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Was Corbyn’s Labour defeated by its own incompetence?

Now that the Labour Party’s Jeremy Corbyn era is history, in the sense of being in the past, it can now begin its journey into History, in the sense of being something to be studied, analysed and made sense of. When future historians come to understand this tumultuous period in the party’s history, they will probably begin with Owen Jones’ This Land: The Story of a Movement

That is not just because it is one of the first books published on Corbyn’s leadership since last December’s fateful election, but also because of Jones’ unique perspective on the period. His status as the Corbyn leadership’s most prominent defender in the media, but one that was frequently willing to raise questions about its direction and decision making (urging them to be bolder in their drug law liberalisation and tax policies and take a stronger stance against antisemitism within its ranks amongst others) makes Jones’ explanations for its demise particularly important. As well as this, it is a well-written, researched and argued work, meaning it is likely to be one of the best works on Corbyn for some time.  

In keeping with Jones’ stance as a critical ally of the Corbyn movement, This Land outlines an argument in its introduction that seeks to find a balance in the interpretations of Corbyn. He rejects both the mainstream argument that Corbynism was simply unpalatable to British voters because of its ‘extremism’, and the view of many on the left that it was felled by hostile establishment forces in the media and the internal machinery of the Labour Party. Instead, Jones presents a perspective that recognises the constraints that the leadership faced, but points to the popularity of much of its platform and its 2017 revival as signs that its defeat was far from inevitable. This is an important contribution. When looking back at this era, it will be tempting to look at the headlines of a decade-plus of Tory rule, Brexit and anti-migrant hostility and conclude that this was a decade of uninterrupted rightward drift. Yet, such a narrative would totally fail to account for the rise of Corbynism, and those that it inspired. From this perspective, we gain a much more accurate and complicated view of our own time. 

After highlighting the rising anti-austerity and anti-war movements that set the stage for Corbyn, the state of the party after its 2015 defeat is examined, with a helpful reminder that the consensus was that Labour would have to turn to the right for its next leader, pursuing policies that reaffirmed their support for austerity whilst backing up Tory policies on migration and welfare, a tac that would end in the infamous decision of interim leader Harriet Harman to abstain on the 2015 Welfare Bill. Even Andy Burnham, now lauded for his confrontational stance against the government’s COVID policies as Mayor of Greater Manchester, launched his campaign at the headquarters of accountancy firm Ernst & Young, a key facilitator of corporate tax avoidance, and refused any financial support from trade unions. 

Yet even more striking is the conservatism of the tactics of the party’s left at the same time. Instead of seeing the 2015 defeat as a sign of the weakness of the party machinery and the lack of appeal for its triangulation, key actors were reluctant to make their case with a leadership campaign. John McDonnell opposed any candidacy from the left, fearing that a poor showing would weaken its influence in the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) and in politics as a whole (an argument which boldly assumed it had any influence to lose), a view shared by most of the PLP’s left. Jones himself had a similar perspective, with his only planned activity for the leadership election a tour of the country to promote left policies with Jon Trickett, the most left-wing member of Miliband’s Shadow Cabinet. Given the landslide that Corbyn eventually won by, the lack of anticipation even from the left is remarkable, and Jones does a good job of bringing this mood to life.  

As the tale of the book unfolds, the focus is on the Leader’s Office. The protagonists here are Corbyn himself, Executive Director of the Leader’s Office Karie Murphy and Executive Director of Strategy and Communications Seamus Milne, and the narrative does not reflect well on them. The trio are often at fault for the party’s travails, missing opportunities to build bridges with critics in the PLP and the Jewish community through disorganisation and an unwillingness to follow through on planned events to develop understanding, meaning that the hostility that dogged Corbyn’s leadership could never be minimised.

Throughout, Corbyn is too frequently disinterested in the crucial organisational issues of leadership. He is unable to control Shadow Cabinet meetings, disinterested in briefings unrelated to his priorities in foreign policy, housing and poverty and often too stubborn and moody to deliver key messages or do necessary preparation, including for his debates with Boris Johnson. Milne is also shown as chronically disorganised, lackadaisical in responding to messages from staff members, giving his own personal opinions as party views, and unable to work the 24-Hour News Cycle to Labour’s advantage. In a particularly lucid comparison for football fans, Milne is compared to Arsenal’s Mesut Ozil- incredibly talented, but unwilling to do the hard but necessary work. 

Although Murphy brought some more organisation to the operation at times, her abrasive style brought allegations of bullying and alienated much of the party’s staff. Only the snap election of 2017 was able to force the urgency that made the key actors avoid these traits. 

To Jones, the solution to these problems was a leader in the style of John McDonnell, who is described as Labour’s ‘lost leader’. He reasons that the Shadow Chancellor shared the popular politics of Corbyn on economic redistribution, but would have been able to enforce the kind of discipline and decisiveness needed for such a project to succeed, avoiding the debacles over the acceptance of the IHRA definition of antisemitism and the Sergei Skripal poisoning that plagued the leadership. 

