Left politics without the activists

Submitted by AWL on 9 September, 2020 - 11:23 Author: Keith Road
Corbyn, Abbott, McDonnell

Gabriel Pogrund’s and Patrick Maguire’s book Left Out: The Inside Story of Labour Under Corbyn is not really about the politics of the Corbyn Labour Party leadership, but about the “politics” in the sense of corridor chat, text-message exchanges, and WhatsApp groups at the top of the party hierarchy.

Tellingly, it doesn’t mention the failure of the Labour Party in that period to promote any real ongoing political campaigns outside the general elections of 2017 and 2019. Either the authors take it as obvious that political parties won’t do political campaigning, or they picked up no argument or dispute about it in top circles, or both.

The alt-left media of The Skwawkbox, The Canary, and Novara get a mention but the focus of this book is very much in the top echelons of The Project, rather than among its many online and on-the-ground supporters.

The book rattles on quickly through the “Corbyn Project” (“The Project”, as the authors call it), through the optic of offices in Westminster, from Corbyn’s second election in 2016 through to the General Election of 2019 and the election of Keir Starmer as Labour leader.

Part serialised in The Times, Left Out has had much negative reaction from the Corbyn-loyal twitterati, who have pulled apart a misleading passage about Laura Alvarez and an oatcake.

It is hard to know exactly which of the book’s unfootnooted anecdotes will stand up to scrutiny. Even those who lived through The Project only from the grassroots will find see glaring errors. Andrew Fisher was never accused of backing a “Trotskyite” candidate against Emily Benn. It was Class War. Seamus Milne’s adherence to Stalinism was not a flirtation when at Winchester and Oxford, but continued through his role as business manager of Straight Left and into the politics he has today.

The star of the book, almost, is Karie Murphy, as the all-round bullish enforcer of LOTO (the Leader of the Opposition’s office).

An observer is quoted as saying: “Karie doesn’t do politics. In fact, I’m not sure she has politics”. Certainly she had no real background in Labour left politics. Her biggest political role before LOTO had been as a backroom aide, for some years, for Labour right-winger Tom Watson.

By 2019, according to the book anyway, she was central in getting an often disengaged and at times meek Corbyn to make decisions or just to get to things on time. Central also to the plot to oust her former employer Tom Watson as Labour’s Deputy Leader.

She is depicted as determined to do her job however she might be viewed by anyone else, and at war variously with her juniors in the office, with John McDonnell, and at times with Corbyn himself.

Her move in late 2019 from LOTO Chief of Staff to overseeing the general election campaign is presented as a matter of John McDonnell and his closest ally in LOTO, Andrew Fisher, using Bob Kerslake to push her away from an overcentralised power and a stifling atmosphere she had allegedly created in LOTO.

“Director of Communications” Seumas Milne is presented as being the most serious ideological influence over Corbyn, who, so the book says, called him “The Great Milne.”

He is portrayed as not very good at the communications part of his brief, getting into the office late, resented by the other staff, and careful to put very little in writing — but has Corbyn’s ear.

The book presents Corbyn’s interest in issues like East Timor or West Papua as unnecessary distractions. In fact, that interest was not the problem at all, but rather the ideological frame built round them, and the influence in shaping that of Milne and Unite hatchet man and inveterate Stalinist Andrew Murray.

Breaking convention after the Skripal poisoning, even the Press Association quoted Milne by name rather than a “Labour spokesperson” as dismissing or questioning the role of Putin’s Russia. As Andrew Fisher’s resignation letter, which went public in September 2019 and is covered again in this book, revealed, Milne sought to stop a tweet from Corbyn mentioning the Russian bombing of Syria, and removed references to Russia’s role in Ukraine from a Corbyn speech.

When Corbyn’s social media manager tweeted about Corbyn being “disgusted” by an antisemitic banner outside Labour conference, Milne chastised him and complained that the tweet has caused friction with some pro-Palestine groups and Mondoweiss.

Even Ian Lavery, with some of the most stridently pro-Corbyn, Morning Star-wavelength views in the Shadow Cabinet, is reported as remonstrating: “Why can’t you just say sorry? Just do it, man”, in a conference call after Corbyn squirms on TV (26 November 2019) when questioned about Labour Party members going on about “Rothschild conspiracies”.

