has been inculcated down the years as to what’s politically acceptable, and how society should be organised. That all cuts in favour of the status quo.” Breaking that “common sense” – the idea that socialism is both flawed and deadly – remains the left’s greatest intellectual challenge.
Since the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, the left has been a passive bystander, and at times a captive, of a system made against it. “If you take the UK,” Murray said, “what happened that was positive for the left after 1989? There was the anti-war movement after 9/11, which did not prevent the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq but did change the atmosphere around those issues considerably. There was the limited experience of Ken Livingstone’s mayoralty of London between 2000 and 2008. But apart from those, there was really nothing much going on. The notion of the End of History had seeped into the left’s bones, and so while there were moments such as Occupy and outbreaks of resistance to the coalition government’s austerity programme in 2011, progressive politics was atomised and weak.”
After 2008, the American and European left has been outpaced by populist parties on the right, such as Fidesz in Hungary, Law and Justice in Poland, Bolsonaro’s Alliance for Brazil, Faragism in the UK and the Republicans under Donald Trump. At a time of climate crisis, capitalist stagnation and informational bewilderment, these reactionary movements represent what Murray calls “barbarism redux”.
The apophthegm “socialism or barbarism”, popularised by Rosa Luxemburg in 1916, has re-entered the daily lexicon of the left in the past few years. As the US political theorist Jedediah Britton-Purdy has recently argued, we might be entering an age of barbarism, a political system that “keeps people in the dark and gives them no way out. A system, that is, that makes the world as it is both inescapable and unintelligible.”
As Murray puts it in The Fall and Rise, “too many are doing very nicely out of dystopia”, and there is a global right, of which he believes the Johnson-Cummings regime is a part, united by a common endeavour “to drain democracy of its potential”.
“It’s not fascism,” he exclaimed, “they are not spectres from the past. But in this country I imagine there will be some pushback against democracy, or at least a concerted effort to make it hard for the opposition to win, using similar methods to those we’ve seen deployed in the US, as well as in Poland and Hungary: voter suppression, the marginalisation of local government, reorganising constituency boundaries, the Fox-ification of the media, and so on.”
In September 2018 Murray was criticised after an article he wrote in the New Statesman accused “the deep state” of working to prevent the election of a Corbyn government. Then deputy Labour leader Tom Watson described the claims as “a bit John le Carré”.
Stop the war: Jeremy Corbyn and Andrew Murray at a Don’t Attack Iraq press conference, 2003. Credit: Chris Young/PA Archive/PA Images
When I asked him whether he still thought that Corbyn had been undermined by a clandestine network embedded in the organs of state, Murray chuckled slightly, saying: “I’ve gotten into trouble for light-hearted remarks about that! In the end, you just don’t know. But the state exists whether one chooses to acknowledge it or not. The idea that people with power aren’t going to wield that in some measure would seem to be contradicted by most of political history.”
Murray was predictably respectful towards his friend when I asked him how history would judge Corbyn. “In electoral terms his leadership has ended in defeat and that must colour any final judgement. But his resilience has been remarkable. I think he’ll be seen as having shifted the agenda of the possible in British politics. The ideas that prior to his leadership were entirely marginal or regarded as semi-lunatic by the mainstream are not going to be so easily dismissed. I think that the race to succeed Jeremy will probably see few candidates advocating a return to a pre-Corbyn agenda, at least in its entirety. I think that change in what is now considered politically possible will be a significant part of Jeremy’s legacy.”
Murray wouldn’t say who his preferred candidate is to replace Corbyn (although Unite will almost certainly back Rebecca Long-Bailey), but he is following the leadership debates with great interest. Among the concepts to have emerged from the wreckage of Labour’s defeat, “progressive patriotism” has proved the most divisive issue. Broadsides have been launched between those who see it as a form of soft nationalism freighted with racist and colonial sentiment, and those who consider it a nostrum for electoral recovery.
Murray takes a less dogmatic view than some of his fellow Corbynites on the idea of patriotism, and stakes out a position similar to the late historian Eric Hobsbawm (a stalwart of the Eurocommunist faction in the Communist Party of Great Britain), who in 1983 wrote in Marxism Today that “patriotism cannot be neglected… It is dangerous to leave patriotism exclusively to the right.”
Similarly, for Murray, “there is an oversensitivity about the idea of patriotism” on the left. Patriotism, he said, is “susceptible to perfectly progressive interpretations, just as it’s also susceptible to chauvinistic flag-waving. I think to nail one’s colours to the rejection of any form of patriotism is a complete dead-end.” Murray acknowledged that “the concept of ‘progressive patriotism’ needs elaborating. But we are asking people to identify with the importance of elections to parliament; we’re asking them to believe that the government of Britain can do good things both at a national level and in the world. That can’t be done so easily if the significance of the idea of Britain is completely dismissed.”
In the continuing struggle over the meaning of December 2019, the Corbynite left wavers between frank recognition of defeat and Panglossian fortitude – a (necessary) conviction that there is a way back for Labour and the left. Murray is not despondent, despite the circumstances: “We have this large membership of the Labour Party, Momentum, and a large amount of intellectual thinking going on. The election result was a bad defeat. But 32 per cent of the vote is better than what most socialist parties – excluding those in Spain and Portugal – are getting across Europe right now.”
This may be true, and the left has unquestionably transformed the Labour Party and created the space for the emergence of a popular movement arrayed against what Murray calls “the neoliberal carapace”. As he writes at the end of his book, when the steady cadences yield to more stirring tones of expectation, “such a democratic development would be a precondition for an eventual break with international capitalism and creating something that could be called socialism”.
Is this no more than wishful thinking? For Britain, as Benjamin Disraeli said to the socialist writer Henry Hyndman in 1881, “is a very difficult country to move… a very difficult country indeed”.
This article appears in the 22 Jan 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Power to the people