This Land, The story of a movement
Owen Jones (2020) Allen Lane
It is a year since Boris Johnson’s Tory Party won the 2019 general election with an 80 seat majority – a ‘landslide’ for the Right and a ‘disaster’ for the Left. In our current covid crisis this all feels a long time ago and rather difficult to think about – but the consequences of the defeat will be with us for a long time and so this seems like an appropriate time to review a book that covers the Left’s leadership of the Labour Party in the five years preceding this.
In September 2020 Owen Jones published ‘This Land, The story of a Movement’; an attempt to chart the course of the Corbyn Project 2015 – 2019, to detail its ups and downs and provide an analysis of its implosion at the polls in December 2019. Although I thought I had a good grasp of the main drivers of the defeat ( http://onthebrynk.com/labour-a-cause-for-disappointment/ and http://onthebrynk.com/hindsight/ ) I recognised that I hadn’t focused much on the effectiveness, or lack thereof, of the Corbyn leadership team. I found that a difficult thing to contemplate when out tramping the streets, knocking on doors, but now, when I don’t have to defend him and his team on the doorstep or to all comers, I thought I would give the book ‘a go.’ Jones is a well-respected ‘left orientated’ journalist, writes fluently and has access to many of the key people who shaped and drove the project.
Once I started the book I added another reason for reading it – and one that I felt justified writing and posting a review. A part of me is still a sucker for the notion that capitalism is capable of being reformed, of being moderated and ameliorated through the democratic processes that the developed world ‘affords’ its citizens. This may not produce what is needed, and only in very particular (and rare) circumstances might it ‘produce better’ – less inequality, better support networks etc – the stuff of social democracy. Jones, helpfully, sets out to consider what lessons can be learnt from the failure of the Corbyn Project for the future of centre left social democratic parties.
In his introduction he posits two current narratives about the collapse of the Corbyn project:
1) Corbyn was manifestly unsuited to high office and was supported by an ideological crazed cult. His proposed policies were too extreme and unrealistic, he was midwife to Brexit and morally disgraced by anti-Semitism.
2) The Corbyn Project was wrecked by a ‘deliberate campaign of internal sabotage within the party’. It was undermined by a ‘vicious and unrelenting onslaught from an overwhelmingly antagonistic establishment media’ and Corbyn himself was the subject of a smear campaign by the Right and Liberal centre.
He sets out to establish that there are problems with both of these approaches and then, indicating his weighing of the factors, he states that he is concerned to avoid ‘the fatalistic conclusion that any radical political project (of the Left) will be inevitably destroyed by entrenched establishment opposition.’ So you are left hopeful that there may be some ideas about how entrenched establishment opposition might be resisted in the future – how to avoid that fatalistic conclusion.
The book is well written and easy to read – except it is not. It takes you back through the history of the Corbyn Project, it’s bizarre (accidental) inception in the first Labour leadership election, the Brexit referendum, the second leadership election, the (almost) highs of the 2017 general election and the depths of the 2020 defeat. It is hard having all this stuff back in your head and the memory of that gradual unravelling of the party in 2020 is bitter – and unresolved.
Jones deals competently with the post 1970s context, the establishment of neo liberalism as the dominant capitalist and imperialist ideology, though doesn’t fully explore the drivers within capitalism that produced this and why, subsequently, left of centre social democratic parties have struggled.
The internal resistance of the Parliamentary Party and staffers at Party HQ to the Corbyn leadership team is a theme that runs through the five years and through the book. I knew that there was unease and anxiety in these groups but was not prepared for the examples that Jones uncovered of acts of omission and commission. These included:
– the tactic employed by senior members of the parliamentary party of gradually resigning from the front bench, shadow minister by shadow minister – thus forcing Corbyn to appoint increasingly inexperienced MPs to roles that they found really challenging;
– forcing a second leadership contest and making Corbyn, the leader, fight to have his name on the ballot;
– directing funding to safe seats in the 2017 general election rather than potentially winnable marginal ones;
– not progressing the production and delivery of leaflets for local constituency parties during the 2019 general election.
