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The meaning of Corbynism

Jeremy Corbyn could not have remade the Labour Party witout a coterie of strategies, allies and ideologues. So who are they – and what do they want?

On the night before he was defeated by Neil Kinnock in the 1988 Labour leadership election, Tony Benn told a gathering of supporters: “I do not want anyone to think tomorrow is the end. It is the beginning. It is twice as good as we thought it might be.” The following day, the left-wing challenger won a mere 11.4 per cent of the vote. “It was appalling,” Benn recorded in his diary.

When most Labour MPs refer to the “wilderness years”, they have in mind the party’s spell in opposition from 1979-1997. But the left is describing an internal exile that lasted until 2015. Before Jeremy Corbyn’s remarkable victory, he and his allies had never come close to winning a leadership election. By triumphing in the 2015 contest (winning 59.5 per cent of the vote in the first round), Corbyn immediately achieved more than any left-wing contender had done before.

He has since won a second leadership contest, delivered the biggest increase in Labour’s general election vote share since 1945 (from 30.4 per cent to 40 per cent), gained 32 parliamentary seats and profoundly reshaped his party. The recent resignation of general secretary Iain McNicol has removed the last obstacle to full control of the Labour machine. Rather than the left, it is Corbyn’s opponents who have been condemned to the political wilderness. What accounts for this transformation? And what defines the party’s new mainstream?

When Corbyn first became an MP, in 1983, the Labour left was already in decline. Benn was narrowly defeated by Denis Healey in the 1981 deputy leadership contest (by 50.4 per cent to 49.6 per cent) and Kinnock had begun moving the party rightwards. But Benn’s supporters maintained a distinct presence through the Socialist Campaign Group, founded by 21 MPs in December 1982 as an alternative to the “soft-left” Tribune Group.

The “hard left” was defined by its support for widespread nationalisation, unilateral nuclear disarmament and internal democracy (such as the mandatory reselection of MPs), and its opposition to Western foreign policy and the European Economic Community. When Jacques Delors, the president of the European Commission, addressed the Trades Union Congress in 1988 and promised a “social Europe”, including greater workers’ rights, the soft left embraced his vision as a bulwark against Thatcherism. Yet the hard left maintained its critique of Brussels as a “capitalist club”.

Corbyn was most passionate in his denunciation of nuclear weapons (he joined the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament as a schoolboy) and Western foreign policy. He was also a fierce opponent of privatisation and a committed democratic socialist.

In a 1953 essay, “The Hedgehog and the Fox”, the liberal philosopher Isaiah Berlin distinguished between those who view the world through the prism of one defining idea (the hedgehogs) and those who adopt multiple perspectives (the foxes). Plato, Dante, Hegel and Nietzsche were included in the former category; Aristotle, Shakespeare, Goethe and James Joyce in the latter. Corbyn is, in these terms, a hedgehog. He knows “one big thing”: that wealth and power are unequally distributed globally and nationally and that only collective action can redress the balance.

The foremost political influence on Corbyn was – and perhaps still is – Benn. “Jeremy won’t do anything that he doesn’t think Tony would have done,” a Corbyn ally told me. “Even John [McDonnell] can’t get him to move on proportional representation because Tony was against it.”

Unlike some on the Labour left, Corbyn never identified as a Marxist (he confessed in 2015 that he had “not read as much of Marx as I should have done”). But he did offer solidarity to Marxists within the party. In 1982, as chairman of the Hornsey constituency party, Corbyn signed a membership card for Tariq Ali, a former member of the International Marxist Group, in defiance of Labour’s National Executive Committee. He also campaigned against the expulsion of the Trotskyist Militant Tendency from the party, acting as the “provisional convenor” of the “Defeat the Witch Hunt” campaign. “If expulsions are in order for Militant, they should apply to us, too,” he argued.

Image by Rebecca Hendin for New Statesman

Corbyn’s long-time ally, shadow chancellor John McDonnell, who did not enter parliament until 1997, is more ideological. In a 2006 interview with the Trotskyist Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, he named his “most significant” intellectual influences as “the fundamental Marxist writers of Marx, Lenin and Trotsky” (the shadow chancellor will speak on “Marxism as a force for change today” at a London conference on 5 May to mark the 200th anniversary of Karl Marx’s birth).

Unlike Corbyn, McDonnell has held senior administrative office. From 1982-85, he served as finance chair of the Greater London Council (GLC), presiding over a £3.2bn budget. But having become deputy to leader Ken Livingstone, McDonnell was sacked in 1985 following a feud over the council’s budget. The Thatcher government had cut central funding to local government and capped council rates to prevent authorities from raising extra revenue.

In response, McDonnell argued that the GLC should emulate other Labour councils (such as the Militant-led Liverpool) by refusing to set a budget at all. Livingstone, however, refused to support the illegal stance and accused McDonnell of “exaggerating” the severity of central government cuts. After receiving alternative numbers from the GLC’s director general, Maurice Stonefrost, Livingstone warned McDonnell: “If these figures are right then we’re going to look like the biggest fucking liars since Goebbels.”

When the GLC passed a budget 6 per cent below the government’s rate cap, McDonnell declared: “Ken [Livingstone] and I may remain friends but I will never trust him again… We are selling the people out because those like Ken feared disqualification from office and are clinging to power no matter what. He is a Kinnock.”

Both Livingstone and McDonnell would, in different ways, keep the left cause alive. By winning the London mayoralty as an independent in 2000, Livingstone demonstrated that New Labour could be beaten from the left. At City Hall, his advisers included John Ross and Simon Fletcher (who were reportedly members of the Trotskyist group Socialist Action, the successor organisation to Tariq Ali’s International Marxist Group). Fletcher later joined Corbyn’s office as chief of staff along with other Livingstone alumni such as Neale Coleman (director of policy) and Anneliese Midgley (deputy chief of staff).

In parliament, McDonnell helped fill the void created by the departure of Benn in 2001. As well as becoming chair of the Socialist Campaign Group, McDonnell founded the Labour Representation Committee (named after the Labour Party’s predecessor body) to strengthen the left’s presence. Andrew Fisher, now Labour’s director of policy and the author of the 2017 manifesto, would serve as the group’s joint secretary. Long before he earned the official title “shadow chancellor”, McDonnell performed this role for the left from the back benches, relentlessly tabling alternative budgets and policies.

