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The Searchers: the Labour left looking for a road to nowhere

New book The Searchers details five Labour left figures but ignores the limits of reformism, writes Charlie Kimber
Issue 2905
Jeremy Corbyn and Labour MP John McDonnell shake hands with RMT assistant secretary Eddy Dempsey on a picket line

Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell (Picture: Guy Smallman)

Andy Beckett’s book The Searchers examines a political species that is widely seen as on the endangered list—the Labour left. He writes about Ken Livingstone, Diane Abbott, John McDonnell, Jeremy Corbyn and Tony Benn. It’s intensively researched and well-written.

It’s more than a set of biographies and not just one more description of Corbyn’s rise and fall. And it’s always entertaining to recall the differing reactions of these figures to the revolutionary year of 1968. Benn, already disillusioned with the failings of the Harold Wilson Labour government, plunged into a re-examination of his fundamental views and a glance at Marxism.

And as the world exploded with mass strikes, great social movements and incendiary uprisings, Livingstone decided—to join the Labour Party. “In order to achieve change, I had to join the system and change it from within. Challenges from outside the establishment had more chance of success if there were sympathetic people on the inside.”

Beckett—rather tortuously—recognises how the antisemitism charges against Corbyn were whipped up. Beckett writes, “Corbyn did not handle the issue well. But it was hard to see how handling the issue would have ended the controversy.” And he flags up, “It was also hard not to see another motivation at work among some of those who attacked his approach to antisemitism.

“During his campaign for the leadership and the first two years of his tenure, his disorientated enemies had searched hard among what they saw as his endless flaws, looking for the one which could be used to undermine, immobilise and terminally damage his radical project. In his alleged tolerance of antisemitism they had finally found an attack line that worked.”

But the problem with the book is that it doesn’t explore systematically the obstacles to the gentle reforms the five highlighted figures wanted, let alone real socialist change. And there’s a more basic problem—the undemocratic power of the bosses and the state that weakens parliamentary politics.

Beckett acknowledges the hostility of the ruling class—“Even Labour politicians who promise to leave much of this landscape unaltered as Tony Blair did, are on constant probation, their words and deeds scrutinised for the smallest left wing deviations. As for Labour figures who do want to transform the country, as Benn and Corbyn did, such politicians are frequently portrayed as fanatical or illegitimate.

“They are treated as heretics, to be suppressed before their ideas undermine the true faith. The five politicians in this book have at times been regarded with fear, contempt, hatred, or all three at once. “They have been threatened with violence or physically attacked. The strength of these reactions, repeated for over half a century, tells us much about Britain beyond the left.”

Indeed it does. But the response of these five was to defend the limits of a parliamentary project, insist on its primacy and seek to herd good militants into the labourist fold. They gave life support to the broken project—and weakened the whole left and its movements.

On the final page Beckett raises two issues. One is that the left has won long-term arguments that make society more liberal and equal, and the right’s “war on woke” is on “borrowed time”. But such gains are a result of struggle, not its weak reflection in Labour.

He also writes that a recent event he attended featuring United States leftist Bernie Sanders had the same mix of people as Corbyn gatherings and “it did not look like a Britain whose time has gone for good”. Certainly, as the Palestine movement has shown, ideas of deep social change have not gone away. But realising them means a break from the politics of the people in this book.

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