The Socialist 16 September 2020 |
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Non-fiction: Left Out - the inside story of Labour under Corbyn
Retreat and hesitation could not beat relentless right wing
Jeremy Corbyn, photo by Chatham House/CC (Click to enlarge)
Hannah Sell Socialist Party general secretary
This is not, and could not be, a neutral telling of the years when Jeremy Corbyn led the Labour Party. The two journalists who wrote the book - Gabriel Pogrund, Whitehall correspondent for the Sunday Times, and Patrick Maguire, political reporter for the Times in Westminster - have their own negative views on Corbyn, reflected in the book.
Nonetheless, it is not a crude hatchet job, but reports masses of detail about the actions of both sides of the civil war that raged in the Labour Party over five years.
Many of these are irrelevant. Does anyone actually care what the pro-capitalist grouping around Chuka Umunna ate and drank while they were planning to split from Labour and launch the failed Independent Group?
They are also often unattributed, with many anonymous quotes which cannot be verified. They overwhelmingly deal with events inside the 'Westminster bubble' of parliament and the Labour Party headquarters.
Leaders of unions are only fleetingly mentioned. The struggles and concerns of rank-and-file trade unionists, or the wider working class, do not feature at all.
Blairites and establishment
Nonetheless, the book confirms what the Socialist consistently pointed to - the relentless drive by the majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party, backed by the capitalist establishment, to defeat Corbyn. All other issues were secondary.
At arch-Blairite Peter Mandelson's infamous garden parties, despite divisions between the majority of pro-EU right-wing Labour MPs and a minority from pro-Brexit seats who took a different view: "All of Mandelson's guests longed for the day that Corbyn was no longer leader of the Labour Party, regardless of whether the sweet release came inside of the EU or out."
That does not mean that there was unanimity on how to gain 'sweet release'. Both Mandelson and Tony Blair saw Tom Watson as the figurehead of the struggle against Corbyn.
But, whereas Mandelson wanted to continue a longer-term fight inside the Labour Party, Blair "developed a view, which he held very strongly, and very deeply, that the Labour Party was finished - that it was irrecoverable."
Mandelson and Watson still hoped to prevent Corbyn consolidating his position. Hence Watson calling Umunna's split a "premature conclusion".
The book describes how Watson and Mandelson set up a caucus within the PLP - "a party within a party" - to organise against Corbyn. Mandelson and Watson are among those who in the 1980s expelled supporters of the Socialist Party, then Militant, for allegedly being a "party within a party". But for them, if you are arguing for capitalist rather than socialist ideas, doing so is not only acceptable but heroic.
The capitalist programme of all of those who plotted against Corbyn is also openly acknowledged in the book. Umunna's split stood for "a market economy, a rules-based international order, and remain". No wonder it disappeared without trace.
Blair insisted they needed a programme, but it is very difficult to build deep-felt popular support for a programme that is fundamentally defending the status quo of capitalist inequality and austerity.
Keir Starmer will find this out against the background of a new phase of economic crisis. The advantage of 'not being Johnson' will soon shatter if he comes to power and attempts to implement a programme in the interests of capitalism.
The way in which the Labour right cynically used allegations of antisemitism is also clearly revealed by the book. For example, Watson saw the hatchet-job Panorama programme "as a blunt instrument with which to smash" Corbyn.
"Watson invited MPs to circumvent Southside [Labour Party HQ] and submit claims to antisemitism and bullying to him. His next job was to expose them publicly and tarnish them irrevocably."
How much clearer could it be that this had nothing to do with genuine concerns about antisemitism and everything to do with a cynical attempt to "smash" Corbyn?
The book also describes the role played by Keir Starmer, now Labour leader. As shadow Brexit secretary he bided his time, pushing the leadership towards supporting a second referendum, and opposing those, including Corbyn, who wanted to call Johnson's bluff and clearly campaign for a general election during the Brexit deadlock.
Starmer publicly kept his distance from the open saboteurs, but behind the scenes met arch-Blairite Tom Baldwin once a week to discuss tactics.
Unfortunately, Left Out not only confirms the intransigence and determination of all the pro-capitalist anti-Corbynites. It also vividly describes the hesitation and retreats of Corbyn and his supporters.
It confirms what appeared to be the case, that Corbyn often had better instincts than many of his advisors. For example, one of his best speeches on Brexit - which the book says was a factor in convincing the nascent Independent Group to split - where he pointed to how a worker in Tottenham and a worker in Mansfield may have voted differently in the referendum but faced all the same problems, was one of the few written entirely by him and not an aide.
A significant section of Corbyn's immediate circle understood that for working-class voters who had supported Brexit, it would be seen as betrayal not to - as they had in 2017 - promise to respect the referendum result.
One shadow cabinet minister is quoted as saying Labour's 'tests' on Brexit "were crap. They were unsellable in my constituency. We want the same rights in the labour market as we've got already? What does that mean? People voted against Europe because they think work is shit."
Howard Beckett, Labour national executive committee member from Unite, is quoted as saying: "The working class voted leave. Listen to the working class." Unite's left leadership is correctly credited with being central to preventing a complete rush to support remain.
The majority of Corbyn's circle, however, wanted to move in the direction of supporting remain. On all issues they wanted at every stage to find a position that they hoped would pacify the Labour right, and beyond them the capitalist class.
Unfortunately, as was also clear from outside, it was shadow chancellor John McDonnell who usually led the retreat and attempts to compromise, often without first consulting Corbyn. None of them, however, were prepared to give a consistent fighting lead, calling on those who supported Corbyn to fight to transform the Labour Party into a democratic workers' and socialist party.
The more intransigent the right, the more inclined to compromise the left became, which in turn gave the right more confidence they could win. The book describes how, following the departure of the Independent Group, "Corbyn would make major concessions in order to prevent any further defections."
He "announced that, unless its Brexit plan passed the Commons... Labour would support a second referendum. Outside of the Labour Party, the splitters appeared to have taken only a week to effect the shift they had wasted the best part of a year agitating for inside it."
Then the right were given a further boost by the suspension of left MP Chris Williamson - which to the right "served as proof of a vital sentiment: dissent worked - especially when expressed in public." While it boosted the right, it also inevitably deepened the disillusionment among Corbyn supporters.
This book is a very frustrating read for all socialists who saw an opportunity in Corbyn's election as Labour leader to create a mass party that fought in the interests of the working-class majority
Not because it disproves that such an outcome was necessary or possible, but rather because its endless details confirm the ways in which the opportunity was squandered via retreats and hesitation.
However, without meaning to, it also drives home the lesson that trade unionists and socialists need to ensure future attempts are successful - albeit, after the defeat of Corbynism within the Labour framework, in a new party of the working class.