Don’t Play the Blame Game

Was Jeremy Corbyn betrayed by his closest political allies over Brexit?  Former Corbyn advisor Andrew Fisher sets the record straight

The Starmer Project by Oliver Eagleton has, it seems, a side project to sow division in the left, attacking left stalwarts such as John McDonnell, Diane Abbott and Rebecca Long Bailey, while infantilising Jeremy Corbyn.

Much of the rest of Eagleton’s book is well-researched and well-sourced. So why abandon that rigour when writing the chapter on Brexit? As someone closely involved in this period, I barely recognised it.

In his desire to pin Brexit on Keir Starmer alone, Eagleton constructs – with the help of some fantastical accounts – a conspiracy in which Jeremy’s lifelong friends and allies, including John McDonnell and Diane Abbott, are alleged to have betrayed their forty-year friendship with Jeremy Corbyn to side with Keir Starmer. This would no doubt come as news to both Corbyn, Abbott and McDonnell, and probably to Starmer – who only recently threatened to remove the whip from Abbott and McDonnell too!

The main thing missing from Eagleton’s narrative is that Labour policy changed on Brexit because it was democratically changed by Party Conference. Even this is mistakenly individualised: “[Tom] Baldwin, with Starmer’s knowledge, had got hundreds of CLPs to submit motions calling for a public vote with Remain on the ballot.” Most of the motions that had come into Conference that year had been organised by the pro-Corbyn, pro-Remain Another Europe is Possible group, not by the People’s Vote campaign of which Baldwin was a part.        

For Jeremy Corbyn, a veteran of the left-wing Campaign for Labour Party Democracy movement within the party, democracy mattered. So respecting the Conference decisions of party and union delegates was important – and part of what had got Jeremy elected in the first place.

The decisions of the TSSA and GMB unions to back a public vote in 2018 are mentioned. Amazingly it is claimed that “Starmer concealed this fact from LOTO [Leader of the Opposition’s office] lest it intervene to bring the general secretaries into line.”  Given these were public positions that were reported in the national media, Starmer obviously attempted some magical cloaking spell – which failed to work on me and many others who discussed it in LOTO at the time. The notion that Jeremy Corbyn would “bring general secretaries into line” for voicing their unions’ democratic decisions is equally unrealistic.

In 2018, Party Conference backed the option of campaigning for a public vote. The compositing process had staved off outright support, instead making it an option contingent on a Tory deal being voted down, and Labour not being able to secure an election.

By early 2019, Theresa May’s deal had been voted down and attempts to get an election had failed. Parliament was at an impasse and so a backbench initiative created the space for a range of indicative votes. Eagleton alleges Corbyn’s office was “duped into adopting various self-destructive positions – most notably, on the ‘indicative votes’ and the Kyle-Wilson amendment” – an amendment which suggested a public vote attached to May’s deal: to leave with that or remain in the EU.

This was in line with Party policy (whatever you think of it) and yet Eagleton claims: “Corbyn imposed a three-line whip in favour of the Kyle-Wilson proposal, writing a note to MPs which conceded that, although it was not official policy, they would be obliged to support it anyway.” I checked a PLP briefing from around that time – signed off between LOTO and Keir Starmer’s office. It stated, “In line with our conference policy, Labour is also announcing today that – if our Frontbench amendment does not win the support of the Commons this week – we will put forward or support an amendment in favour of a public vote in order to prevent a damaging Tory Brexit or a no deal outcome.”

It is true that some senior staff in LOTO did not like the Conference policy or its implementation through Commons whipping decisions. But given the Conference policy and the political make-up of the PLP then this fact should be a footnote. Instead it is elevated into a fantasised battle for the soul of Corbynism.

As part of this, Eagleton relays a strange tale of a Brexit subcommittee at which “the pro-PV shadow cabinet members voted through a motion to strengthen the commitment to a second referendum”, while Jeremy Corbyn was out of the room. No votes were ever taken at shadow cabinet subcommittees, and they would be especially illegitimate if the Leader had been absent.

