The Corbyn legacy

Mike Phipps reviews This Land: the story of a movement, by Owen Jones, published by Allen Lane

I

Unlike Left Out, Gabriel Pogrund and Patrick Maguire’s hatchet job on Labour post-2017, Owen Jones’ book is a serious attempt to understand the strengths and failings of the Corbyn Project over the last five years. Jones of course has his detractors on the hard left, who accuse him, and many others involved in these events, of ‘betrayal’.  But this book is written by someone who participated in the Corbyn movement and he makes his criticisms in the context of an attachment to it.

In the Introduction, Jones says there are two counterposed narratives about the Corbyn era. One says: “Here was a man demonstrably unsuitable for high office, his leadership sustained only by the deluded infatuation of an ideologically crazed political cult.” The second narrative argues that the Corbyn Project was wrecked by a deliberate campaign of internal sabotage. Both views need correcting, he contends. Yes, some of the wounds were self-inflicted.  A failure to recognise this, he warns, leads to “a fatalistic conclusion that any radical political project will inevitably be destroyed by entrenched establishment opposition.”

Jones starts by recalling the marginalisation of the left in the New Labour years. It could be added that this marginalisation extended to the exclusion of any would-be prospective parliamentary candidate from being allowed to run, who did not fit the Blair-Brown mould. This fiat was lifted only in the Ed Miliband years, which helps explain some of the problems Corbyn would have with a hostile PLP.

Attempts by many Party elders in 2015 to blame Ed Milband’s election defeat on Labour being too left wing had to be challenged, which meant the left fielding a candidate. That meant someone other than Andy Burnham, who was pitching for the left vote, despite launching his campaign in the HQ of an accountancy firm notorious for facilitating tax avoidance and saying he wouldn’t take any money from the trade unions.

When Jeremy Corbyn finally announced and got on the ballot paper, the public mood proved surprisingly receptive. Backing from Unite and the more moderate Unison underlined the seriousness of the campaign. Gradually an unprecedented political movement took off, as people queued around the block to hear Jeremy Corbyn deliver direct answers, often passionately and unscripted. As tens of thousands of new members joined or signed up as supporters, an historic landslide took place. Then the trouble started.

II

From the outset, Corbyn faced well documented abuse from the media. The notorious report from Labour’s governance and legal unit leaked earlier this year and still the subject of an internal inquiry, has given an insight into the open contempt with which party officials treated Corbyn and many other parliamentarians. Staff also scoured the social media accounts of prospective Labour members, purging anyone who had retweeed a Green Party tweet, or similar.

The PLP were equally hostile. Yet despite the narrative peddled by the right that Corbyn was politically intolerant, his first Shadow Cabinet overwhelmingly comprised MPs who had campaigned against him. This explains why, for example, Labour did not at the time officially support the publicly popular junior doctors’ strike.  Backbench MPs were also obstructive: in 2016, 150 Labour MPs voted against an investigation into whether Tony Blair misled Parliament in the run-up to the Iraq War.

Within hours of the 2016 EU referendum result, Shadow Cabinet members began preparing a coup against Corbyn and the PLP voted no confidence in him – at its next meeting they showered him with personal abuse. Even the NEC was far from rock-solid, voting only narrowly to automatically put him on the ballot paper in the impending leadership election against Owen Smith.  Again Corbyn won convincingly: the botched coup had only cemented his support further.

As leader, Corbyn was very different from his predecessors. Jones for one was not impressed and he catalogues a long list of weaknesses in a chapter simply entitled “Dysfunction”.  In this analysis, Corbyn was a poor speaker, unwilling to be managed, too nice, indecisive, stony-faced with the media, refusing to sing the national anthem at his first ceremonial event. For some, this last incident shows Corbyn’s reluctance to play the politician’s game and desire to remain true to his principles. For Jones, “Labour MPs across the party’s spectrum report, even to this day, that this one moment cut through on the doorstep in the worst possible way.”

Except that, Labour did exceptionally well in the next general election after this apparently game-changing event, getting a better vote than in any of the previous three general elections – including Blair’s 2005 win.

