Politics, Max Weber wrote, is a ‘slow, strong drilling through hard boards, with a combination of passion and a sense of judgment’. The maxim, from his lecture ‘Politics as a Vocation’, is now usually deployed to chide a left impatient for social transformation, but Weber’s account of political leadership deserves more than this. He has acute things to say about the tragedy entwined in all political action and about the ‘diabolical powers’ intrinsic to politics, which may warp a leader beyond recognition. He is sharp too on the subject of vanity, a cardinal sin in a politician, and its dependent disorders, lack of responsibility and lack of objectivity. Weber’s is a prescription for heroes; I wonder if any politician could meet it.
Weber scorns any politics, and any attempt at political leadership, that is not grounded in an undimmable passion. Such a passion animated what supporters of Jeremy Corbyn referred to as ‘the project’. To its adherents, the project promised the rehabilitation and rejuvenation of socialism in British politics; reform of the Labour Party’s moribund internal democracy; the building of a mass social movement to bring the party out of Westminster and into people’s lives; and the pursuit of a popular left-wing politics fit for the modern world, as alive to the threat of climate change as it was intent on reversing socio-economic precarity and the evaporation of workers’ rights. To its detractors this was just utopian grandiloquence; to wiser Corbyn-sceptics it was at least a sign of an emerging political realignment which would weaken the purchase of both the Blairite Third Way and Cameron’s bloodless Notting Hill Toryism.
The chief priorities of Corbyn’s Labour Party were neatly captured in two speeches made by John McDonnell, his shadow chancellor and often the project’s most eloquent spokesman. In 2016 he declared that Labour members would ‘no longer have to whisper’ the word ‘socialism’: the party would no longer be ashamed of its values. And in the dying days of the 2019 election campaign, he outlined a new social settlement with ‘foundations so deeply rooted that no Tory could ever tear them up’. As McDonnell delivered that speech he must have known that Labour wasn’t going to be elected. It was a missive to posterity: the project was collapsing beneath his feet.
Broad scope and lofty ambitions can conceal ambiguities and faultlines. Was the goal of the project primarily to wind the clock back, to undo the changes Kinnock and Blair had wrought within the party, and Thatcher in the country as a whole, by returning the trade unions to a central position in Labour and chasing a romanticised version of the postwar settlement? Or was it to bring the post-2008, post-austerity generation which had been so enthused by Corbyn into formal, institutional politics? Could the two ambitions be bridged? Why was it important to change the party’s structure, and how could it happen? Was it intended to put decision-making power back into the hands of union leaders or give it to individual members? How could the middle layers of the party – permanent staff and MPs – be brought on side? When talking about ‘the project’, who was included? Corbyn and his staff and advisers in Westminster, or the wider circle of activists and party members, or supporters in the country generally? During the last 18 months of his leadership, Corbyn himself, the one man who had sufficient power to impose clarity on any of these questions, seemed barely involved.
Left Out and This Land are both written by political journalists, the former by two well-placed Whitehall reporters and the latter by the most prominent left-wing commentator in Britain, a Corbyn insider. Gabriel Pogrund and Patrick Maguire have assembled their book from an impressive array of interviews with key members of Corbyn’s team, as well as with others implacably opposed to his leadership. Where they primarily document the project’s disintegration between the 2017 and 2019 elections, Owen Jones describes the emergence of Corbynism from the exhausted managerialism of late New Labour, gives a defence of its politics and examines its weaknesses. Both books will be painful and often infuriating reading for anyone who was at all sympathetic to these politics, but Jones has the harder task: to assess the failure of a project he championed, in which he was a significant player, and which depended on the work and was damaged by the flaws of people he is close to. Jones can rarely have felt so personally implicated in a piece of writing. He doesn’t shy away from self-examination: his relationships with the key actors are made clear, as are his ethical dilemmas as a journalist, trying to maintain both political commitment and critical independence. It is a far more honest account of those difficulties than is ever given by journalists of the political centre, or the right.
