David Osland makes a personal contribution to the ongoing debate
Curious as it seems to compare the partnership between Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell to that between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, the parallels are there.
Both sets of men arrived as Labour leader and shadow chancellor respectively as a double act, united in determination to revolutionise the party’s direction.
It’s no secret Brown itched for the top job in 1992, but bottled out of running, and McDonnell wanted it in 2007 and 2010, but couldn’t get on the ballot. In each case, The Fates decreed that the position would eventually go to the saleable contender instead.
The trade-off was that the more cerebral components of their respective pairings, whose visions appeared to differ from the winners more in nuance than substance, got a dual monarchy instead. That didn’t work well for Austria-Hungary, and doesn’t work well for the Labour Party either.
Even working in lowly labour movement jobs at the start of the New Labour era, I recall how selective inklings that all wasn’t well with the top brass sporadically filtered back to the trenches.
Wars and rumours of wars, urban guerrilla campaigns initiated in chi-chi Islington eateries and proxy conflicts waged in the media via potty-mouthed spin doctors, would meet instant dismissals that were themselves instantly dismissable.
The telephone-throwing bust-ups – which earned the nickname of ‘the TBGBs’ – went on to span a decade in government. Only once memoirs of the period made it into print did we get formal confirmation of stories to which most of us gave ready credence.
A quarter of a century later, the first crop of books on Labour’s recent battles are set to drop this autumn. At last the poor bloody infantry will get the juice on the strains between Corbyn and McDonnell, which perhaps might be called the JCMcDs by way of analogy.
Gabriel Pogrund and Patrick Maguire are first up, and the serialisation of their forthcoming work in the Times this week may almost have been custom-built to vindicate the overweening smugness of the told-you-so brigade.
One of their scoops is the first interview with Karie Murphy, Corbyn’s chief of staff, who has no doubt why the Labour left is currently crawling through the wreckage of its best-ever opportunity for a socialist government.
The villain of the piece is McDonnell, accused of crude machinations against her and comms chief Seumas Milne. ‘This should never have happened,’ she insists. ‘Ultimately it fucked our project.’
Did it really? One presumes Comrade Murphy took to colourful phraseology primarily out of anger. Even so, her strident formulation will demoralise everyone emotionally invested in Corbynism’s success, from Bennite old stagers like me to the stoners chanting the new lyrics to Seven Nation Army in a muddy field at Glastonbury.
And even in terms of four-letter shorthand analysis, the contention that a big boy did it and ran away does not suffice for disculpation; blame for collective failure can only fall collectively. Many factors contributed to ‘fucking Corbynism’, some in the shape of incoming mortar fire, others by way of unerringly accurate small arms aimed at the foot.
Karie was there and I wasn’t. It’s not my place to take sides in the infighting that apparently dominated a more than typically dysfunctional workplace. But politics takes priority over office politics, and even outsiders could see readily just how much was amiss.
Antisemitism allegations, which ranged in severity from the vexatious to council candidates openly posting overt Holocaust denial links on social media, were catastrophically mismanaged.
Media rebuttals focused exclusively on late night phone calls to little-read alt left websites, favoured largely for their propensity uncritically to lap up bullshit spoon by drivelling spoon, so long as the consequent libel bills were picked up.
The handling of the Skripal incident displayed the naivety typifying those who haven’t clocked that Russia is now more authoritarian capitalist kleptocracy than workers’ paradise, and the both-sides-against-the-middle approach to Brexit alienated both sides, not to mention the middle. I could go on.
It is not advocacy of alternative tactics that destroys political projects; political projects that stifle other viewpoints end up destroying themselves, as any number of examples from the history of the left testify.
In any case, if emphasis is on the Latin loanword rather than the term derived from Anglo-Saxon English, what ‘ultimately fucked Corbynism’ wasn’t ultimate cage fighting. It was the ultimate entrenched resistance of the Labour right.
It was the former cabinet ministers who woke up determined to undermine Corbyn every single day, the recalcitrant MPs who mounted a leadership challenge just months after the verdict of the members, the headquarters staff who systematically allocated general election resources to favoured right wing candidates.
In short, Corbyn and McDonnell could probably have beaten the Tories, but were never going to defeat a machine dedicated to their downfall.