In the 1994 Labour leadership election, the left fielded no candidate. “They [New Labour] had indoctrinated the left in the fear of their own unelectability,” writes Simon Hannah in A Party with Socialists in It, his recently published history of the Labour left. But in the 2007 contest that followed Tony Blair’s departure, McDonnell did stand for the leadership. Though he only won 29 MP nominations, 16 short of the number required to make the ballot, McDonnell served notice that the left had escaped the “sealed tomb” intended for it (a phrase reportedly used by Peter Mandelson).

When Corbyn qualified for the 2015 leadership contest eight years later, it was partly due to his amiable personality (in contrast to the more abrasive McDonnell). As Jon Lansman, a former Benn aide and the chair of Momentum, told me: “Jeremy was unique. He did not have enemies on the left. He didn’t even have enemies in the centre. He was a decent, genuine, principled person, and that’s why he got on the ballot and no one else would have.”

The simultaneous introduction of a one-member-one-vote electoral system, with MPs losing their 33 per cent “golden share”, also meant the candidate was not dependent on parliamentary support (only 14 Labour MPs voted for Corbyn in 2015).

John McDonnell (front right) with Ken Livingstone (left) in the GLC in 1982. Photo: Ford/ Daily Mail/ Rex

If the left was still marginal inside the parliamentary party, it had made progress elsewhere. Labour’s radical wing led the anti-war movement and had been strengthened by a new generation of left-wing trade union leaders, including Len McCluskey of Unite (a supporter of Militant in the 1980s), Dave Ward of the Communication Workers Union, Manuel Cortes of the Transport Salaried Staffs’ Association and Mark Serwotka of the Public and Commercial Services Union. Party members were inspired by the rise of the anti-austerity Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain.

Corbyn could also draw on the loyal support of activists from protest groups such as the Stop the War Coalition (which he chaired from 2011-15), CND, UK Uncut and the Palestine Solidarity Campaign. As Simon Fletcher, who managed Corbyn’s first leadership campaign, said: “Jeremy was rarely the star speaker at protests. He was just there at everything. It created a personality of sincerity, which is not at all artificial. That is genuinely what he’s like.” When Corbyn rose to deliver his acceptance speech at the QEII Centre in Westminster on 12 September 2015, he was greeted with roars and whoops by those who had elected him. Two days later, when he entered Commons Committee Room 14 to address the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) for the first time, he was met with silence.

The contrasting receptions were evidence of Corbyn’s simultaneous strength and weakness. In these circumstances, the Labour leader could have sought to mollify his opponents. But he did the reverse.

Against the advice of senior trade union leaders, Corbyn named the divisive McDonnell as shadow chancellor – a demonstration that he would lead on his own terms. Corbyn had seen two of his predecessors – Tony Blair and Ed Miliband – hampered by their elevation respectively of Gordon Brown and Ed Balls, who were rivals rather than true allies, as David Cameron and George Osborne were. Corbyn had no intention of repeating their errors.

His adviser-level appointments continued the pattern. Corbyn named Seumas Milne, perhaps the Guardian’s most left-wing columnist (and an excoriating critic of the US and Israel), as his director of communications and strategy. Though a long-standing Labour member, Milne had served as business manager of the monthly journal Straight Left, a title associated with the pro-Soviet (or “Stalinist”) wing of the Communist Party of Great Britain (the faction supported the Soviet invasions of Czechoslovakia and Afghanistan).

It was at Straight Left that Milne became friends with Communist Party member Andrew Murray, who now serves as Unite’s chief of staff and a part-time consultant to Corbyn. Only in 2016 did Murray, who said the previous year that communism still represented “a society worth working towards”, join Labour.

Another of Corbyn’s appointees – Andrew Fisher, who became head of policy – was suspended from the party just months after starting. Labour MPs cited a (humorous) tweet he made in support of rival party Class War and his celebration of Ed Balls’s election defeat. But Fisher, who was defended throughout by Corbyn and McDonnell, avoided expulsion following an investigation.

In February 2016, Karie Murphy (who was briefly suspended from the party after Unite, led by her close friend McCluskey, was accused of manipulating parliamentary selection in her favour in Falkirk) became Corbyn’s office manager.

The “Bolsheviks”, as Milne and Fisher were nicknamed, were contrasted with the more conciliatory “Mensheviks” (as then chief of staff Fletcher and director of policy Neale Coleman were known). But the departure of Coleman in January 2016 and Fletcher in 2017 affirmed the radicals’ ascendancy. Having not received a post in Corbyn’s team, Lansman astutely created the activist group Momentum in October 2015. The new organisation would campaign for the left in party selections and harness Labour’s dramatically expanded membership, which now stands at 570,000 (compared to 200,000 in May 2015), one of the highest of any political party in western Europe.


In the early phase of his leadership, Corbyn’s lack of support among MPs and the shadow cabinet meant that he could not always impose his will. He was forced to hold a free vote on military intervention in Syria to appease shadow cabinet ministers, and was unable to make unilateral nuclear disarmament party policy. Here was an underrated aspect of Corbyn’s leadership: his pragmatism. Rather than championing the abolition of the monarchy and public schools and UK withdrawal from Nato, Corbyn deferred to political reality. “The language of priorities is the religion of socialism,” declared Nye Bevan. For Corbyn, the priority was remaking Labour as an anti-austerity, anti-privatisation party.

In a 2016 Vice documentary, Gavin Sibthorpe, Corbyn’s head of events, offered some free advice to the Labour leader’s opponents: “The best way to get Jeremy out is to let him fail in his own time.” But following the Leave vote in the EU referendum, and Labour’s parlous opinion poll performance, MPs lost patience. In the summer of 2016, in an attempt to remove Corbyn, the PLP passed a vote of no confidence by 172 to 40, and 65 shadow ministers resigned. It was Corbyn’s sense of obligation to his supporters that sustained him.