Jones is also seeking to salvage something from the collapse of Corbynism. That is presumably the point of his subtitle – ‘the story of a movement’ – and of his attempt at the beginning of the book to situate Corbynism in relation to the enduring crisis of European social democratic parties and, especially, to the history of UK protest movements – graduates from which initially gave Corbynism much of its fresh and irreverent energy. Corbynism’s connection to protest underlines a perennial problem for the left: extra-parliamentary movements often hit their limits when they try to bring about systemic change, but the transition to formal politics brings a different set of problems. For many younger supporters, Corbyn’s run for the leadership in 2015 was their first glimpse of the power of political parties to reach an entire country in ways protest simply cannot match. But the many thousands who were attracted into the party by Corbyn have always seemed a lost resource: neither the party nor Momentum, the organisation set up to mobilise them, ever seemed inclined to explore why they had joined or what their priorities were. They disappear from these books, too, as soon as the story at the top of the party starts in earnest. The circle of ‘the project’ shrinks.
This is not in itself a flaw. Both books are effectively court histories. Pogrund and Maguire write about Labour in Westminster; Jones writes about the left wing of the party, and provides a richer account of its ideological and political quandaries. Court histories are always useful, not least because they allow foot soldiers to find out how the generals behaved in private. As the cliché goes, they are history’s first draft: they determine the way the subject will be written about until, eventually, a revisionist takes up the task. (The gradual shift in our understanding of one of Britain’s most politically contentious decades – the 1970s – is an example of this process.) Jones is obviously motivated as much by a belief that the left should try to shape the narrative as that it should try to learn lessons from its period in power. It is wise to read both books with a sceptical eye: for those involved, the temptation to regard one’s past self with the wisdom of hindsight, to burnish one’s choices or disown them, must be overwhelming. (It is commendable that so many of Corbyn’s senior aides chose to speak on the record, seemingly with candour.) For court historians it must be tempting to play Procopius, revealing a secret history of political vice and personal flaws. Sometimes Left Out overreaches in this respect – repeated references to Tom Watson’s weight as an index of his appetite for controversy fail to convince. Jones, in his chapters on Brexit, and especially on antisemitism, moves in the other direction: in attempting to do scrupulous justice to his interviewees, he sometimes leaves us unclear whom to believe – but then Procopius didn’t have to worry about defamation suits.
Neither book offers an extended reflection on the power of the press. It’s possible that Jones omitted this because moaning about the right-wing media is a preoccupation on the left. But there are moments in Pogrund and Maguire’s book that seem to beg an exploration of press power: for example, their discussion of the anti-Corbynite journalist Tom McTague, who in 2017 uncovered evidence that Labour staff were running their own election operation in defiance of the leadership. They implored him not to publish and he kept their secret; the story only recently came to light. All journalists decide what secrets to keep, but few acknowledge the power they exercise in doing so. Without accounting for press power, and the active choices made by journalists, the mood of paranoia and bitterness which came to prevail in Corbyn’s office is quite difficult to explain.
It is an intellectual vice on the left to think that because the world is best understood in terms of the operation of broad structural forces, personal qualities are less important. With regard to political leadership, the past five years have tested that thesis to destruction. A leader’s first qualification must be that they should want to lead. Though Corbyn apparently bridled at McDonnell’s often repeated suggestion that he stood for the leadership simply because it was ‘his turn’, his first words to one confidant after squeezing onto the ballot were: ‘You better make fucking sure I don’t get elected.’ Perhaps the surprise rush of popular support made him warm to the role. But the ambivalence never went away, and with it came intransigence, obstinacy and an aversion to making decisions, especially difficult decisions involving confrontation – which means nearly all leadership decisions. In the latter half of both books Corbyn is increasingly absent, and his decisions, when he does make them, are Delphic. He sometimes seems irritated by having responsibility for matters that don’t interest him, even though, as his policy architect Andrew Fisher observes, ‘if you’re the leader you have to lead on everything, not just the things you care about.’