Corbyn, we’re told, tends to talk only with Jewish activists who already agree with him. He remains close to Sue Lukes an Islington councillor and JVL member. When options for how to respond on antisemitism are put to Corbyn, he is said always to ask: “What does Sue Lukes think?”

Andrew Murray appears to have given more time, or more thought, to his interviews with the authors (Milne is never quoted directly). He comes across as more considered, and more as an intellectual advising LOTO on strategic direction than as an enforcer. The book confirms that Murray mooted Labour supporting one of May’s Brexit deals, in order to get Brexit “out of the way”, and to stop the Tories presenting Labour as frustrating Brexit. Like Milne, he voted Leave in the 2016 referendum.

McDonnell and his ally Fisher are written as The Project’s more dynamic but also more pragmatic faction. McDonnell pushes for more conciliation with the Parliamentary Labour Party [PLP], whom Corbyn is clearly exhausted by. He develops friendly relations with Alistair Campbell over Brexit and he uses his friendship with former Civil Servant chief Bob Kerslake twice to reorganise LOTO. He opposes the removal of Tom Watson, the disciplining of Margaret Hodge. He is much more bothered about the harassment of Luciana Berger. He drags LOTO towards at least a fudge on Brexit.

The book gives us very little sense, other than McDonnell being determined that The Project win an election, of why McDonnell does this. It does not consider real political differences, as distinct from differing tactical calculations, as a factor in the rows about Brexit and about antisemitism.

Lavery and Jon Trickett are presented as the hardest pro-Brexiters in the Shadow Cabinet, but McDonnell is presented as just having a mysterious overnight conversion to the Remain cause.

The nearest the book gets to touching on political principles is when Michael Chessum is quoted as saying that the majority of Labour members opposed Brexit because it is a nationalist project committed to ending free movement. Where the book does mention pressure from the membership, it is really only as an aside to the boiling conflicts in the top circles.

The “Corbynsceptics” of the PLP do not come off well in this book. Neil Coyle MP sends repeated boorish texts to Corbyn with no reply, appearing as a sad act shouting into a void. The MPs who became Change UK, are portrayed as disoriented by the two egos of Chuka Ummuna, who everyone can see is big-headed, and Chris Leslie, who spends most of his energy on decrying his colleagues on the Labour right who refuse to leave.

Peter Mandelson is described as trying to regroup the right-wing “stay and fight” brigade around Progress and Tom Watson. Mandelson advises Umunna he stands no chance and might as well join the Lib Dems (as he eventually did).

Tom Watson is a tragic bully who lost his way. He had long been considered a quitter by his internal opponents on the Labour right, but his mandate from the membership as elected deputy leader put him on the spot to lead the Labour right’s rearguard action. His half hearted attempt to set up the Future Britain group in March 2019 with the blessing of Mandelson and Gordon Brown does very little to dent LOTO, though it does dent Change UK.

Eventually he retires from politics (on 6 November 2019), after giving five minutes’ thought to an offer of running in Lewes as a Lib Dem at the 9 December 2019 election.

The Labour staff in Southside under Iain McNicol fare badly in the book. They are shown as having utter contempt for the growing Labour membership after 2015 and for their new bosses.

By the time of the 2019 election, relations in the shadow cabinet, primarily over Brexit and antisemitism, are, we are told, at an all-time low. As Johnson’s government loses its majority, intense squabbling develops over whether to push for a Brexit referendum or for an election. By the time the crunch comes, both sides are weary and have low hopes.

We are taken through Labour’s almost-daily dropping of new policies on the electorate during the 2019 election campaign, many not drawn from the conference or even discussed in the shadow cabinet, presenting that as shaped by a desperate semi-belief that a shopping list of good things can turn the polls with weeks to go.

Left Out is far from a definitive history of the period. But it gives one angle on how a politically ill-prepared and ideologically-incoherent left leadership can flounder when it has no clear plan to neutralise a largely hostile parliamentary party, and it fails even to try to mobilise a potential mass movement.

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