Dysfunction characterised Corbyn’s inner team, according to Jones. It reacted to the relentless media and political barrage with defensiveness and suspicion. A ‘ring of steel’ took over, shutting out even sympathetic criticism and prizing unswerving loyalty. Too much deference was paid to Corbny’s communications chief, who was more a political analyst than someone used to managing the news cycle, with its immovable deadlines. It is he, rather than Corbyn, whom Jones hold responsible for giving the media unnecessary ammunition with which to attack the Labour leader over the Salisbury poisoning in 2018. This proved to be a turning point in Labour’s popularity ratings – notwithstanding the fact that Labour ultimately took a tougher line on cracking down on Russian money-laundering than the Tories.

Jones is very detailed on disorganisation in the Leader’s Office, with many staff lacking a clear idea of their responsibilities.  In 2016, a new Chief of Staff was brought in to impose some order, but she filled the power vacuum so effectively that many colleagues saw her as overweening – and worse – committed to her own agenda, sometimes shouting down elected members and even the leader himself, accusing Corbyn, in Jones’ account, of betraying the working class when he committed to a second Brexit referendum.

As in Left out, there are plenty of anecdotes from within the Leader’s office, but not so much on the politics of it. Corbynism had different pillars of support and it was unsurprising that those who were younger and more middle class, who were recruited from the social movements, would not get on easily with more hard-boiled figures who learned their brutal tactics in the trade unions bureaucracy. And those in the Leader’s Office with allegiances to some of the more powerful trade unions had a much more limited vision of the ‘new politics’.

Picking out the errors made at the top across the four year period fails to take into account the evolution of the Project. There were undoubtedly elements of a bunker mentality, particularly in the Office’s reluctant to engage sufficiently with the mainstream media. But in the early days, the sense of siege was palpable. Nor should the obstruction of Party staff be underestimated: no other leader had ever taken over the Party to find its computers had been taken away by hostile employees.

In those first months, it was hard for Corbyn to find people to work for him, be it members of the Shadow Cabinet or staff. The expectation by many was that he wouldn’t last until Christmas. Jones himself turned down a job.  By mid-2016, he was “privately speculating…. that Corbyn could act as a transitional figure, before passing the baton to a younger politician.” He was also, as he freely admits here, publicly voicing his fears. Yet Corbyn’s personal popularity was undented, as the 2016 leadership win against Owen Smith underlined.

Then came the 2017 general election. If in 2019, the Corbyn Project was overwhelmed by objective hostile forces, in 2017, 22 points behind the Tories at the start of the campaign, it made its own opportunities. Closing down the issue of Brexit and establishing a different narrative was critical. The 2017 manifesto built on that with a swathe of popular policies. And what Labour lacked in funding and millionaire press support, it made up for in its army of enthusiastic volunteers, much of it organised by Momentum.

The result was a historic 40% of the vote for Labour. When you factor in the obstructiveness of many anti-Corbyn Labour Party staff, as well as the bold risk Corbyn took mid-campaign in linking the Manchester bombing to Britain’s foreign policy, Labour’s achievement looks all the more impressive.

Dysfunction in the Leader’s Office did not disappear, even if morale improved for a time. Perhaps the biggest mistake after the 2017 election, once it was clear that Corbyn would probably lead Labour into the next general election, was to continue with the same team. He might have pressed the reset button and cast the net wider for some really top-notch staffers. But for a leader who avoided confrontation, it is perhaps predictable that he would stick with the people who brought him so close to victory and deprived the May government of its majority.

III

No assessment of this period is possible without examining Brexit, which escalated from a constitutional question into a culture war. In the process, Corbyn’s one advantage as a man of principle was compromised, as the party desperately tried to keep its Remain flank on board, but could not win power without its Leave supporters, often in critically marginal constituencies.

From the outset, Labour had good reason to be suspicious of the official corporate campaign for Remain, whose leaders treated Corbyn and his supporters with abusive contempt. It was clear that if Remain failed to win in the 2016 referendum, its campaign directors saw a silver lining in blaming Corbyn for their failure. In fact, polling in the run-up to the vote showed Corbyn to be the most trusted politician on the issue.

“Ultimately, it wasn’t Labour’s leadership which doomed Remain,” argues Jones. “The official campaign acted as though it was taking a calculator to a knife fight.” The Leave campaign was characterised by its concocting of false claims and unfounded scare stories.