As the Labour leader told New Statesman editor Jason Cowley when he was interviewed in Prague in December 2016: “Friends, family, neighbours – they said, ‘Don’t give up. Don’t give in to what’s going on.’ And I didn’t.”

The second Labour leadership election proved a gift to the left in several respects: Corbyn crushed his “soft-left” opponent, Owen Smith, winning an increased mandate (61.8 per cent of the vote); new activists gained campaigning experience; a more loyal shadow cabinet was appointed; and the left’s ideological and strategic hegemony was confirmed. Though a second leadership contest did not discredit Corbyn, Labour MPs hoped and believed the snap general election that followed in June 2017 would finish him. But Theresa May’s fateful decision was an even greater present for the left.


Corbyn’s strategists had long maintained that he would thrive if he had the chance to speak unmediated to voters. The election also forced the Labour leader to fill a policy void about which both supporters and opponents had complained.

The party’s 123-page manifesto, entitled For the Many, Not the Few and written by Fisher, was unambiguously Corbynite. It pledged to abolish university tuition fees, increase taxes on high earners and corporations, and renationalise the railways, the water industry, the energy grid and Royal Mail (policies for which polls had long shown widespread public support). Corbynism rests on four pillars: economic interventionism (nationalisation and redistribution), foreign non-interventionism (opposition to military action), social liberalism and participatory movement politics.

When the Conservatives’ parliamentary majority was wiped out, even Corbyn’s foes were forced to concede this was achieved because of him, rather than in spite of him. The party’s policies, strategy and messaging bore the imprimatur of the Labour leader’s team.

Yet there was more to Corbyn’s popular appeal than this. In his new book, Skin in the Game, Nassim Nicholas Taleb elaborates on his theory of responsibility and risk. By “skin in the game”, the Lebanese-American philosopher, whom I recently interviewed, means more than merely having a financial stake in a particular outcome. Taleb has in mind those who “take the downside on behalf of others” and “take risks for their opinions”, rather than insulating themselves from the consequences of their actions (as, Taleb argues, armchair interventionists and bailed-out bankers did).

Corbyn’s appeal extended beyond the traditional left because he visibly had “skin in the game”. He had been arrested in 1984 while protesting against apartheid outside the South African embassy, he had championed initially unpopular causes (such as gay and ethnic minority rights), and he had defied 172 of his own MPs and a hostile media to remain leader.

Not giving up: Jeremy Corbyn in Prague, 2016

By winning 40 per cent of the vote (Labour’s highest share since 2001), Corbyn helped his party escape the curse of “Pasokification”. The term, coined by activist James Doran, refers to Greece’s once dominant Pasok, which was reduced from 160 seats in 2009 (making it the largest party) to just 13 in 2015 (putting it in joint-sixth place) after it imposed punitive austerity measures.

In the years since, other centre-left parties have contracted this possibly terminal disease. The French Socialist Party polled 6.4 per cent in the 2017 presidential election – its worst ever result – and won just 29 seats in the National Assembly (down from 280). In the same year, the Dutch Labour Party achieved just 5.7 per cent at the general election (a fifth of its previous vote). And in Germany, the Social Democratic Party has polled as low as 15.5 per cent in recent surveys, on one occasion being overtaken by the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD).

Social democrats, discredited by the 2008 financial crisis, have been squeezed from the left by radical socialists (Greece’s Syriza, France’s Jean-Luc Mélenchon, Germany’s Left party and the Dutch Socialist Party) and from the right by atavistic nationalists  and populists (France’s Marine Le Pen, Germany’s AfD and the Netherlands’ Freedom Party).

Until the 2017 general election, Labour was displaying symptoms of Pasokification. Under Ed Miliband in 2015, it lost 26 seats and won just 30.4 per cent of the vote (its third-worst share since 1923).

But by means of an internal revolution, Corbyn harnessed the left-wing energy that European social democrats could not. For the first time since the triumph of Thatcherism, the Conservatives are confronted by an emerging counter-hegemonic project. Like the new right before them, the new left aspire not merely to defeat their opponents at elections but to overturn their most cherished ideals.

When Corbyn and his allies refer to themselves as “the new political mainstream”, they are, in Gramscian terms, seeking to redefine “common sense”. As Jeremy Gilbert, professor of cultural and political theory at the University of East London, told me: “They [the Corbynites] understand hegemony in a way that the Blairites didn’t. They thought that hegemony meant perpetual centrism, always accommodating [Thatcherism], rather than trying to build a coalition from as far left as possible into the centre.” Gilbert added: “There are two aspects to hegemony: on the one hand you have to expand your coalition as far as possible, but you also have to draw some lines and identify your enemies.”

The Thatcherites unambiguously confronted their foes: Tory “wets”, the Soviet Union, the IRA and the trade unions. Corbyn similarly draws strength from his opponents: New Labour, the American empire, the City of London and the right-wing press. The early Thatcherites were aided by a supportive ecosystem of think tanks (the Centre for Policy Studies, the Institute of Economic Affairs) and libertarian economists (Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman).

Though Corbynism does not yet have a comparable intellectual infrastructure, it is similarly sustained by extra-parliamentary networks: left-wing trade unions (principally Unite), digital media outlets (Novara Media, Evolve Politics, the Canary) and sympathetic if not uncritically supportive economists (Paul Krugman, Mariana Mazzucato, Ann Pettifor, Simon Wren-Lewis).

When Conservatives say that Corbyn has forced them to “remake” the arguments for capitalism, or warn that “the system is failing”, they are tacitly accepting the left’s advancing hegemony.


Labour MPs now agree that Corbyn will remain leader for as long as he wishes. Since the election of Lansman and eight other Momentum-backed candidates to Labour’s National Executive Committee, the left has a majority on the party’s ruling body. As Benn once intended, new rule changes will empower activists at the expense of MPs.

The challenges confronting Corbyn remain forbidding. He must navigate Brexit, which divides both Labour voters and MPs. The European question pits two Bennite principles – Euroscepticism and activist power – against one other. Polling has consistently shown that Labour Party members, in contrast to Corbyn, favour Britain staying in the single market and holding a new Brexit referendum.