Corbyn’s reluctance to compromise on political matters can be overstated: political realism led him to jettison his long-held republicanism, though the tabloids spun a few scandals out of his residual discomfort. More substantively, he compromised on his opposition to the renewal of Trident partly out of recognition that the balance of opinion in the party was against him, but also because of a desire to waylay damaging national security stories. These outbreaks of pragmatism were rare, and often accompanied by small reassertions of autonomy, as when he slipped away from his protection officers, or made public appearances in a less-than-slick green suit his media handlers had banned him from wearing. Eventually, his capacity for compromise on principle – however small – seemed to vanish. The contrast with McDonnell, made in both books, is instructive: his only question for potential allies was ‘Will you help us win power?’ This sometimes led him to form improbable alliances, doubtless in desperation, but the question doesn’t seem to have occurred to Corbyn at all.
Political leadership magnifies personal faults so remorselessly that it can be easy to forget the virtues that won Corbyn the role in the first place. Running against a field of mediocrities fluent in non-committal soundbites, he showed an impressive ability to speak off the cuff with piercing clarity on the consequences of austerity. His ease around ordinary people and his avuncular scruffiness chimed with an anti-establishment mood. But support for him was never purely or even largely personal. His success was founded on his willingness to speak honestly about the problems the country faced, its manifold daily injustices, its government’s addiction to cruelty and humiliation – and his promise to change all this. That his rivals for the leadership were unable or unwilling to do the same was their fault, not his.
Having risen to the top of the Labour Party largely by being himself, Corbyn perhaps saw little reason to change. Sympathetic commentators in the early period used to cite a new, more consensual style of leadership, but what they were describing was a hope rather than a reality. Even at its most functional, Corbyn’s office was chaotic. Karie Murphy, to whom Corbyn eventually outsourced much of his decision-making, is said by one staffer to have declared: ‘This is a left-wing collective. There’s no one leader.’ Murphy insists that she never exceeded Corbyn’s intentions – others are less sure – but by failing to lead, Corbyn allowed the clashes and resentments to be expected even in the best-run political team to become fatal.
This wasn’t all his fault. If the reader ends up with the impression that the leader’s office hired on the basis of loyalty rather than competence, it is hard to imagine how it could have been otherwise. The description in Left Out of the party’s permanent staff as ‘toxic, distrustful and openly mutinous’ is if anything an understatement: effectively a network of Blairite leftovers, they seem to have regarded the party’s leadership and members, most of its MPs and the concept of democracy itself as impediments to their rightful rule. They worked assiduously to undermine the project. Both books are studies in the titanic vanity of politicians, from the leader’s office’s ill-fated attempts to engineer a Corbynite Glastonbury, to Gavin Shuker’s tortured comparison of his decision to leave the Labour Party to the Project Gemini spaceflight programme, to every appearance by the ‘glutinous’ Chuka Umunna. There is a darker side to this: both books describe the way the PLP’s regular Monday meetings often descended into screaming abuse from anti-Corbyn MPs, partly for the benefit of the journalists crouching at the door; it is hard to disagree with Diane Abbott’s verdict that the intention was to ‘break [Corbyn] as a man’. The abuse wasn’t directed only at him: staffers could expect similar treatment in the corridors, Corbynite MPs from their putative colleagues in the Commons, often from those fond of preaching about civility in the press. The most fatuous of the irreconcilables, Bermondsey’s Neil Coyle, took to bombarding Corbyn’s phone with late-night screeds. Andy McDonald, who served in the shadow cabinet, observes that such behaviour ‘would not be tolerated in normal workplaces’, and it was exceptional even in the fractious world of British politics. The party’s new leader agrees that this was a low point: shortly after Keir Starmer came to office he announced a drive to fix Labour’s internal culture, though its misfiring launch suggests something of the difficulty. Nita Clarke, whom he appointed to oversee the process, was revealed as an enthusiastic digital partisan of the party’s right and was gone within 24 hours.
Few of these stories are entirely new or surprising, but gathered in one place they soon become overwhelming. Anyone should be able to appreciate Corbyn’s resilience, but even his most admiring comrades will have to admit that the serious defects of his leadership cannot be explained away by talk of a hostile press and party. Serious conversations about strategy were avoided; advisers injected their own political obsessions into press releases or undermined collective decisions; Corbyn vanished at key points. Seumas Milne, appointed as a loyal and politically sympathetic figure to guide the communications strategy, was so obviously in the wrong job that it is all but impossible to understand how he remained in place after botching the response to the Skripal poisoning in 2018. Activists who spent the first half of December last year trudging from door to door in the cold may find it hard to stomach Milne’s airy response to a new staff member who asked to see the election strategy: ‘We don’t write it all down, it’s all too fluid, we have to deal with politics as it is each day.’ In his rare interventions, Corbyn was fond of invoking moral responsibility: ‘Members do not sweat night and day’ to see the party damaged by leaks, he declared in one email. Did they not also deserve competence and decisiveness at the top?