The result was traumatic for Labour, yet the Party managed to contain the deepening split in its ranks in the 2017 general election, by committing to respect the result, while maintaining the benefits of the Single Market and the Customs Union. Even then, there were swings against Labour in strong Leave seats.

Jones believes the Corbyn leadership made a fatal mistake at this point. It should have fully committed to uphold the referendum result and defined its position in a soft Brexit. I’m not so sure. Of course, it’s not great to overturn a referendum result, even a close one, which was based on lies and skewed by postal votes cast before an extreme British nationalist had murdered a pro-Remain Labour MP. But, the real question remains: was leaving the EU the right or wrong thing to do? Was it too late for the Corbyn Project to run a class-based, internationalist campaign for taking socialist ideas into the EU to reform it, something a lot of left democratic socialists across the EU were hoping for?

Instead, a difficult triangulation took place to reconcile the Remainer wishes of most of the PLP and members with the Leave beliefs of key voters. Meanwhile for both ardent Leavers and the People’s Vote campaign, an important feature of their strategies, which united them across the gulf of ideas, was a desire to shaft Jeremy Corbyn.

IV

Next came Labour’s antisemitism crisis. It’s important to remember that Labour’s relationship with Jewish voters began to deteriorate under Ed Miliband, the Party’s first ever Jewish leader, over the Party’s support for Palestinian statehood. Left antisemitism also has a long history, as Jones reminds us.

Yet nobody who knows him can seriously believe that Jeremy Corbyn is a racist of any kind. The fact that, as a backbencher years earlier, he had opposed the destruction of a public mural, having been sent a picture of it on his phone while on holiday and failed to see its anti-Semitic overtones, hardly cancels out a political lifetime of anti-racist activity.

The problem was, say some, the way incidents like this were used to try to destroy him. In this Corbyn was not helped by the outbursts of past allies, like Ken Livingstone, who made media appearances claiming Hitler was a Zionist. Corbyn was further hampered by the lethargic approach the Party HQ took, pre-2018, to dealing with cases of antisemitism allegations involving grassroots members.

But the bigger issue was: why was Corbyn’s Office so incompetent at shutting down this line of attack? From the outset, its response was ad hoc and reactive. It lacked a clear strategy for tackling it, mainly because of internal divisions about whether to tough it out or mend fences. Corbyn himself was bewildered by the allegations which Jones believes affected his ability to see how damaging they could be, even if they were baseless.

One crunch issue was whether Labour should adopt the definition of antisemitism proposed by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance. Palestinian activists – and Corbyn too – had valid concerns about some of the examples accompanying the definition, especially those touching on criticism of the state of Israel. Jones feels “Labour did not have the political capital or space to engage in this debate.” He quotes a weary observation from Andrew Fisher, Corbyn’s senior political advisor: “When you’re a party accused of antisemitism, saying ‘We’re going to define antisemitism, we know better than an international panel of Jewish academics agreeing with it’ – it’s just a fucking idiotic thing to do.”

Others in the senior team saw this as a betrayal – a favourite word for some on the left. For Jones, it was “another example of Corbyn choosing to die on the wrong hill.”

Divisions at the top seemed to worsen after a public attack by prominent Jewish Labour MP Margaret Hodge on Corbyn as an “anti-Semite and racist”. Senior Corbyn allies were split over whether to pursue disciplinary action against Hodge or seek reconciliation.

The readiness of right wing Labour MPs to exploit this issue was underlined by Siobhain McDonagh arguing in an interview that opposing capitalism was itself anti-Semitic. Ignorance and opportunism abounded on this topic, but the failure of the leadership to decisively neutralise it damaged not just Labour but also the emotional wellbeing of its most senior figures.

V

The endgame began with 2019’s elections to the European Parliament. The Tories got 8.8% and Prime Minister May resigned. Labour got 13.6% – the big winners were Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party. A YouGov poll suggested only 45% of Labour’s members had voted for their own Party. And when Johnson replaced May, Labour’s top team was again divided on how to respond, resulting, according to Jones, in delayed and muddled messaging.