If there was ever any doubt about internal acts of sabotage Jones dispels them. On their first day in the role, after the first leadership election, the team found themselves unable to access their offices – and once able to, found themselves locked out of the computer systems. There was no hand – over from the previous team. Links between the leadership and Party HQ were appalling – as witnessed by some of the txt and email messages between staffers that were uncovered by an internal report. Initial attempts to work with senior MPs in the Parliamentary Party were largely rebuffed, with the result that the leadership team soon entered a ‘bunker mode’ from which they were unable to emerge. I know something about leading a team that finds itself in a bunker, where virtually everyone (including those you might have expected to be on your side) seems to be agin you and just waiting for you to fall. It is difficult to look beyond the immediate threats that just seem to keep coming and you just get progressively more and more exhausted. I think this is worth remembering when we move on to criticisms of the leadership team, particularly about a lack of strategic nous – there is no doubt that they were up against it – from within and of course from without.
Jones talks about the negative impact of the ‘establishment media’ and (rightly) has particular criticisms of the BBC. Interestingly he doesn’t mention the role that The Guardian played in undermining Corbyn in left / liberal circles, but I guess that would be a difficult one for him.
Of the big issues that the leadership team had to respond to during the five years Jones highlights anti-Semitism and Brexit as being key in the 2019 defeat.
Jones observed that for many left leaning members of the party any discussion about anti-Semitism immediately moved to a discussion about Israel, Zionism and the plight of the Palestinians – failing in his view to acknowledge the deep hurt felt by many Jewish people by the allegations being made and their historical and emotional links with Israel. He then points out that the reduction of general Jewish support was not a phenomenon that started in the Corbyn era. Support had gradually been reducing from Gordon Brown’s premiership onwards as labour adopted a more explicit position in support of the Palestinians.
Jones leaves no doubt though that anti-Semitism was and undoubtedly still is a problem for the Party. He identifies that a number of people who posted openly anti-Semitic views on social media joined the party following the membership rule changes enacted by Miliband. He also provides some examples of clearly anti-Semitic behaviour and messaging from the 30 or so cases that the Party’s Governance and Legal Unit managed to investigate. What he does say however, is that the leadership team was proactive in commissioning and implementing the Chakrabati Review (reported in 2016) and in attempting to progress investigations (actions subsequently criticised as ‘political interference’). There is evidence of frustration within the leadership team that matters were progressing so slowly (eg a letter from Corbyn in February 2018 to the then party general secretary Ian McNicol complaining about lack of progress in changing disciplinary processes. He wrote ‘it is a real cause for concern that Jewish voices from across the political spectrum of the Labour Party still feel we do not take anti-Semitism seriously enough’).
There is more than a suggestion from Jones that the failure of party systems to be developed to deal effectively with the issue lies with Labour HQ and those resisting the wider Corbyn Project. When I had finished reading this bit I had no doubt that anti-Semitism had been internally weaponised (as the current expression is) to undermine credibility and smear Corbyn himself.
The leadership team, perhaps understandably, struggled to accept criticism on the matter from organisations with a palpably much worse record on fighting racism than the Labour Party. It also saw the issue of anti-Semitism as part of a wider issue of anti-racism and worried that other groups of people experiencing racism in Britain were being side-lined. This particularly rankled with many Jewish members and in the wider community. Jones is critical of the team’s inability to see the allegations about the handling of anti-Semitism as a significant threat to the project as a whole and to act accordingly – through a more proactive stance involving speeches, articles, interviews, member education etc – a properly co-ordinated strategy in fact.
The altercation between Corbyn and Margaret Hodge behind the speaker’s chair (‘Jeremy you are a fucking anti-Semite’) had a seriously negative impact on the former who was upset and deeply hurt. Once Corbyn became emotionally damaged by the attacks on him he found it impossible to respond in anything but a defensive and often clearly irritated manner.