In power, the left has usually struggled to fulfil expectations. Recall how in the early 1980s, French president François Mitterrand was brought to heel by the market within two years (resulting in the tournant de la rigueur, or “austerity turn”, of 1983).

“There is simply no historical model anywhere in the world for what we want to do which has been successful,” a senior Labour insider told me. “A left government being elected in a post-industrial society and then successfully managing to transition into a major new settlement, whether a new form of capitalism or socialism.”

In a landmark New Left Review editorial in 2000, the historian Perry Anderson wrote: “The only starting point for a realistic left today is a lucid registration of historical defeat. Capital has comprehensively beaten back all threats to its rule.”

In the years that followed, the left was sometimes defined not merely by pessimism of the intellect but by pessimism of the will. Corbyn, however, has made optimism credible once more. Is it enough?

The inner circle

From Stop the War veterans to trade union leaders, the people who really matter in Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party

Seumas Milne: Director, strategy and communications​

Of all Corbyn’s aides, Seumas Milne, executive director of strategy and communications, has the highest public profile. This is partly because, until he went to work for Corbyn in 2015, he was a Guardian columnist of long standing, a role from which he was initially given leave of absence until, in January last year, his position in the Labour leader’s team became permanent. But outside Westminster, 59-year-old Milne is probably known to most through the right-wing media.

His background – son of a former BBC director general, educated at the elite Winchester College and Balliol College, Oxford – makes him the perfect target for journalists and political enemies keen to portray top Corbynistas as hypocrites.

Seumas Milne, by André Carrilho for New Statesman

Papers such as the Daily Mail regularly quote (not always in context) the hard-line left-wing views expressed in his past columns and contrast them with his current lifestyle in the leafy south-west London suburb of Richmond, where he and his Italian wife, Cristina, sent their two children to grammar schools. Milne, unaccustomed to being recognised in public and unversed in the ways of tabloid newspapers, is uncomfortable with publicity and shocked by its intensity. To the glee of Tory journalists and politicians, he was photographed last summer in an intimate embrace at a fashionable London hotel with a 36-year-old glamorous blonde Australian barrister.

Milne gritted his teeth and carried on. For him, acting as Corbyn’s spin doctor is a matter of lifelong ideological conviction. Against expectations, he has proved rather good at it. Most lobby journalists, initially hostile, now respect and even like him, finding his calm, courteous and expletive-free manner a refreshing change from many of his recent counterparts.

His position within the leadership team has strengthened to the point where he is regarded as Corbyn’s closest aide, second in influence only to John McDonnell. Milne is often described as more unyieldingly left-wing and anti-imperialist than his master. In internal discussions, he rarely favours compromise or nuance.

Sceptical MPs recognise that for the foreseeable future, Milne is unassailable. His main rival in the leadership team, Simon Fletcher, left early last year and nearly all the present staff were hired with Milne’s approval. They include one of his oldest and closest friends, Andrew Murray, the Unite union’s chief of staff who is seconded part-time to Corbyn’s office (see page 29). Moreover, if Corbyn looks and sounds more like a prime minister-in-waiting than he did a year ago – tidier in appearance, more fluent in speech – Milne, himself a snappy dresser, takes much of the credit. “Corbyn has gone into dark suits and ironed shirts without anybody accusing him of selling out,” one Labour insider said. “That’s quite an achievement on Milne’s part.”

Milne also got a large share of credit for Labour’s unexpectedly strong general election showing, not least because he was one of the few to predict that Theresa May would call a snap contest. It was his decision to have Corbyn campaigning on the ground in key seats with television  cameras present wherever possible. It was his decision, too, to steer policy announcements towards specialist reporters in, for example, health. It was he and Murray who worked on Corbyn’s response to the Manchester Arena bombing, taking the high-risk course of linking terrorism at home to British military interventions overseas and finding, against expectations, that it struck a chord with large sections of the public. Now Milne is playing a big part in persuading Corbyn to soldier on to the next election, even if he has to wait until 2022. Both men have waited a lifetime for a Labour government committed to their version of socialism. If Corbyn shows signs of weakening, Milne will remind him of that. Peter Wilby

Karie Murphy: Chief of staff, leader’s office

When Bob Kerslake, the former cabinet secretary and cross-bench peer, was asked to review the structure of Jeremy Corbyn’s office in mid-2016, one of his recommendations was the creation of a strong chief of staff who could act as the Labour leader’s representative on Earth and ensure his writ ran right through the party. To fill that role, Corbyn turned to his office manager, Karie Murphy.

A 53-year-old mother of two grown-up children, she spent 25 years working as a nurse before entering trade union politics as a Unison representative, eventually becoming Tom Watson’s office manager during Ed Miliband’s leadership. It was then that Murphy became embroiled in the Falkirk scandal, when Unite was accused of signing people up without their knowledge to vote for her in the constituency’s selection battle. (She and Unite were later cleared of wrongdoing.)

Katie Murphy. Photo: Allan Milligan

Murphy is an ultra-loyalist: she was the only member of the inner team to predict a hung parliament and even bought a new outfit to visit Buckingham Palace, believing the party would win enough seats to form a government. She was closer to predicting the party’s final vote share than anyone else in Corbyn’s team. For that reason, unlike many members of the leader’s office, she declined the opportunity to go for selection in 2017.

Her loyalty to Corbyn led to Murphy falling out with her former friend and employer, Watson. She is believed to be the driving force behind proposals to further shrink the deputy leader’s power in the party.

Murphy’s tenure has been controversial. To her detractors, she is something of a bully and has been blamed for a series of departures from the leader’s office since she became chief of staff (including Simon Fletcher, Corbyn’s 2015 campaign manager, and political secretary Laura Parker).

In a measure of her power, Murphy helped engineer the recent resignation of Labour general secretary Iain McNicol, whom Corbyn allies had long wished to replace. “I’ve got him,” she reportedly told a friend on 20 February. (The leader’s office has denied this.) Murphy is also said to be close to the various new left blogs that have sprung up in support of Corbyn, regularly briefing details of the inner workings of the party to those outlets.