Objectivity and responsibility – the qualities demanded by Weber – were rarely on show in Corbyn’s office; he was usually unable to make a ruthless distinction between what could reasonably be kept and what had to be given up. Successful politicians have to be opportunists: in ‘Politics as a Vocation’, Weber writes that the political sphere has its own rules, which cannot be remade by sheer will. All the same, Corbyn’s popular touch did remake and expand what was understood to be possible in British politics. During his last party conference, even as his leadership was crashing, a restaurant in which he was eating had to close its kitchen because its staff demanded a group picture with him. Popular affection of this sort cannot be created out of thin air, and his successor may well miss it.
Milne often exhibited the intellectual’s clumsy grasp of practical politics, but he could occasionally see things others missed. He responded to the general election exit poll in 2017 – showing that Labour had surged, costing Theresa May her majority – not with elation but with despair: ‘It’s too soon,’ he muttered to himself, head in hands. Perhaps he only meant that if the campaign had lasted a few more days, Corbyn might have been walking into Number Ten. What’s more likely is that he understood this would be the project’s high-water mark. The 2017 election remains an awkward reminder for the right, and a totem for the left. Of the two elections held during Corbyn’s leadership it is the more interesting, because it demonstrates that Labour can win a significant section of the electorate with a manifesto well to the left of what detractors deemed plausible. May was a weak opponent, but she was still able to bring the Conservative vote-share to unexpected heights; the 2017 election is not just a story of Conservative weakness.
Milne’s pessimism wasn’t widely shared. Many in the Corbyn camp took the election result as a vindication of their political analysis – in which austerity and its consequences were central – and of their volunteer-heavy combination of populist messaging and face to face contact. This led to a subtle shift in the project’s ambitions. When Corbyn won the leadership, few even in his core team expected him to lead Labour into the next election, then slated for 2020. When he was pressed not to vote for Corbyn as leader in 2015, Clive Lewis replied: ‘It’ll be about democratising the party, handing power back to the membership and opposing austerity: why wouldn’t I back it?’ Once these goals were achieved, many expected Corbyn would sub in a more conventional politician, firmly of the left, to lead the reformed party into power. But with May’s majority shattered and the government unstable, the project expected opportunity to follow opportunity. The party, McDonnell announced, would now be on a ‘permanent general election footing’.
It wasn’t an implausible reading. When the country woke to the horror of the Grenfell fire a few weeks later, it seemed to encapsulate many of the issues Labour had campaigned on: the country’s deep inequalities; its disregard for the lives of its poor or black citizens; the catastrophic results of the Tory privatisation revolution. May’s inhuman response only strengthened the sense that things were moving in Corbyn’s direction. But Grenfell soon disappeared from the headlines, and the press turned its attention back to the familiar drama of Brexit. Milne dismissed those concerned with Brexit as engaged in an unserious ‘culture war’. But one does not always get to choose which war to fight.
In the wake of Labour’s defeat a year ago, some fantasised – with the benefit of hindsight – about what might have been if Corbyn had handed over the reins after 2017. Yet there were few plausible successors on the party’s left. An anxiety that surfaces occasionally in This Land concerns the party’s generational politics: its parliamentary wing is still dominated by the dregs of New Labour, and the fear must be that the left will repeat its mistake of the late 1980s and retreat to the political margins. That the continued dominance of New Labour thinking both laid the ground for Corbynism and choked off parliamentary support for it is an irony Jones never quite identifies, but which runs through his analysis.