Again, Eagleton unintentionally infantilises Corbyn – he was at different points “leaving the room in exasperation”, “duped”, “flipped”. Quite how this man, as portrayed, would have withstood as Prime Minister the full force of capitalist reaction to the mild social democracy he offered is anyone’s guess.

In reality, Corbyn’s steeliness had won two leadership contests, seen off a coup, withstood a barrage of abuse and smears that would have broken most people, and did so with his most loyal staff and allies alongside him. The man closest to him, John McDonnell, who chaired both his leadership campaigns, was apparently now attempting “to bring Corbyn with him on this journey towards the centre.”

The allegation that John McDonnell was on a journey to the centre is not explained. As shadow chancellor he was advocating mass public ownership, workers on boards, redistributive taxation, the restoration of trade union rights – and by 2019 in more radical ways than in 2017.

Still McDonnell is depicted as “having joined with Starmer in dedicating most of his energy to undermining an already embattled LOTO.” Other than by disagreeing with some LOTO staff, it is again not explained how. Corbyn, drawing on his long-held principles, sided with Conference policy.

One particularly nasty smear is reported: “Aware that [Corbyn’s Chief of Staff Karie]Murphy went to visit her ill mother in Glasgow every Friday, McDonnell rescheduled the next meeting between the delegations for a Friday afternoon.”  This would be awful, if true. But it’s not: it was me, not McDonnell, who was co-ordinating the meetings for Labour in agreement with Theresa May’a Chief of Staff Gavin Barwell for the Tories.

The meetings were scheduled around ministerial availability. I am happy to confirm that at no point did I reschedule a meeting to clash with Murphy’s visits to her mum. I personally always really liked Karie, to the chagrin of some other staff, but she played a key role in saving the Corbyn project when others wobbled. I doubt whoever briefed this nonsense to Eagleton did so with her blessing.

The talks were a bust, not because “McDonnell and Abbott pressured [Corbyn] to disengage immediately”, not because of exclusions of personnel from meetings, or even because of Starmer (though he may not have been keen on a deal) – but because, as Jeremy Corbyn himself told the House of Commons: “For over two years the Prime Minister bullishly refused to consult the public or Parliament. She did not seek compromise … And by the time she finally did, she had lost the authority to deliver.”

The contours of a potential deal were never in dispute. However, the Tories didn’t offer the concrete detail, and it wouldn’t have held even if they did – something that Barwell himself admits in his memoir, saying May’s “authority was eroded”, and “Labour were probably right that Theresa’s successor would have tried to wriggle out of any deal.”

Bizarrely, LOTO sources – not those present in the talks, it should be noted – tell Eagleton, “We had a deal – and it was our side that sabotaged it, not theirs” – a conspiracy that contradicts both Theresa May’s Chief of Staff and Jeremy Corbyn himself!

Eagleton cites someone as calling on Corbyn, “not to ‘betray the working class’ by capitulating” on Brexit. But Brexit votes were not cast across class lines. The working class of Liverpool, London, Manchester and Scotland had all voted heavily to remain. Every Tory shire county had voted to leave. Both the ruling class and the working class were split over Brexit – hence the divisions in the Tory Party too. Mythologising Brexit as a working-class vote is mistaken.

In September 2020, I wrote for OpenDemocracy, “The task for the Left is not to re-fight Brexit, or to further entrench the related ‘culture wars’. Instead, the Left should be seeking to unite people campaigning around the policies that proved popular, bringing people together whether they voted remain or leave.”

That’s still the task, and so it’s disappointing that this tawdry chapter would rather indulge in an ill-informed blame game and character assassination. It’s a disappointing diversion, but one that needs correcting before it divides the left even more – the last thing we need right now given the attacks we are under in Starmer’s Labour Party.

Andrew Fisher was Director of Policy of the Labour Party 2015-19

Image: Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell. Author: Rwendland, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

Subscribe to the blog for email notifications of new posts