Even her friends concede she has a temper, with one remarking that she could “pick a fight with her own reflection”.  To her supporters, she has brought much-needed discipline and focus. Her role as Corbyn’s representative, coupled with her close personal association with Unite’s general secretary, Len McCluskey, make her a formidable operator. Stephen Bush

Dave Ward: General secretary, CWU

Dave Ward came up through the industrial rather than political side of the Communication Workers Union (CWU), having been a postman since the age of 16. His union representative intervened to save his job after a row with a manager, piquing his interest in industrial relations.

He became a workplace rep at 19 in 1978, following that with what he called a “long apprenticeship”, before rising to deputy general secretary in 2003. Ward remained in that role until 2015, when he defeated sitting general secretary Billy Hayes for the top job on 16 April 2015.

Ward saw a kindred spirit in Jeremy Corbyn, who he believed was the antidote to New Labour’s neglect of the postal industry. In an early endorsement of Corbyn, Ward spoke of the “Blairite virus” at the heart of New Labour. This earned a rebuke from one of his predecessors as head of the postal workers’ union, the former home secretary Alan Johnson.

The CWU was one of the first of Labour’s major trade unions (it is the party’s fourth largest) to back Corbyn in 2015, and Ward is the general secretary most enthusiastic about the overall project.

During Corbyn’s first leadership campaign, the CWU lent his team both office resources and staff: James Mills, now John McDonnell’s press chief, arrived at the Corbyn campaign on secondment from the union. That support continued in 2016, even when other major trade union leaders were equivocating: Ward supported Corbyn both in private and in public, with the CWU presence on Labour’s ruling National Executive Committee a reliable component of the Corbynite bloc.

This is partly because the CWU’s major demand – the renationalisation of Royal Mail – is also a priority for the Labour leadership. By contrast, the GMB union represents members in both defence and fracking, industries that may have something to fear from a Corbyn government. Stephen Bush

Andrew Murray: Unite chief of staff and Corbyn adviser

Studying old railway maps to track Britain’s industrial development is an intriguing hobby, and it’s also a pointer to Andrew Murray’s systematic approach. The Unite chief of staff plans to bring the same precision and knowledge of political and economic history to his latest role:  charting Jeremy Corbyn’s route to Downing Street.

Murray, who has been seconded from Unite to the leader’s office for a day and a half every week, only joined Labour in 2016 after 40 years as a card-carrying Communist Party member.

There’s a long history of fellow travelling between the Labour left and communists, so the move was surprisingly frictionless. Murray impressed sceptical Southsiders –workers in Labour’s London HQ – with his inclusive, amiable approach when drafted in last year for the general election campaign.

It helps that Murray has voted Labour in every Westminster election since 1979 (until recently, he lived in Islington North, so he was voting directly for Corbyn). He stood unsuccessfully in Camden nearly 30 years ago as a local Communist candidate, amassing 58 votes (including his own). But in the multi-member ward he still cast his two other votes for Labour.

What do he and Corbyn have in common? Both believe in renationalisation and tougher employment rights, and are committed to the Stop the War cause. Corbyn succeeded Murray as the group’s chair in 2011, before Murray returned briefly to the role in 2015 after Corbyn’s leadership triumph. Yet, unlike Corbyn, Murray is no unilateral nuclear disarmer, with the jobs of tens of thousands of Unite members in the defence industry fortifying his multilateralism.

Murray is believed to have voted Leave in the 2016 European referendum, adding another voice in the leader’s camp articulating the case against the EU as a capitalist club.

The youthful 59-year-old grandfather hails from Beverley in East Yorkshire and left school at 16 with only four O-levels. He worked as a messenger on Reader’s Digest, then as a copy boy for the International Herald Tribune before training as a journalist on the Sussex Express.

Joining the Morning Star in 1977, he was drinking in parliament’s press bar with other lobby reporters when Irish republicans assassinated Airey Neave shortly before Margaret Thatcher’s 1979 victory. Younger and faster and probably sober, he was the first hack to the bomb-wrecked car. Murray later spent two years at Russia’s Novosti news agency; in 1987 he signed up for the Transport and General Workers’ Union, a forerunner of Unite, as a press officer. Except for a five-year spell at the Aslef train drivers’ union and freelance journalism, Murray has been devoted to Unite, and was  elevated to chief of staff in 2011.

He is, in effect, chief operating officer to Len McCluskey’s chief executive – Unite’s £175m annual revenue and 1,300 employees, working for 1.4 million members, dwarfing many CBI companies.

Murray – a fan of Manchester United and the Grateful Dead – knew most Labour staffers when he visited HQ last year. Within Corbyn’s inner circle, he is closest to Seumas Milne. Murray admires the drive and organisational ability of Karie Murphy, who is a former Unison staffer. His rapport with other key players, including John McDonnell and Andrew Fisher, stems from years on the same left circuit.

Murray’s politics, historical perspective and dry wit are all on show in his office on the seventh floor of Unite House in Holborn, London. There, he has a bust of Frank Cousins, a T&G general secretary who took two years out in 1964 to be Harold Wilson’s minister of technology; a striking poster of Lenin; and a letter from the Queen Mother, in which she writes of  how it gave her “special happiness” to accept honorary membership of the trade union. Perhaps even hereditary blue bloods hedge their bets when revolutionary change is in the air. Kevin Maguire

Andrew Fisher: Manifesto writer

At this final pre-general election rally, Jeremy Corbyn declared that the true “star” of Labour’s campaign had been the party’s manifesto. The author of For the Many, Not the Few (an echo of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem “The Masque of Anarchy” and a New Labour slogan) was Andrew Fisher.

The party’s director of policy, 38, has long been a mainstay of the left. Before joining Corbyn’s office, he worked as a policy officer for the Public and Commercial Services Union and, in 2006, he co-founded the Left Economics Advisory Panel, a body chaired by John McDonnell (who stood for the Labour leadership the following year). Fisher also published a critique of neoliberalism, The Failed Experiment, in 2014.
Andrew Fisher. Photo: Ben Cawthra/ LNP (Andrew Fisher)

Labour’s manifesto promised the abolition of university tuition fees, higher taxes on top earners and corporations, and a programme of renationalisation.