Corbyn recognised the problem, as did younger MPs on the left such as Lewis. The obvious solution was to reform the party machinery to enable an infusion of new parliamentary candidates. It might seem odd that a leadership which had just defied all predictions and enjoyed an electoral surge should devote itself to party reform. For their Blairite critics, it was proof of the project’s fundamental unseriousness – though Blair enthusiastically remade the party in his own image prior to 1997, and the ferocity with which staffers at Labour HQ resisted Corbyn proves that control of the party matters to every faction. To control the party is to have the power to change the country. But for the project – showing its Bennite inheritance here – it went beyond that. Democratising the party and empowering its members would – so the logic ran – produce inspiring candidates of the left, ending the factional horse-trading that encourages the selection of mediocre MPs. It would also bring the membership closer to the communities it nominally represents. By these means, reform would guarantee the power of the left in the party even after Corbyn.
This was the thinking that informed the Democracy Review undertaken by Corbyn’s political secretary, Katy Clark, a former MP; it also inspired the drive in 2018, heavily promoted by Momentum, to introduce ‘open selection’ for MPs, making it easier to challenge incumbents. (MPs on the party’s right were eager to paint this as bullying, but this level of accountability already applies to Labour councillors, and is established in the SNP, Liberal Democrats and Greens. Few would claim it has transformed Labour councils into mini-Soviets.) Neither book remarks on the centripetal force Westminster exerts on grassroots organisations in the Labour Party; founded with grand ambitions to build a social movement, Momentum was often reduced to playing the role of factional battering ram, mobilising its huge email list to vote for its slate in internal elections and doing little else. It wasn’t enough: Clark’s review and the open selection motion were gutted at the 2018 conference.
That defeat isn’t much discussed here: in both books, 2018 is crucial because it was then that the turn to an anti-Brexit position inside the shadow cabinet began. (The story of Starmer’s ascent begins in earnest here too.) But the conference defeat was the more serious turning point: with conservative reforms to selection processes leaving incumbents with the advantage, there were not going to be many new Corbynist MPs. No successful challenge to a sitting MP was mounted ahead of the 2019 election. This was the moment the project started to die.
The role of the membership in a left-wing party is more vexed than is sometimes admitted. The party’s executive wing has always distrusted the membership – Sidney Webb referred to ‘groups of nonentities, dominated by fanatics and cranks and extremists’. Many in the trade unions are wary of the urban, middle-class skew to the membership, especially the active membership, and are jealous of their own remaining power. The historical solution to this difficulty was to give formal sovereignty to party conference, expressed through a carefully constrained membership vote, and effective autonomy to the parliamentary party – a mirror image of the split between the dignified and efficient parts of the British constitution. Critics of this system argue that it chokes off fresh talent and new ideas, while failing to provide an effective check on MPs or the leadership. But those wary of the biases of an empowered membership can find ample support for their view by considering one of the political disasters that proved most damaging to Corbyn’s Labour Party: Brexit.
‘The army is crumbling,’ McDonnell said when the Unite leader, Len McCluskey, pressed him on his growing receptiveness to a second referendum on Brexit. McCluskey was sceptical: he’d heard rumbles of discontent in the party’s northern heartlands. His allies in the leader’s office believed that McDonnell’s head had been turned by lobbying from the deeply anti-Corbyn People’s Vote campaign; it is more likely that he changed his mind in light of polling showing Labour haemorrhaging votes to Remain parties, and because of widespread disenchantment among party activists. In his view, no party could win an election without its foot soldiers; in McCluskey’s, the move would alienate voters in the Red Wall constituencies which had been slipping away from the party for decades. Both of them were right. Jones suggests that Brexit was an unwinnable conundrum for Labour, with every route leading to catastrophe.
In the aftermath of the 2019 election defeat, Brexit policy became the object of just-so fantasies and excuses on every wing of the party, from those who claimed the promise of Lexit autarky would have swept the country to those who believed the country which elected Boris Johnson had secretly longed for a champion of faceless technocracy. All this was as much about self-exculpation as it was a means of striking at familiar targets – Blairites, Trots, Stalinists. There is no doubt that Corbyn’s standing was damaged in some quarters by appearing to condone a drive to overturn a democratic exercise, in others by an apparently puzzling refusal to push back at the disaster being engineered by the Tories. Retreating behind an increasingly baroque attempt to defer the question may have kept an uneasy peace in the party, but it prompted disbelief in a country rapidly evacuating the centre ground.