These arguments have significant merit, given that these incidents caused significant damage to the Corbyn project at a crucial time, with the chance to build momentum after an insurgent 2017 campaign and Theresa May’s government teetering on the brink of collapse. And Jones makes a convincing and detailed case that time after time, these protagonists made major errors that did nothing but reinforce an image of an incompetent and confused party, unfit for government. As well as this, the lack of previous disclosure for this information means This Land provides important insight into the Corbyn project, providing a new layer to our understanding by showing how key events were managed at the top of the leadership. 

But such an argument also has problems and contradictions. Although This Land’s subtitle calls this ‘The Story of a Movement’, the tale rarely gets out of the leader’s office and party HQ. Outside of Corbyn, Murphy and Milne, McDonnell, Senior Policy Advisor Andrew Fisher and UNITE General Secretary Len McCluskey are the only figures to feature regularly in the story. The likes of Clive Lewis, Keir Starmer and Cat Smith come to the fore at times, but disappear at others, whilst key Corbyn allies like Diane Abbott and Rebecca Long-Bailey are almost entirely absent through the story. Also, given the emphasis of Corbynism on the party’s grassroots, particularly in expanding party democracy and implementing ideas like community organising, a greater examination of how this period was felt at this level would have helped the book to live up to its title. The conclusion also makes the astute observation that this movement helped to bring in a new generation of intellectuals and public figures on the left, but again these people are not found in the narrative. So, although the focus on the leadership office brings significant rewards, it means the study is less comprehensive. 

Moreover, its earlier stress on avoiding fatalism seems to be lost when dealing with Brexit. Jones’ chapter on the subject describes it as a ‘Bandersnatch’, a reference to an episode of the TV series Black Mirror, where the viewer could choose the fate of the protagonist, but every choice brought a different version of disaster. Indeed, Jones laments that, ‘whatever decisions the party made, it would not have ended well. Nothing inflicted so much terminal damage on the Corbyn project as the protracted national crisis that followed Britain’s narrow vote in June 2016 to leave the European Union’. This would seem to contradict the idea that Corbynism was not doomed to fail, instead presenting the opposite image, where Brexit presented an unbridgeable gap between its Leave and Remain-voting supporters.

In a similar vein, Jones presents the eventual decision of Corbyn to embrace a ‘People’s Vote’ as an unavoidable decision, where the membership’s overwhelming desire to pursue such a policy and the disastrous results of the 2019 European Election meant the party had to accept this move to avoid electoral oblivion at the hands of the Liberal Democrats and Greens in London and other Remain-heartlands. But such a view can be questioned.

As is pointed out by quoting from the likes of Gloria de Piero, Ian Lavery and Jon Trickett, MPs in Leave-voting areas, such a policy helped to further alienate such constituencies from the party, accelerating a long-term trend away from the party. When this is combined with the fact (highlighted in the book) that forty-one of Labour’s top 54 target seats had voted to Leave, surely it could have been predicted that the advocating of a second referendum would have such dire electoral consequences? Furthermore, although the 2019 European Elections highlighted the discontent of its core-Remain support with Labour’s Brexit policy- and it is correct to point out that this was the pivotal event in changing Corbyn’s stance on the issue- what this calculation ignored should be posited. Would these voters, in a first-past-the-post general election, really have deserted the party in the same way that they had in a meaningless, low turnout, proportional representation election to such an extent that majorities such as Corbyn’s (33,215), Starmer’s (30,509) or Abbot’s (35,139) would have been threatened? 

Such a proposition seems unlikely. Of course, it is fair to point out that more marginal Remain constituencies would have been threatened by a platform that rejected a second referendum. But as previously mentioned, there were far more vital and threatened constituencies that were alienated by this stance. Although Jones is right to say that there was no perfect option, the equivalency of every possible approach, to suggest every outcome would have brought the same electoral ruin, seems questionable. Finally, despite the recognition of the constraints posed by the hostility of the PLP and media in a well-argued chapter on the subject, through the rest of the book the existence of this antagonism is less acknowledged. Although anyone familiar with Jones’ perspective will know that he would agree that this had a key influence over Corbyn’s demise, a reader unfamiliar with this would be forgiven for thinking these constraints could have been overcome simply with more competent management. This seems to be a key oversight, and a more regular recognition of the pressures these figures faced would have made the nuances of Jones’ argument clearer. 

This Land is a highly significant and worthwhile work. By presenting an ‘inside story’ of the Corbyn project, it adds a new terrain to our understanding, showing how in many regards, the mistakes of those at the top did crucial damage to the hopes of Labour and helped it to spurn a golden opportunity to return to power. However, to build on his work and form a more comprehensive understanding of this era, studies that take into account the failures highlighted by Jones with a clearer sense of the context they operated in and the alternatives they rejected will be needed, as well as moving the story out of the party machinery and Westminster to see all aspects of the movement. 

By Alex Riggs

PhD History student at the University of Nottingham, studying the presidential campaigns of Edward Kennedy and Jesse Jackson with Midlands4Cities funding. Twitter: @AlexRiggs6

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