Even Labour MPs hostile to Corbyn praised it. Yet, as recently as November 2015, some sought to have Fisher expelled from the party. In the event, he was suspended after being accused of supporting anarchist group Class War in the 2015 general election (in a tweet he claimed had been a joke).

Yet, aided by the loyal support of Corbyn and McDonnell, Fisher (who apologised and deleted his social media accounts), avoided expulsion. As the man behind the manifesto, he has not merely survived, but thrived – and also returned to Twitter (“My personal account. Version 2.0”). George Eaton

Jon Lansman: Founder and chair, Momentum

On 27 September 1981, minutes after Tony Benn’s defeat in the Labour deputy leadership election, his 24-year-old campaign coordinator, Jon Lansman, told ITN: “To be less than 1 per cent below Denis Healey is a terrific result… The campaign for the policies and the campaign for party democracy will go on – and there’s nothing that’s going to be stopping it.”

The campaign went on but Lansman and the left entered what he calls “the wilderness”. For decades, he was on Labour’s fringes. Few believed the left would regain its past prominence. Yet at 60, Lansman is now more influential than at any time in his long career. He founded the activist group Momentum, which helped to secure Corbyn’s 2016 leadership victory and drove Labour’s advance at the 2017 election. In the party’s recent National Executive Committee elections, he was one of three left-wing candidates chosen by a landslide.

Lansman, immediately recognisable from his psychedelic style of dress and omnipresent backpack (and now, a long, Rasputin-esque beard), is being rewarded for his persistence. After Corbyn’s victory, Lansman was said to have been disappointed not to receive a job in the leader’s office. But he threw himself into the creation of Momentum to entrench the left’s advantage.

Born in 1957 into an Orthodox Jewish family, Lansman attended the independent Highgate School and worked on an Israeli kibbutz when he was 16. “It was actually a very politicising experience,” Lansman later recalled. “What I liked about it was the pioneering spirit, the sense of community and radicalism of it.” He strongly condemned Corbyn ally Ken Livingstone for anti-Semitic remarks in April 2016 (“It’s time he left politics altogether”).

In the 1980s, Lansman championed mandatory reselection – under which incumbent MPs face an open contest – which was abolished by Neil Kinnock in 1990. Labour MPs have long feared the left would use its new hegemony to deselect critics of Corbyn. But though Lansman remains a supporter of the policy, he has pledged “not to campaign to deselect anybody”.

While Corbyn still has few devout supporters among Labour MPs, the left’s power has never been greater. “After decades in the wilderness,” Lansman likes to say, “the promised land is not far off.” George Eaton

Diane Abbott: Shadow home secretary and ardent loyalist

The first black woman elected to parliament, Diane Abbott has been Labour MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington since 1987. A long-term friend of Jeremy Corbyn, and his closest front-bench ally, she holds the crucial post of shadow home secretary and was a key architect of the election’s most successful strategic gambit: linking the broad criticism of austerity with the specific issue of cuts to policing under Theresa May.
Diane Abbott. Photo: Laura Hynd for New Statesman

Corbyn and Abbott have known each  other since the early 1980s, when they were briefly lovers. Abbott is considered to have greater personal loyalty to Corbyn than any other member of the shadow cabinet, though she is a more committed European than he is. She was particularly horrified by the spike in hate crime immediately following the EU referendum in June 2016, and sees part of her role as advocating for minority groups and migrant rights.

Abbott was one of the key voices arguing that Jeremy Corbyn needed to remain as leader during the so-called coup of 2016, and frequently appears on television and radio in his defence.

Together with John McDonnell and Jon Trickett, she is one of the core shadow cabinet ministers who nominated Corbyn in 2015, and attends the vital Monday meeting where the leadership’s message and strategy are decided. Abbott’s influence on the domestic programme is considerable. Stephen Bush

Len McCluskey: General secretary, Unite

In 2010, as Ed Miliband delivered his first Labour party conference speech as leader, a gruff Scouse voice cried “Rubbish!” Len McCluskey, who was elected Unite general secretary later that year, was provoked by Miliband’s criticism of “irresponsible strikes”. McCluskey (nicknamed “Red Len” by his tabloid bête noires) was widely dismissed as a “throwback” and a “dinosaur”.

But nearly a decade later, he can reflect with satisfaction on his fortunes. McCluskey has twice been re-elected as general secretary of Unite (in 2013 and 2017), the UK’s largest trade union and Labour’s biggest affiliate. The party leadership, meanwhile, has embraced the anti-austerity programme he championed (Unite has donated £11m to Labour since Jeremy Corbyn’s election).

Perhaps more than any other individual, McCluskey can take credit for Corbyn’s 2015 victory. It was Unite’s early endorsement that gave the campaign the ballast it needed. Although McCluskey is said to have privately favoured Andy Burnham (a claim that Unite denies), his executive committee voted to back Corbyn. The union provided valuable office space for the campaign and contributed £175,000.

It was also Unite that paved the way for the one-member-one-vote electoral system under which Corbyn won. In the summer of 2013, the union campaigned for the selection of Karie Murphy, a close friend of McCluskey (and now the director of Corbyn’s office, see page 28) as Labour’s parliamentary candidate in Falkirk. Following allegations of vote-rigging by Unite, Miliband resolved to reform his party’s relationship with the unions. The electoral college – which in leadership contests gave a third of the vote each to MPs and MEPs, party members and affiliated trade unionists – was abolished. Members and activists were empowered at the expense of the parliamentary party, as Tony Benn had always wished.  An opportunity had been created for the left, and Corbyn took it.

Born in Liverpool in 1950, McCluskey left school to work on the Merseyside docks, becoming a shop steward for the Transport and General Workers’ Union at the age of 19. He joined Labour in 1970, yet became a supporter of Militant, the Trotskyist group that Neil Kinnock expelled from the party.

As a hard Eurosceptic, McCluskey has backed Labour’s acceptance of Brexit and was also pivotal to the inclusion of Trident renewal – a programme on which thousands of Unite members’ jobs depend – in the 2017 election manifesto.

