A reply to Andrew Fisher

Oliver Eagleton responds to Andrew Fisher’s criticism of his book, which appeared recently on Labour Hub

I’m grateful to Andrew Fisher for his engagement with The Starmer Project. His basic argument, that the British left should unite around the popular parts of the Corbyn programme, rather than descend into recriminations over who was responsible for its collapse, deserves serious consideration. This is framed as a corrective to what he sees as my book’s “side project to sow division” by criticising those at the top of the party – including Fisher himself – who advocated supporting a second EU referendum.

It is indeed worth debating whether a retrospective critique of Labour’s pro-Remain faction amounts to a futile “blame game”, or whether it is a constructive attempt to learn the lessons from Corbynism’s defeat. But rather than reflecting on this question at length, the bulk of Fisher’s review is dedicated to setting out four empirical quibbles with my Brexit chapter. It is worth addressing these in turn, since clearing up such uncertainties may help to reorient our discussion towards more pressing matters: how to salvage Corbyn’s legacy in the hostile conditions created by the present leadership.

First, my book describes how, the summer before the 2018 Labour conference, Starmer was asked by Corbyn’s office to consult with the general secretaries of the major trade unions, and ensure that they would submit Conference motions that reflected LOTO’s Brexit position. Yet, I argue, Starmer was reluctant to carry out this task, because he himself was sceptical of that position – and because he was aware, before key figures in the leader’s office, that the TSSA and GMB were swinging in favour of a second referendum.

Fisher doubts that Starmer had such advance knowledge – because, he claims, the unions’ positions were “reported in the national media” and plain for all to see. But these reports appeared in September 2018: that is to say, after Starmer’s tour of the general secretaries, not before. Fisher’s exoneration of Starmer is thus based on a confusion of the chronology.

Second, Fisher challenges the suggestion that the Kyle-Wilson amendment – to hold a public vote on Theresa May’s Brexit deal – was against official Labour policy. Here, The Starmer Project’s narrative is fairly straightforward. Labour had pledged to support a public vote in which the electorate could decide between a ‘credible’ Leave deal and remaining in the EU. For opponents of Kyle-Wilson, this meant that the amendment was out of line, since May’s deal could not be considered credible after it had been consistently voted down by Parliament. Multiple shadow cabinet members told me that Corbyn acknowledged as much to them.

However, Fisher points out that a PLP briefing signed between LOTO and Starmer’s office said precisely the opposite, describing Kyle-Wilson as “in line with our conference policy”. In Fisher’s article, this statement is taken to mean that Kyle-Wilson was universally seen as a faithful reflection of the Conference position. In reality, though, its legitimacy was fiercely contested – and LOTO only adopted it with great reluctance, in the mistaken belief that it would bring an end to the Brexit deadlock.

Third, Fisher questions my account of a February 2019 Brexit subcommittee meeting in which the assembled shadow ministers agreed, while Corbyn was out of the room, to strengthen the Party’s commitment to a second referendum. He asserts that such a decision could not have been taken at the Brexit subcommittee, especially without the leader’s approval. Fisher is of course right that shadow cabinet subcommittees do not hold binding votes with the power to change official policy. But the book makes no such claim. It merely relays the testimonies of those present, who said that a majority of shadow ministers signalled their agreement with a pro-second referendum proposal – and that this helped to push LOTO towards the People’s Vote position. Corbyn’s absence was hardly normal, but it indicates the chaotic atmosphere that had developed by this time.

Finally, Fisher dismisses the report that John McDonnell rescheduled negotiations between the government and opposition – over a possible cross-party Brexit deal – in order to exclude Karie Murphy. This is a charge that features in Gabriel Pogrund and Patrick Maguire’s account of the Corbyn period, and it was the perception of several people closely involved with the process. Yet even if, as Fisher claims, it was he and not McDonnell who arranged the meeting, the latter’s desire to side-line Murphy from the Brexit process has been extensively documented. The two were at odds over whether to strike a deal with the Tories, and McDonnell played a decisive role in her subsequent ousting from LOTO. It was therefore not unreasonable for those involved in the talks to read such motives into her exclusion.

Indeed, the entirety of Fisher’s piece downplays the importance of the factional struggle within the shadow cabinet by claiming that the second referendum policy was democratically decided at the 2018 party conference. In fact, a public vote merely put on the table – as one option among others – by the Labour membership. It was the manoeuvring of aides and politicians over the following year that ensured it was ultimately adopted.

When reconstructing the complex details of Labour’s Brexit policy shift, accuracy is vital – and I’m glad that Fisher’s review has given me the opportunity to clarify some of these points. But a closer examination of his criticisms shows that they are both factually wide of the mark, and too narrow to capture important strategic questions about the Corbyn period. For instance, in discussing the wording of the Kyle-Wilson briefing note, Fisher ignores the policy’s concrete significance for the Party – as a means by which Starmer’s faction legitimized their second referendum position. Likewise, in disputing whether McDonnell had a hand in scheduling certain meetings, Fisher does not consider the shadow chancellor’s broader political trajectory – away from Corbyn’s inner circle, towards the People’s Vote campaign.

By raising such issues in my book, I was not trying to be needlessly divisive. I was trying to assess the divisions that inflected the Corbyn project, in the hope of overcoming them. 

Oliver Eagleton is the author of The Starmer Project, published by Verso.

Image: Source: Revealing Brexit documents. Author: Jeremy Corbyn,  licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

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