Staffers interviewed in both books wonder if a clearer position after 2017 – accepting the referendum result, acknowledging the membership’s unease, backing a soft Brexit – might have yielded a way forward. Jones even sketches out what such a position might have looked like. But it’s easy to forget that the government really did seem to be splitting apart, and Labour MPs’ truculent consent to the post-2017 Corbyn hegemony would not have held had he looked like rescuing the Tories from their own mess. It’s noticeable that the issue missing from Jones’s sketch of a Labour position on Brexit is the one that was most perilous: immigration. At one point, a baffled Philip Hammond asked why Labour expected the government to retain freedom of movement as part of a Brexit deal. After all, he said, ending free movement is ‘what Brexit means’.
At least McCluskey and McDonnell were trying to face up to the facts on the ground. Corbyn, Pogrund and Maguire note, was ‘not a politician built for the Brexit age’, having far less interest in constitutional politics than his supposed Bennism would suggest; his boredom with the detail was obvious. The strategic ambiguity pursued by his team was a reflection of that boredom, and of a hope that by trying to talk about what they saw as motivating the Brexit vote – issues that were more comfortable and familiar for the party – they could move the public conversation back to austerity and injustice. Instead, the party often sounded irrelevant.
For many, the most miserable reading in these books, which were published before the release of the Equalities and Human Rights Commission’s investigation into the Labour Party in November, will be the chapters on the antisemitism crisis. Left Out tracks the failure to deal with successive waves of the crisis in painful detail; This Land attempts to think through the failure of the leadership and the wider left to confront the issue, but also underscores the cynical uses to which it was put by the party’s right. Jones’s account tends to the schematic, touching briefly on the increasing circulation of antisemitic ideas in British society, its distinctive historical form on the left as the ‘socialism of fools’, the political evolution of Israel since 1948 and its varying but near universal significance for British Jews. There are some gaps: any of the Israeli New Historians, even the most conservative, would raise an eyebrow at the absence of any account of pre-1967 violence, and the question of whether ‘settler-colonial’ is a useful label deserves greater exploration – but Jones has made a serious attempt to understand the left’s weaknesses as something other than the fault of the party’s right. His account is an improvement on the defensive response that the public’s perception of the problem with antisemitism in Labour was distorted, or that positive changes were made to disciplinary procedures after they were taken out of the hands of anti-Corbyn party staff. The antisemitism crisis cannot be explained away, and the statement by Momentum’s founder, Jon Lansman, that he felt ‘used as a Jew’ to defend the party, but was left without support afterwards, should be a source of shame.
Pogrund and Maguire chronicle the repeated attempts to head off disaster in the early phases of the crisis. Not every proposal seems plausible – it is hard to imagine Corbyn visiting Jerusalem, or risking a visit to a school full of unpredictable teenagers – but the failure to act on any of them is inexcusable. Jones narrates the wretched launch of Shami Chakrabarti’s first inquiry into antisemitism in 2016, when Corbyn seemed to his critics to equate Israel and Islamic State, thus creating a row that overshadowed its findings (themselves subsequently sidelined). A missed opportunity to give a speech at the Jewish Museum and the failure to pursue offers from pro-Corbyn Jewish intellectuals to ghostwrite or consult, seem negligent at best. The removal of any apology from Corbyn’s initial statement seeking to explain his approving Facebook comment on a mural featuring an antisemitic caricature was, in the words of Corbyn’s aide Laura Murray, ‘fucking stupid and tone-deaf’.
Part of the problem (again) was Corbyn’s obvious chafing against the requirements of party leadership, which now included engaging with strands of Jewish opinion he found uncongenial. Progress on the issue was continually blocked, not least because some of Corbyn’s long-standing allies on the anti-Zionist Jewish left – many of them his constituents – would persuade him that he didn’t really need to change anything. The issue was personal, too: friends testify that Corbyn – proud of decades of anti-racist activism inside and beyond the Labour Party – was deeply hurt by the attacks on him, especially when they came from newspapers with flagrant histories of racism. This is understandable, but it shows a degree of vanity a political leader can ill afford in a crisis.
