Socialist Worker

The story of how Corbyn’s compromises led to defeat

A new book— Left Out—about the Jeremy Corbyn project in the Labour Party reveals the tensions, contradictions and retreats that exist at the heart of the party, writes Nick Clark

Issue No. 2722

Jeremy Corbyn election campaign 2019

Jeremy Corbyn election campaign 2019 (Pic: Flickr/Jeremy Corbyn)


Left Out is a book for people who think Keir Starmer is doing a good job. But it also holds some valuable lessons for genuine socialists—and hard truths about the Labour Party.

It’s meant to be the inside story of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership between Labour’s electrifying near-victory in the 2017 general election and its crushing defeat in 2019.

Authors Gabriel Pogrund of the Sunday Times newspaper, and Patrick Maguire of the New Statesman magazine, interviewed around 100 people.

Some of the events they’ve pieced from anonymous interviews are contested. They should be treated with caution—the authors are no friends of the left.

But it’s no hatchet job either. It adds detail to the broad brush strokes of a picture already painted of Corbyn’s leadership.

Plotting

Left Out traces the origins of the Independent Group—right wing MPs who split from Labour. MPs who in February 2019 claimed they had exhausted attempts to “save” Labour and began plotting to leave a year earlier.

But the telling detail is how the split encouraged Corbyn into more compromises with the right.

“Corbyn would make major concessions in order to prevent any further defections,” it says.

The book focuses on the constant pressures on Corbyn to compromise—and the splits and turmoil that created for what it labels “the Project”.

It describes situations where Corbyn and his allies try to hold out, but eventually give in to pressure from within.

The split reflected the insurmountable problem faced by Corbyn. The aim was to get a socialist, Corbyn government elected. But that risked holding the party together.

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John McDonnell—then shadow chancellor—is almost always pushing and manoeuvring Corbyn into “tactical” retreats.

“McDonnell obsessed over the pursuit of power—for without it Labour could never enact the genuinely radical socialist programme he had spent his life fighting for,” says the book. “Corbyn, on the other hand, prioritised principle”.

Left Out tells how, at the start of Corbyn’s leadership, the left had to wage a war against hostile right wing Labour HQ staff.

In trying to keep hold of the party’s machine, they played the same underhand tactics against each other.

The authors describe how the principles that made Corbyn leader made him unable to do it properly.

He was unwilling to compromise, but also to make decisions—if only he was Keir Starmer, they say.

Corbyn was trapped by the logic of his position as Labour leader, buffeted by the contradictions that wore him down.

Improvised

He tries to overcome this—with an improvised speech trying to unite working class Leave and Remain supporters for example.

But mostly he’s pulled back into the suffocating world of parliamentary politics.

By the time of the 2019 election, the energy and momentum has been sapped out of the Corbyn movement.

The people around him don’t know how to recreate it.

Instead of an insurgent campaign, they have a chaotic series of stage-managed events and policy announcements.

It failed—and that failure was Corbyn’s. But the problem was the Labour Party.


Right used Brexit and antisemitism smears against the left

Huge chunks of the book are given to the wrangling that pushed Corbyn into backing a second European Union (EU) referendum.

That decision is a big part of why Labour lost in 2019.

Labour supporters who had voted for Brexit saw it for the betrayal that it was.

The book insists that at the beginning, Keir Starmer didn’t set out to push Labour into backing Remain. But it describes how the “six tests” he said any Brexit deal had to meet were “designed to fail”.

The authors describe how right wing factions Progress and Labour First saw Brexit as an opportunity to undermine Corbyn’s support. They hoped support for the EU among Labour’s membership could be turned against him.

Michael Chessum of the Another Europe is Possible campaign insists in the book that his aim wasn’t to “sabotage” Corbyn.

Yet anonymous right wing quotes boast of how they used Chessum and others to give their campaign “left wing authenticity”.

Convinced

Early on, John McDonnell was convinced that backing Brexit could cost Labour the votes of Remain supporters, and therefore an election.

Together with Corbyn’s policy chief Andrew Fisher he drafted a new position on backing a customs union.

They deliberately hid this from Corbyn’s spin doctor Seamus Milne and chief of staff Karie Murphy, who thought Labour should respect the referendum result.

McDonnell, Starmer, and shadow cabinet ministers Diane Abbott and Emily Thornberry spoke at a right wing led rally for Remain—deliberately contradicting Labour’s then position.

This led to Labour eventually backing a second referendum.

Another tragic story of Corbyn’s leadership is how the left allowed themselves to be painted as antisemitic.

Covered in a couple of chapters, the authors accept the narrative that antisemitism was a major problem on the left.

Fight the claim that the left is antisemitic 
Fight the claim that the left is antisemitic 
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But they—almost reluctantly—admit that for the right the charge of antisemitism was tied to hatred of Corbyn’s opposition to Israel

Again, a big part of this story is of how the left calculated that giving in would somehow help his survival.

By the time of the BBC Panorama documentary, Is Labour Antisemitic? aired in 2019, Corbyn’s office messaged its prominent social media supporters not to challenge its premise.

“‘DO NOT ADVANCE ANY GENERAL CRITICISMS of Panorama or the show,” they were warned.

The premise was that support for Palestinians led the left to antisemitism.

By the time of the election, the row wasn’t whether the left was antisemitic—but whether Corbyn had apologised enough.


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