Jones says that the impact of the crisis about anti-Semitism on the Corbyn project was disastrous, helping to turn a positive public perception into a view of Labour as something ‘not quite right – something sinister.’
If concerns about how anti-Semitism was being handled within the party were picking away at the moral credibility of the leadership team then the Brexit referendum result threw a hand grenade into the cohesiveness of the party as a whole – a challenge that the leadership team was unable to control and manage.
Initially this was not obvious. Jones points out that the Tory party were in disarray following the referendum in 2016 and the general view within Labour was that it was a Tory problem. All they had to do was wait for the Tories to implode (a factor which appears to have stymied much in the way of strategic thinking). Moreover, the second Labour leadership election which was triggered by the narrow result to leave the EU cemented Corbyn’s authority and position as leader of the party. Labour’s stance in the referendum had been ‘remain and reform’ but following the result the leadership took the tentative view that the result to leave ‘should be honoured’ – a position that was successfully taken into the 2017 general election – an election that the Corbyn led party came close to winning.
However, Jones points out that there were, inevitably, splits within the leadership about how to respond to the referendum result. John McDonnel advocated for a Brexit that sought to maintain as many of the benefits of EU membership as possible (eg social chapter, employment rights, environmental regulations etc) and Corbyn himself, in a post referendum interview, said that article 50 would have to be triggered. Jones suggests that, with the views of these two broadly synchronised, Corbyn missed an opportunity to stamp his leadership on the issue and the party. Instead he allowed the leadership team to fudge a set of 6 conditions for leaving the European Union which were largely unintelligible to the electorate. He also suggests that some within the party saw Brexit as another wedge that could be used to destabilise Corbyn’s leadership within the party.
Following the general election of 2017, as Theresa May’s lame duck government spectacularly failed to progress Brexit, many remainers in the Labour Party moved from a sullen acceptance of having to leave the EU to seeing a way out of what they viewed as an impending disaster – through the holding of a second referendum. This began to find expression in the burgeoning ‘People’s Vote’ campaign – and with it a direct threat to Labour Party unity. Inevitably this split began to pull Labour’s broad church towards breaking point, with the majority of party members being remainers whilst many of its working class electoral base had voted to leave the EU and were increasingly frustrated by the lack of progress in that direction. These tensions led to more fudge and compromise by the leadership in an attempt to keep both factions on board, resulting in the confusion of the ‘confirmatory referendum’ that Labour carried into the 2019 general election.
Could this mayhem have been avoided? As we have seen Jones felt the leadership missed a trick in the period immediately after the referendum – but he also hints at a different outcome for May’s withdrawal bill, which he says had the makings of a ‘soft’ Brexit. Although almost universally trashed across the political spectrum (for widely differing reasons, obviously), the votes in The Commons were close and there may have been a majority to accept the bill if Labour MPs sitting in incontrovertibly ‘leave’ seats (who had formed a ‘respect the result’ group) had supported it. Far-fetched? Well certainly difficult given how toxic May’s proposals had become – but Jones says the Labour leadership provided support to this group and considered allowing a free vote, although in the end this wasn’t pursued. Such action would obviously have enraged members who were remainers (some of whom may have drifted to the Liberal Democrats, at least in the short term) but it might have stopped the haemorrhaging of support in traditional Labour supporting constituencies in the 2019 general election – and have produced a better deal than the country is now facing! When considering this split within the party Jones quotes a number of trades union leaders and left of centre MPs who ask ‘Who is the Labour party primarily for?’ This is both a simple and extremely difficult question, raising as it does issues about economic class – but I have to say I think it’s a good one!
In considering the key issues of the handling of anti-Semitism and finding a way to navigate effectively in post Brexit referendum waters Jones, whilst acknowledging the scale of the challenges posed, has identified a number of shortcomings in the leadership team. Given that he sets out to refute a view that the eventual collapse in the Labour vote was due entirely to incompetent and misguided leadership, his views on this merit closer consideration. This does not make for easy reading!