The EHRC’s statutory inquiry into Labour is a sober, conservative and often lawyerly examination of the problem. It finds Labour responsible for three breaches of equality law, including indirect discrimination against Jews and harassment of Jews by party agents. It draws particular attention to political interference in the complaints process. Its recommendations – the central one is the establishment of an independent complaints process for antisemitism – were universally welcomed across the party. For a few hours it seemed as if a line had been drawn under the saga. Then Corbyn released a statement welcoming the recommendations, but insisting that the scale of antisemitism in the party had been ‘dramatically overstated for political reasons’ by the press and ‘our opponents inside and outside the party’. The party immediately suspended him. The move seems to have taken even Corbyn’s enemies by surprise; the left in the party was thrown into disarray. All sides fear a descent into another protracted civil war.
Perhaps that fear played on the minds of the NEC panel, composed of members from the party’s left and right, which unanimously reinstated Corbyn, after he had made a second, more acceptable statement, on 17 November. This episode has pleased precisely nobody: much of the party’s left adduced it as evidence of the new leadership’s intention to push them out of the party, while the failure to expel Corbyn has enraged those on the right who eagerly anticipated his removal. At the time of writing, though Starmer has readmitted Corbyn to the party, he has not restored the whip. This represents a truce, but like most truces it is uneasy, unstable and temporary.
Corbyn was not suspended on the recommendation of the EHRC; it has been made clear his initial statement on the report was the problem. But it remains unclear whether the party suspended Corbyn because it believed his statement to be antisemitic, or on the more general ground that he had brought the party into disrepute. If the former, then questions follow about why the party is dealing with the matter through a process just declared unfit for purpose by the EHRC. Some have suggested that even to mention media coverage or public perception in this context is to minimise antisemitism, but the report itself is careful to underline party members’ rights to freedom of opinion, discussion and dissent when it comes to considering the scale of antisemitism in the party. Critics of Corbyn’s position point to the report’s treatment of cases in which the minimisation of antisemitism is taken to constitute harassment (it is this aspect of Ken Livingstone’s behaviour, as part of his defence of remarks made by Naz Shah MP, on which the report dwells, rather than his more obviously offensive remarks about Hitler). As the socialist lawyer and writer David Renton points out, the Equalities Act sets a bar here: judges must consider not only the feeling of offence but whether that feeling is objectively reasonable.
Corbyn’s comment was not a denial that antisemitism exists within the party, but a claim that its prevalence has been overstated, and that the overstatement itself has had harmful effects and was employed for political ends. That is certainly an arguable claim, but – like the arguments against it – it is legitimate political speech. One might think his initial statement tin-eared, or that it wasn’t sufficiently reflective, or that it repeated his tic of mentioning antisemitism along with ‘other forms of racism’ as if it weren’t serious enough on its own terms, or did not take specific forms disanalogous to other racisms. But none of that can possibly justify Corbyn’s suspension, still less the suspension of members discussing it in their constituency parties.
If, as looks likely, the EHRC report itself is occluded by the controversy, it will be another missed opportunity. It offers a chance to think about the way antisemitism enters politics, and how to prevent its growth. A functional, trusted and interference-free disciplinary process is a necessary foundation, but isn’t in itself sufficient. The origins of antisemitism are not bureaucratic but political. The authors note the digital and social origin of many of the cases they reviewed: likes on social media, shared posts, status updates. It is possible to join the Labour Party – and loudly proclaim your membership – entirely digitally, without making any direct contact with the rest of the party, or having any opportunity for political education. Labour has, in any case, rarely taken the political education of its officials, let alone its members, as seriously as it should. Ceding the digital space to the conspiracy theorists populating Facebook groups risks letting a problem grow unseen. This is a challenge for political culture as a whole, whatever specific relevance it has for Labour. A perfect disciplinary process might catch every instance of offensive behaviour: a better strategy would seek to prevent them occurring in the first place.