On the night of his narrow victory over rival Gerard Coyne in the latest Unite leadership race, McCluskey was joined at the Boot & Flogger bar in London Bridge by Seumas Milne, Corbyn’s director of communications and strategy, where they were photographed toasting the result with champagne. As long as Corbyn retains Unite’s support, his supremacy will endure. George Eaton

John McDonnell: Shadow chancellor

Until the summer of 2015, John McDonnell, who was born into a working Liverpudlian-Irish family, was known chiefly for his work on the now-defunct Greater London Council (GLC) – a stronghold of the Labour left in the 1980s.

McDonnell took his A-levels at night school in Burnley before moving to Hayes, north-west London, where he gained a politics degree from Brunel University. He subsequently worked at the TUC before being elected to the GLC in 1981.

The shadow chancellor has been MP for Hayes and Harlington since 1997, and was a back-bench scourge of New Labour – forming a close relationship with Corbyn. He stood for the Labour leadership in 2007 and 2010, failing to receive enough nominations to make the ballot, and helped run Corbyn’s campaign in 2015. Corbyn’s son, Seb, is McDonnell’s chief of staff.

McDonnell can be cold and abrasive and is widely disliked by fellow MPs. Yet few doubt his intelligence or commitment. His stance on the IRA – in 2003, he suggested Britain should be “honouring those people involved in the armed struggle”, a remark for which he has since apologised – has been condemned. The shadow chancellor’s back-room team of “the two Jameses” – spin doctor James Mills and economic adviser James Meadway, a former Socialist Workers Party member – are respected and are less sectarian than Corbyn’s closest aides. Anoosh Chakelian

Jon Trickett: Strategist and MP

As the Labour left cast around for a leadership candidate in 2015, Jon Trickett was among those considered. But the genial Yorkshireman, a former builder, declined and backed Jeremy Corbyn (making him the only frontbencher to do so). Trickett, 67, the shadow cabinet office minister and MP for Hemsworth, is unique among Corbyn’s close allies in having served under three previous Labour leaders: Blair, Brown and Miliband.

Jon Trickett

Trickett’s time in government reflects his pragmatism (he is a former parliamentary private secretary to Brown and Peter Mandelson). He was never a member of Corbyn and John McDonnell’s Socialist Campaign Group and identified with the “soft-left” Compass. Yet during the coalition government years, Trickett was profoundly frustrated by Ed Miliband’s political caution. He was one of the first to argue that Labour’s 2015 general election defeat reflected a public desire for greater radicalism, rather than centrism.

Since Corbyn became leader, Trickett has been a permanent front-bench presence. But in early 2017, the former Leeds council head was removed as general election co-ordinator after clashing with Karie Murphy. He was moved to the shadow cabinet office, and was later also given the responsibility of preparing for government.

Trickett is a long-standing Eurosceptic (he wrote in a February 2016 email that his “instinct” was to “vote and campaign for ‘No’”). George Eaton

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 01 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The rise of the radical left

An artist's version of the Reichstag fire, which Hitler blamed on the communists. CREDIT: DEZAIN UNKIE/ ALAMY
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The art of the big lie: the history of fake news

From the Reichstag fire to Stalin’s show trials, the craft of disinformation is nothing new.

We live, we’re told, in a post-truth era. The internet has hyped up postmodern relativism, and created a kind of gullible cynicism – “nothing is true, and who cares anyway?” But the thing that exploits this mindset is what the Russians call dezinformatsiya. Disinformation – strategic deceit – isn’t new, of course. It has played a part in the battle that has raged between mass democracy and its enemies since at least the First World War.

Letting ordinary people pick governments depends on shared trust in information, and this is vulnerable to attack – not just by politicians who want to manipulate democracy, but by those on the extremes who want to destroy it. In 1924, the first Labour government faced an election. With four days to go, the Daily Mail published a secret letter in which the leading Bolshevik Grigory Zinoviev heralded the government’s treaties with the Soviets as a way to help recruit British workers for Leninism. Labour’s vote actually went up, but the Liberal share collapsed, and the Conservatives returned to power.

We still don’t know exactly who forged the “Zinoviev Letter”, even after exhaustive investigations of British and Soviet intelligence archives in the late 1990s by the then chief historian of the Foreign Office, Gill Bennett. She concluded that the most likely culprits were White Russian anti-Bolsheviks, outraged at Labour’s treaties with Moscow, probably abetted by sympathetic individuals in British intelligence. But whatever the precise provenance, the case demonstrates a principle that has been in use ever since: cultivate your lie from a germ of truth. Zinoviev and the Comintern were actively engaged in trying to stir revolution – in Germany, for example. Those who handled the letter on its journey from the forger’s desk to the front pages – MI6 officers, Foreign Office officials, Fleet Street editors – were all too ready to believe it, because it articulated their fear that mass democracy might open the door to Bolshevism.

Another phantom communist insurrection opened the way to a more ferocious use of disinformation against democracy. On the night of 27 February 1933, Germany’s new part-Nazi coalition was not yet secure in power when news started to hum around Berlin that the Reichstag was on fire. A lone left-wing Dutchman, Marinus van der Lubbe, was caught on the site and said he was solely responsible. But Hitler assumed it was a communist plot, and seized the opportunity to do what he wanted to do anyway: destroy them. The suppression of the communists was successful, but the claim it was based on rapidly collapsed. When the Comintern agent Gyorgy Dimitrov was tried for organising the fire, alongside fellow communists, he mocked the charges against him, which were dismissed for lack of evidence.

Because it involves venturing far from the truth, disinformation can slip from its authors’ control. The Nazis failed to pin blame on the communists – and then the communists pinned blame on the Nazis. Dimitrov’s comrade Willi Münzenberg swiftly organised propaganda suggesting that the fire was too convenient to be Nazi good luck. A “counter-trial” was convened in London; a volume called The Brown Book of the Reichstag Fire and Hitler Terror was rushed into print, mixing real accounts of Nazi persecution of communists – the germ of truth again – with dubious documentary evidence that they had started the fire. Unlike the Nazis’ disinformation, this version stuck, for decades.

