Mike Phipps reviews Left Out: the Inside Story of Labour under Corbyn, by Gabriel Pogrund and Patrick Maguire, published by Bodley Head
A sign of the enduring quality – or lack of it – of this book is that it turned up in a free pop-up library within days of its publication. A thorough reading by your reviewer made it abundantly clear why no self-respecting human being would want this shoddy effort on their bookshelf.
The book has the breathless tone of some of the worst hagiographies that were written about Princess Diana immediately after her death. Jeremy Corbyn didn’t just have lunch with Diane Abbott – he would “sneak out… for furtive lunches” with her. The language presumably is an attempt to meet the advance publicity’s promise of “jaw-dropping revelations on every page.”
The book’s most laughable claim, however, is its avowal at the start that it does not seek “to settle factional scores”. This is belied by the sympathy shown to the party officials, whose morally degenerate behaviour was fully exposed in the leaked Compliance Unit report a few months ago. This empathy is emphasised by a shared language, for example the National Executive Committee of the Party “fulfilled the ambition of many a teenage Trot by voting to disaffiliate Labour Students.” No mention of course of the reputed corruption and vote-rigging of this staunchly Blairite body.
The authors are so credulous of the propaganda put out by Corbyn’s opponents that they repeat as fact a number of their attack lines. One example is the supposed refusal of Corbyn to broaden the shadow cabinet after 2017, repeated here, without any attempt to check, who was approached and why they refused.
Worse, despite the clear evidence of the wrecking tactics relentlessly adopted by Corbyn’s diehard opponents, the authors buy into the myth that Ian Austin, who campaigned for a Tory vote in 2019, was, along with his co-conspirators, out to “save Labour”.
There’s a lot of space devoted to the plots against Corbyn. From 2018, Deputy Leader Tom Watson and others were apparently regularly meeting with other disgruntled MPs in a cabal allegedly coordinated by Lord Mandelson. Watson even tried to enlist Tony Blair’s support, although Blair didn’t appear to think the Party was salvageable and seemed keened to encourage a breakaway. Many pages are devoted to the split from Labour that became the Independent Group, then Change UK, which is odd, given that it was entirely the creation of egos within the Westminster bubble, with little public support outside. Change UK’s dismal performance at the 2019 general election underlined this.
I say “apparently” and “allegedly” because it is difficult to gauge just how much if this is accurate. When the book turns to more well-trodden paths, like the chapter on antisemitism, it lurches away from reality with a jolt, stigmatising the huge growth in membership under Corbyn with a jibe about “an influx of members whose prejudices for so long went unchecked in little read pamphlets and poorly attended meetings”. Remember: under Corbyn the membership trebled to over half a million. What “poorly attended meetings” might these hundreds of thousands of new members being going to?
The authors go on to join in the policing of what constitutes “mainstream British Jewry”, echoing the notion, trotted out by Corbyn’s opponents at the time, that, by attending a seder hosted by the radical group Jewdas, he was consorting with the wrong sort of Jews. The chapter is riddled with inaccuracies; for example, Sue Lukes is introduced as a Jewish Voice for Labour activist – not true. But why bother to check anything supplied by your invariably anonymous sources?
Clearly, the five years of Corbyn’s leadership of the Party were not free from mistakes. The Leader’s Office was often disorganised and the unremitting hostility of the mainstream media to the Project fuelled a bunker mentality in some. Dysfunction was underlined during the 2019 Party conference, first by the attempt on the NEC to delete the Deputy Leader’s post, seemingly without Corbyn’s approval, and then by the resignation of his top advisor Andrew Fisher, who made some telling criticisms of the Leader’s Office’s failings.
I could mention other weaknesses that the book overlooks. More could have been done to neutralise the effects of fringe parties taking votes from Labour in marginal seats at the 2019 general election – an issue far too strategic for this tittle-tattle account to bother with. Nor does it grasp the centrality of narrative, which helps explain why the 2017 and 2019 results were so different for Labour.
But most of the problems contributing to last year’s defeat were objective – the power of British nationalism exploited to the full by Johnson’s Conservatives, and the willingness of much of the media to slavishly push the Tory line. Even on Brexit, with most of the Party’s members and MPs on one side and many of its voters on the other, it’s difficult to see what alternative position the Party could have taken, although this point will be argued about for years to come. Corbyn himself was very clear: he didn’t want Labour to be the Party of the 52% or the 48%. He sought to bring people together to focus on their shared problems.
The 2019 general election was a disaster in terms of seats. But in terms of votes, it was Labour’s second best result of the last five general elections, better than 2010 and 2015, better even than Blair’s win in 2005, by nearly a million votes. Clearly Labour‘s decline and the collapse of the Red wall in particular had been a long time in preparation, the result of decades of neglect when the Party was under less radical management. But you won’t learn that here.
Many of the real problems – both objective and subjective – exposed by the 2019 result are missed entirely by this sketchy account, perhaps its biggest failing. And part of the reason for that is the authors’ obsession with the personal traits of the key players in the story, and above all those of Jeremy Corbyn himself.
Throughout the book, Corbyn is described as “bleary-eyed”, “ashen-faced”, “inconspicuous”, a “crank”, “not made for leadership” – but never “dignified”. Yet in reality that is exactly what he was, in the face of all the personalised attacks, character assassinations and downright lies that were used against him in the election campaign. But dignity is not something that the authors of this execrable book would be likely to recognise.
For all its blurb about “a breathtaking work of political journalism”, this book has no source notes and a sniggering gossip-column vibe. Clearly a lot of its impressions – I can’t use the word “facts” – come from some of Jeremy Corbyn’s closes aides. They will have their own reasons for talking to these hostile hacks, presumably to get their version of events out, in the expectation that other ex-colleagues will do the same. At least one of those working in the Leader’s office was the subject of a letter of complaint sponsored by a significant number of staff, which would add an extra motive to dish the dirt.
Nobody speaking on the record comes out of this looking particularly clever, let alone wise. Even Corbyn’s opponents within the Party apparatus and the parliamentary party, who are treated with the utmost sympathy and indulgence by the authors, come across as disloyal, egotistical and generally unpleasant. In its final pages, the book concedes this: they were “guilty of even more profound political failures than any of the Project’s adherents.”
It is to their great credit that neither Jeremy Corbyn nor John McDonnell lowered themselves to engage with this hatchet job.