The 2019 election occupies only a small portion of these books: although rumours occasionally escaped the office, few of those going door to door realised that Corbyn’s team had broken down, riven by Brexit, antisemitism and questions of basic strategy. In time, perhaps some of the details will come to seem bleakly comic: the treatment of the party’s communications ‘grid’ as a secret equivalent to the nuclear codes, kept even from high-ranking staff, is particularly farcical. In retrospect, the internal collapse of the project was nowhere more obvious than in the party’s policy conveyor belt: increasingly aware, in the words of the polling consultant Marcus Roberts, that ‘the soufflé wouldn’t rise twice,’ they attempted to replace organic enthusiasm with a blitzkrieg of pledges. It is a lesson that political tides cannot be generated – they can only be ridden.
The left’s control over the party and membership ebbed rapidly after the election; it was always more fragile than political commentators made out. Now the generational problem that worries Jones became plain: potential successors were too new to Parliament or too old, and the project was too divided to give Rebecca Long-Bailey, its eventual candidate, much of a push. It goes politely unremarked in both these books, but the lack of succession planning – either for a standard-bearer in Parliament, or for the left within the party – is puzzling.
Anyone looking for insight into Starmer, whose victory in the succession race was obvious months before it concluded, will come away with very little. Though he was once billed as an arch-Remainer, his affection for the EU seems to have been largely strategic; it has disappeared in office. His ten pledges – promises to maintain the core of Corbynite economic and social policy – have fared better so far, though there is reason to be sceptical of their durability. Until Corbyn’s suspension, the Thermidor many on the party’s left feared had not transpired: even now, the leader’s office would prefer to avoid factional conflict (which may account for the panicked reaction to its resurgence). The left remains in disarray: some have taken to mimicking the Blairite irreconcilables of Corbyn’s tenure, sniping from the sidelines in what is sometimes obvious bad faith; others have been reborn as unconvincing Starmerites, or taken vows of silence; others still have abandoned the party for the political margins – or simply to get some peace.
Of the goals envisioned by Clive Lewis – democratisation, empowerment of the membership, anti-austerity politics – only the last seems to have been accomplished. The centre of gravity in British politics and in the Labour Party has shifted to the left: how long this will last in the post-Covid economic turbulence is difficult to assess. McDonnell, who emerges in both books as the most serious and determined politician in the Corbyn circle, is largely responsible for that shift. He was willing to make the necessary compromises, the cold assessments of what should be kept and what sacrificed: it is hard not to wonder, along with Jones, whether he isn’t the Labour left’s ‘lost leader’. At times in both books he seems to be holding the project together with his bare hands. It is a reminder that the alchemy of high office is unpredictable: one Labour grandee, backstage at party conference a few years ago, remarked on the astonishing transformation of ‘the world’s most sectarian man’, exhorting the rest of the left to follow McDonnell’s example.
Left Out ends with the Corbynites out in the cold. Jones, by contrast, concludes with a defence of the project’s politics. Peter Mandelson, a sepulchral voice of Blairism, reads him the chargesheet: Corbynism failed, and its failures were congenital, not contingent; the damage done to the party was immense. A more self-aware critic might have admitted his own part in creating these problems, some of which preceded Corbyn and have outlasted him. But Jones’s defence is more interesting, as he attempts to rescue Corbynism’s domestic programme, shorn of its international commitments, as a new common sense on the left, and the only possible response to this century’s political and ecological crises.
Corbyn would no doubt argue that his domestic and international commitments are of a piece, but Jones is making a brutal assessment, of the sort too often lacking in the past few years, of what is possible. This Land and Left Out are accounts of failure in political leadership, a failure compounded by the left’s uncertainty about what constitutes good leadership. We might be sceptical of Weber’s fascination with the heroism of individual leaders, but his real scorn was reserved for those who believe in nothing, or treat compromise as an end in itself. ‘What is possible,’ he wrote, ‘would never have been achieved if, in this world, people had not repeatedly reached for the impossible.’ None of the problems to which Corbynism was a response has disappeared. ‘Only someone who is certain that he will not be broken when the world, seen from his point of view, is too stupid or too base for what he wants to offer it, and who is certain that he will be able to say “Nevertheless” in spite of everything – only someone like this has a “vocation” for politics.’ Yes, still: nevertheless.