Right from the start, Jones reports that Corbyn resented playing the game of being a party leader. A true internationalist he refused to sing the national anthem at state occasions and resisted preparing for and staying on message with the media. He was therefore easy to portray as unpatriotic and inconsistent in his messages.
Jones makes the obvious point that the leadership team lacked political leadership and party management experience – but doesn’t pursue the point that those in the party who did have this experience largely chose to undermine rather than support it. Jones’ most frequent criticism is that the team lacked strategic direction, failing to develop consistent key messages and policies – although he does acknowledge that it was largely trapped in ‘survival mode.’
More personal shortcomings in the character of the leader are identified as; an inability to cope with conflict (Corbyn was a torch carrier for internal party democracy), a tendency to prevaricate (and even go AWOL for periods of time) and to find it difficult to make tough decisions. For those of us who heard on numerous doorsteps that they ‘just couldn’t see Corbyn as prime minister’ this makes for uncomfortable reading.
Jones does though balance these negatives with Corbyn’s undoubted attributes in being able to engage and enthuse people, especially younger people, who had hitherto had little interest in politics, although this came at the price of alienating many older people. He also points out that a number of Corbyn’s nominees for the first leadership election were motivated by a desire to bury the left in the party once and for all through a hoped for derisory vote. For these members of the party the sooner they could get back to right of centre neo liberal policies for the management of the economy and the country the better. Milliband’s legacy of one member one vote blew that spectacularly out of the water and Jones is confident that the Corbyn project will have a lasting effect on the party in that it will not return to ‘promoting austerity, the baiting of benefits claimants or the demonising of immigrants.’ He feels that the central tennets of social democracy have been restablished in the party and has (cautious) faith in Starmer’s pledge to maintain commitment to the 2017 manifesto. We shall see!
Jones does make a particularly pithy point about the criticisms of Corbyn, although the party as a whole does not come out of this well. He asks that if Corbyn was so unsuited to leadership what does this say about his leadership opponents and a party that elected him (by a large majority) twice?
Before moving to Jones’ conclusions (or as we will see lack of) regarding the future of left of centre social democratic parties, I would like to re-introduce the concepts of exhaustion and the way in which the forces of reaction regroup and re-energise themselves over time. I would like to compare and contrast the Labour election campaigns of 2017 and 2019, using Jones’ description and analyses of the role of the Leadership team in each.
We are reminded just how unpropitious the indicators seemed when May triggered the general election in 2017 – an election intended to secure a large enough majority for her to progress Brexit. She and the Tory Party had a significant lead in the opinion polls and yet the Labour leadership team successfully changed the terms of the debate to that of inequality, austerity, the need to re-invest in public services etc. Jones points out that Corbyn’s speeches at this time were powerfully effective and crucial in this. Moreover, the team were able to respond effectively to what has often been the bette noir of parties of the left seeking election – a terrorist attack and the impetus that this can give to legitimising more right wing, authoritarian policies. In the course of the election campaign the Manchester Arena bombing and attack on pedestrians at London Bridge took place. Instead of retreating into a defensive mode the Labour leadership team were confident and competent enough to take the issues head on, with Corbyn’s speeches pointing to the reduction in police numbers over the previous decade and to May’s own record as a previous Home Secretary.
As I have already noted, Jones points out the role that Labour HQ played in hamstringing the party’s performance in the election – but despite this the party came close to winning – and in my view (then and now) this was the high water point of the project. If Labour had won that election with a working majority (or even as senior partner in a working coalition) the next general election would still be 2 years away, a soft Brexit may well have been progressed (honouring the manifesto commitment) and the response to covid might have been more effective – and would certainly have been more compassionate. We would now be considering different criticisms of the Labour leadership, driven with a welter of furies, I have no doubt, by a ruling class through the mainstream media.