Morale was sliding in the Leader’s Office, evidenced by the resignation of senior policy advisor Andrew Fisher, which hit the headlines in the middle of the 2019 Party Conference. Days earlier, Labour’s big annual event was overshadowed by veteran Corbyn-supporter Jon Lansman’s attempt to delete deputy leader Tom Watson’s post from the Party’s rulebook. If, as commentators suggest, this was because a gung-ho Chief of Staff had greenlit the manoeuvre without full authorisation from Corbyn, it  was either the peak of disorganisation or evidence of an insubordinate freelancer with her own agenda.

Either way, it was the end. A new Chief of Staff, quietly competent and non-factional, a “former high-ranking civil servant with impeccable working class credentials,” was appointed and sought to end the divisions within the inner team – although with a new general election looming, it may have been a bit too late.

According to Jones, Labour went into the 2019 general election poorly prepared, fighting on its least favourable terrain – Brexit – yet with an ambitious strategy of trying to win seats everywhere. Perhaps the leadership team was still smarting at how obstructive Party bureaucrats in 2017 had screwed up the campaign by adopting an overly defensive approach. Before apportioning too much blame, however, we should remember that, at the time, ordinary members took a similar view, and if the polls were unfavourable, well, they called it wrong in 2017 too.

Poor messaging, an inability to showcase Corbyn’s strengths, biased media, mediocre backup from Party HQ for local campaigns, what Jones calls “policy incontinence” – it all happened, but the question is: how much did it matter? Although Labour’s poll ratings did improve in the campaign, this was an election where most voters had probably made their mind up well in advance. It was a Brexit election, where a rampant Tory nationalist narrative was able to dominate, excluding from the political discourse a range of other policy debates, where Labour actually had some quite popular, radical solutions.

But politics at the top is not always about the things you want to talk about. It requires instant responses to a range of issues.  To be successful, a Labour leader has to dominate on all areas of policy, not just those within the Party’s comfort zone. The Corbyn leadership faced a perpetual dilemma on how to respond to events. On the one hand, Corbyn had got to be leader by being himself, true to his instincts, giving him an enviable and unassailable brand image of integrity and principle, never trimming his views to curry favour or horse-trade.

On the other hand, leaders of any political movement won’t get their way on everything. They need to decide in advance what can’t be compromised and what can be, where their red lines are and how their stance on issues will be received by colleagues, party members and above all voters.

Walking this tightrope is something all Labour leaders have to do. But at least Corbyn had the integrity and principles in the first place. Too many leaders allow their views to be shaped by focus groups and opinion polls and end up looking unconvincing and gutless.

VI

Jones’ book is subtitled “The story of a movement”. But unless by ‘movement’ we mean the colleagues with whom Corbyn worked on a daily basis – and surely we don’t – then the broader Corbyn movement is strangely absent from this book. The most compelling reason for this may be that there wasn’t really any such thing.

Although Corbyn drew support from the trade unions, the old Labour left and the newer social movements, each had their own priorities and the different wings rarely functioned very effectively together, outside of elections. Corbyn had got the leadership, not as the result of a big upsurge in the mass movement, but at a time of relative social peace. The fact that a popular movement needed to be constructed from scratch in order to sustain his position made his hold on office all the more fragile.

Tens of thousands of members flocked into the Party from 2015 on, and Momentum and The World Transformed did some important work to reach out and engage with them. But much of the old Labour left failed in this task, hampered by its routinism and eagerness to attach its own narrow agendas to a once-in-a-lifetime project. In the end, the big popular movement we needed didn’t really happen and, although there is much more vibrant intellectual life on the Labour left today than five years ago, this simple fact may explain the ultimate failure of the Corbyn Project far more than the intrigues within the Leader’s Office.

But for all the quite harsh criticism in this book, Jones in his Conclusion is robust in defending Corbyn – his massive personal popularity, the two landslide leadership wins, the huge vote tally in the 2017 general election, the shift in the political agenda that he achieved – against the reheated narrative that it was all an aberration and that only a Blairite re-tread can lead the Party to victory. In his bid to be leader earlier this year, Keir Starmer acknowledged Corbyn’s achievement, when he declared: “We should treat the 2017 manifesto as our foundational document.” The Corbyn legacy then will be in the lasting policy shifts Labour made over the past five years, although whether Keir Starmer sticks to this campaign commitment remains to be seen.