Len McCluskey: I had high hopes for Owen Jones’s book on Corbynism. But I was disappointed

This Land shows scant appreciation of the challenges Jeremy Corbyn’s team faced. 

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Owen Jones is a friend and comrade and, to my mind, an excellent journalist and author. I was, therefore, looking forward to his new book This Land. Alas, I found myself disappointed, because while much of the incisive analysis of broader political events, so characteristic of his journalism, was first class and thought-provoking, I’m afraid he let himself down badly by appearing to slide into the gossiping and trivia of office politics, presenting it as though it accurately frames the bigger picture. Anyone who has worked in an office environment, especially a political one, will appreciate that views are expressed through the narrow prism of individuals who ignore the broader issues being dealt with.

Owen clearly has a personal problem with Seumas Milne, who we are corralled into believing was responsible for all the woes of the Labour Party. In pursuing this constant line, he diminishes himself as an author. It is, of course, perfectly necessary to highlight and counterpose the tensions and power struggles that were crucial within the dynamics of John McDonnell, Diane Abbott, Milne, Karie Murphy, Andrew Fisher and Jeremy Corbyn, but his conclusions are mistaken. On anti-Semitism this failure is displayed once again.  Having given a brilliant and detailed polemic of the history of anti-Semitism, he veers away to lay blame at the Milne and Murphy, based on a distorted view of what it was like trying to deal with the constant daily attacks.

[see also: Stephen Bush on This Land and why Corbynism failed]

When you are in a war – and be under no illusion, from day one of his leadership, Corbyn was subjected to an internal and external war – you develop methods of defence and attack that change by necessity almost on a daily, if not hourly basis.  Being in your living room, observing with a typewriter, is a damn sight easier than being in the ditches on the front line, trying to dodge bullets flying at you from all angles, especially from your own side.

Owen should have known this given that he has been subjected to attacks for the stance he has taken on some issues. I would have expected him to try to understand what it must have been like running an operation in such extreme difficulties (Stephen Bush clearly understood in his New Statesman review of Left Out and This Land). Instead, he displays no empathy towards such intense and immense circumstances.

In one complaint, he says of the broadband policy that it should have been trialled in the previous 18 months, failing to understand the battles taking place that sucked so much energy out of Corbyn’s team. He says in one passage, at least: “To be fair to Seumas Milne”, obviously conscious of how unfair he had been.

I had a number of differences with Seumas and Karie Murphy on how to deal with certain issues. But as someone who has been in the front line trenches many, many times, I was always acutely aware of how incredibly difficult their role was in coping with myriad problems during the Brexit power struggle.

[see also: Owen Jones interview: "I begged John McDonnell to stand for Labour leader"]

I am left not only disappointed, but also with a belief that Owen’s narrative is designed to fit into his views on the Brexit “who was to blame” game. And why not; it’s his book (I myself will shortly go into more detail in my own book), but the manner in which he portrays the story devalues its importance.

Owen is obviously a fan of John McDonnell, as am I. I agree with his description of John as “Labour’s lost leader”, but it was John who ran the 2019 election campaign strategy, for which he has honourably stated “I take full responsibility”, not Murphy or Milne.

And on the one issue that brought about the tensions and schisms in the top team, Owen fails to point out (with the benefit of the only exact science – hindsight – something he uses often in the book) that it was Milne and Murphy who were proved right, and McDonnell and Fisher (and Owen, reluctantly) who were proved wrong.

I understand Owen’s criticism of Jeremy, although I wish it had been a little less harsh, and I’m pleased that he finishes the book in his usual upbeat style, looking to the future and urging us, especially the young comrades who joined with such zeal under Corbyn, to continue to fight for our vision of a better world. But I’m afraid to say, in the end, this book will not aid the process.

[see also: Keir Starmer’s quest to reshape Labour]

Len McCluskey is general secretary of Unite.

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