Historians such as Richard Evans have argued that both stories about the fire were false, and it really was one man’s doing. But this case demonstrates another disinformation technique still at work today: hide your involvement behind others, as Münzenberg did with the British great and good who campaigned for the Reichstag prisoners. In the Cold War, the real source of disinformation was disguised with the help of front groups, journalistic “agents of influence”, and the trick of planting a fake story in an obscure foreign newspaper, then watching as the news agencies picked it up. (Today, you just wait for retweets.)

In power, the Nazis made much use of a fictitious plot that did, abominably, have traction: The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a forged text first published in Russia in 1903, claimed to be a record of a secret Jewish conspiracy to take over the world – not least by means of its supposed control of everyone from bankers to revolutionaries. As Richard Evans observes, “If you subject people to a barrage of lies, in the end they’ll begin to think well maybe they’re not all true, but there must be something in it.” In Mein Kampf, Hitler argued that the “big lie” always carries credibility – an approach some see at work not only in the Nazis’ constant promotion of the Protocols but in the pretence that their Kristallnacht pogrom in 1938 was spontaneous. (It is ironic that Hitler coined the “big lie” as part of an attack on the Jews’ supposed talent for falsehood.) Today, the daring of the big lie retains its force: even if no one believes it, it makes smaller untruths less objectionable in comparison. It stuns opponents into silence.

Unlike the Nazis, the Bolshevik leaders were shaped by decades as hunted revolutionaries, dodging the Tsarist secret police, who themselves had had a hand in the confection of the Protocols. They occupied the paranoid world of life underground, governed by deceit and counter-deceit, where any friend could be an informer. By the time they finally won power, disinformation was the Bolsheviks’ natural response to the enemies they saw everywhere. And that instinct endures in Russia even now.

In a competitive field, perhaps the show trial is the Soviet exercise in upending the truth that is most instructive today. These sinister theatricals involved the defendants “confessing” their crimes with great
sincerity and detail, even if the charges were ludicrous. By 1936, Stalin felt emboldened to drag his most senior rivals through this process – starting with Grigory Zinoviev.

The show trial is disinformation at its cruellest: coercing someone falsely to condemn themselves to death, in so convincing a way that the world’s press writes it up as truth. One technique involved was perfected by the main prosecutor, Andrey Vyshinsky, who bombarded the defendants with insults such as “scum”, “mad dogs” and “excrement”. Besides intimidating the victim, this helped to distract attention from the absurdity of the charges. Barrages of invective on Twitter are still useful for smearing and silencing enemies.


The show trials were effective partly because they deftly reversed the truth. To conspire to destroy the defendants, Stalin accused them of conspiring to destroy him. He imposed impossible targets on straining Soviet factories; when accidents followed, the managers were forced to confess to “sabotage”. Like Hitler, Stalin made a point of saying the opposite of what he did. In 1936, the first year of the Great Terror, he had a rather liberal new Soviet constitution published. Many in the West chose to believe it. As with the Nazis’ “big lie”, shameless audacity is a disinformation strategy in itself. It must have been hard to accept that any regime could compel such convincing false confessions, or fake an entire constitution.

No one has quite attempted that scale of deceit in the post-truth era, but reversing the truth remains a potent trick. Just think of how Donald Trump countered the accusation that he was spreading “fake news” by making the term his own – turning the charge on his accusers, and even claiming he’d coined it.

Post-truth describes a new abandonment of the very idea of objective truth. But George Orwell was already concerned that this concept was under attack in 1946, helped along by the complacency of dictatorship-friendly Western intellectuals. “What is new in totalitarianism,” he warned in his essay “The Prevention of Literature”, “is that its doctrines are not only unchallengeable but also unstable. They have to be accepted on pain of damnation, but on the other hand they are always liable to be altered on a moment’s notice.”

A few years later, the political theorist Hannah Arendt argued that Nazis and Stalinists, each immersed in their grand conspiratorial fictions, had already reached this point in the 1930s – and that they had exploited a similar sense of alienation and confusion in ordinary people. As she wrote in her 1951 book, The Origins of Totalitarianism: “In an ever-changing, incomprehensible world the masses had reached the point where they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and that nothing was true.” There is a reason that sales of Arendt’s masterwork – and Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four – have spiked since November 2016.

During the Cold War, as the CIA got in on the act, disinformation became less dramatic, more surreptitious. But show trials and forced confessions continued. During the Korean War, the Chinese and North Koreans induced a series of captured US airmen to confess to dropping bacteriological weapons on North Korea. One lamented that he could barely face his family after what he’d done. The pilots were brought before an International Scientific Commission, led by the eminent Cambridge scientist Joseph Needham, which investigated the charges. A documentary film, Oppose Bacteriological Warfare, was made, showing the pilots confessing and Needham’s Commission peering at spiders in the snow. But the story was fake.

The germ warfare hoax was a brilliant exercise in turning democracy’s expectations against it. Scientists’ judgements, campaigning documentary, impassioned confession – if you couldn’t believe all that, what could you believe? For the genius of disinformation is that even exposure doesn’t disable it. All it really has to do is sow doubt and confusion. The story was finally shown to be fraudulent in 1998, through documents transcribed from Soviet archives. The transcripts were authenticated by the historian Kathryn Weathersby, an expert on the archives. But as Dr Weathersby laments, “People come back and say ‘Well, yeah, but, you know, they could have done it, it could have happened.’”

There’s an insidious problem here: the same language is used to express blanket cynicism as empirical scepticism. As Arendt argued, gullibility and cynicism can become one. If opponents of democracy can destroy the very idea of shared, trusted information, they can hope to destabilise democracy itself.

But there is a glimmer of hope here too. The fusion of cynicism and gullibility can also afflict the practitioners of disinformation. The most effective lie involves some self-deception. So the show trial victims seem to have internalised the accusations against them, at least for a while, but so did their tormentors. As the historian Robert Service has written, “Stalin frequently lied to the world when he was simultaneously lying to himself.”

Democracy might be vulnerable because of its reliance on the idea of shared truth – but authoritarianism has a way of undermining itself by getting lost in its own fictions. Disinformation is not only a danger to its targets. 

Phil Tinline’s documentary “Disinformation: A User’s Guide” will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 at 8pm, 17 March

This article first appeared in the 01 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The rise of the radical left