This is the question circulating in the minds of virtually everybody on the left in British politics. How did we go from the heady days of the General Election of 2017 to the defeat of 2019 and the subsequent resignation of the most left wing leader the labour Party has ever had? Furthermore, how is it that after five years of being at the helm of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters have left so little behind either in policy, organisation or personnel terms?
Two recently published books attempt to provide an answer This Land by the Guardian columnist Owen Jones and Left Out by two journalists from the Times and Sunday Times. Owen Jones documents both the rise and subsequent fall of Jeremy Corbyn, whereas Gabriel Pogrund and Patrick Maguire merely deal with Corbyn’s fall. Jones conveys the euphoria mixed with bewilderment among both his supporters and enemies around Corbyn’s election as leader in 2015, and even more so during the 2017 election campaign.
The chapter entitled “How to run a Campaign” explains how Corbyn was the insurgent, challenging austerity and the neoliberal orthodoxy of the coalition government summed up in the slogan “For the Many not the Few”. In response to the bombings at the Manchester Arena he boldly acontested the dominant narrative by saying, “Many experts, including professionals in our intelligence and security services have pointed to the connections between wars our government has supported or fought in other countries and terrorism at home”. One poll taken soon after the speech showed 53 percent thought British foreign policy was partly responsible for terrorist attacks and just 24 percent thought it played no role, entirely against received wisdom.
The outcome of telling truth to power meant in the 2017 election Labour, as Jones states, starting from 24 points behind the Tories, reduced the deficit to a wafer-thin 2 points and experienced its biggest vote surge since 1945. Four thousand votes kept Corbyn out of Number 10. The well documented and unremitting hostility of staff at Labour HQ reached its height during the election. As Jones reports as the results came in one staffer said, “The people have spoken. Bastards.” However, after the triumph of 2017 both books converge in their analysis of how ‘The Project’ slumped. The enemies of the Corbyn were many and powerful.
They ranged from the media, the City and big business to the overwhelming majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party and much of the Labour HQ. Pogrund and Maguire describe it as “toxic, distrustful and openly mutinous”. What neither book explains was that this combination of enemy forces was exactly the same one resoundingly knocked back in 2017. Corbyn nearly won then because his was a grassroots campaign mobilising tens of thousands at rallies the length of Britain. That was almost entirely lacking in 2019. This was because the Corbyn camp believed they were a whisker away from power so unity of the party was paramount.
This not only ignored the lessons of the 2017 campaign but led to huge, and fatal, compromises. Most damaging was the issue of anti-Semitism. As we have consistently argued in these pages there anti-semitism where ever it appears is abhorant and must be opposed. But anti-semitism was a cover for the fact that Corbyn had long maintained a principled support of Palestinian freedom and Palestinian rights. If, in response, Corbyn had remained true to these long-held principles that would have substantially altered the political conversation.
Corbyn’s subsequent compromises in the name of unity, in particular over Brexit were the nails in his leadership’s coffin. Jones mentions the attacks over anti-Semitism, saying “the crisis led to months of media coverage, a prolonged drip feed that helped to fundamentally change the British public’s sense of Corbynism from something positive and hopeful to something poisonous and sinister.” However, in his concluding chapter there is no mention of Corbyn’s abandonment of his pro-Palestinian stance. It should also be remembered that the compromises Corbyn made are and were supported by Jones, both in his new book and in his articles for the Guardian. Jones also had called for Corbyn’s resignation following poor local election results three months before the 2017 election. It is difficult to exaggerate the shattering nature of the 2019 election defeat.
Corbyn won the leadership not once but twice yet now the Labour Left has probably never been weaker. Could it have been different? Owen Jones and Pogrund and Maguire think not, arguing, “JC lacked the experience or skillset of conventional leaders… his leadership sometimes directionless and rudderless.” I beg to differ. The grass-roots approach of the 2017 campaign needed to be expanded. There needed to be a monster demonstration in support of the NHS and restoration of all welfare cuts, calls by Corbyn and Labour for militant resistance to the closure of Fords Bridgend and Scunthorpe Steel works, both of which were announced months before the 2019 general election.
The inspiring protests of school students and XR Rebellion should have become a rallying cry. Anti-racism, standing up to Islamophobia and anti-Semitism, and support for refugees should have been backed wholeheartedly by the shadow cabinet. Those steps would have been the basis for an insurgent confident and strident campaign that could have mobilised hundreds of thousands. Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, neither Jones from the Guardian nor Pogrum and Maguire from the Times even begin to contemplate such an alternative approach.
This Land: the Story of a Movement, Owen Jones, Allen Lane, £20 Left Out: The Inside Story of Labour under Corbyn, Gabriel Pogrund and Patrick Maguire, Jeremy Corbyn £18.99