Compare the leadership team’s performance in 2017 to that of 2019. Jones points out that Johnson became leader of the Tory party in a blaze of enthusiasm and energy, with a new, dynamic team and seemingly a lot of support. He says that Labour completely failed to counteract this, failing to develop attack lines around Johnson’s blatantly obvious shortcomings and inconsistencies – which allowed the Tory team to establish their own narrative largely unchallenged, from which they were able to get away with subverting parliamentary procedures to their own ends and to create such a sense of crisis that a general election (at the worst possible time for Labour) became an inevitability.
In contrast Jones describes the Labour election strategy as chaotic and unco-ordinated, with the leadership team unable to develop a clear strategic approach – or even agree key straplines and slogans. Despite the very differing circumstances there is a sense that the leadership team attempted to win the election by avoiding the mistakes of the previous one in which the party had lacked the ambition or confidence to target marginal seats. In the circumstances of December 2019 a more defensive approach would have been more appropriate – to counter the plummeting poll ratings of Corbyn himself, to defend Labour marginals and to develop a more effective strategy for holding its Brexit leave and remain wings together. Jones says the team had become complacent after 2017.
The leadership team, instead of developing a clear, focused strategy for winning the votes of the groups of the electorate that they needed to do, allowed an overload of policy announcements (few of which had been effectively trailed over the previous 18 months). Most of these, Jones concedes, were potentially popular in themselves (eg The Green Industrial Revolution, Roll out of free universal full fibre broad band) – but as a whole this fed into a growing sense of a party which lacked credibility and was unrealistic in what it thought it could achieve. Johnson’s government, in contrast had one clear message, a message which tapped into the growing national mood of frustration and exasperation – ‘Get Brexit Done.’ It was no contest really.
Jones’ most frequently used words in his analysis of the Labour leadership in this period are ‘tired’ and ‘exhausted’. The parliamentary manoeuvrings since 2017 had absorbed an enormous amount of energy and, it has to be said, done little to enhance the party’s reputation at large. The leadership team had sought to provide a responsible opposition to May’s stumblings and had even tried to engage proactively and in good faith with her in seeking a Brexit compromise towards the end of her premiership only to find that this was her last throw of the dice and that she could not deliver a majority of her own MPs to any cross party deal agreed. From Labour’s perspective any chance of building on the relative success of the 2017 result was submerged in the day to day attrition of parliamentary opposition – whilst all the while the clouds of internal undermining and Brexit divisions were swirling and growing around and through the party.
Jones’ final chapter provides a good summary of his (well informed) take on the development, relative success and subsequent battering into defeat of the Corbyn Project. He correctly identifies the key external threats of Brexit, the internal party conflicts about promoting a radical, left of centre programme and the handling of anti-Semitism as key factors in its eventual demise – but is hopeful that its legacy will be of a party that will not return to ‘right of centre’ positions in an attempt to be seen to be able to better manage neo liberal policies than the Tories. He was (despite a few self-confessed wobbles) generally supportive of the project but is also unsparing in his criticisms of the leadership team, in particular its inability to provide a consistent strategic lead that could have grasped key issues more effectively and better held at bay the inevitable attacks from the right and the mainstream media. So I think this an excellent, if painful, book if you want to gain a sense of how the politics played out between groups and individuals within the party and how this affected the course of the project and its final outcome.
However, his final chapter is entitled ‘The Centre Cannot Hold’ which as we all know is shorthand for saying that the conditions conducive to centrist social democracy no longer pertain and that we are facing less consensus and more political divisiveness. He also, as I highlighted earlier, sets out to rebut the notion that radical left of centre parties are doomed to fail in these circumstances – despite acknowledging the difficulties they face. ‘The five years (of the Corbyn Project) underline the lengths much of the establishment will go to in order to destroy any movement which challenges concentrations of wealth and power.’ Quite! He goes on to say ‘Those of us who continue to believe (that we can build a new society free from current ills) must learn from the successes and defeats, gains and mistakes of Corbynism.’
I think Jones has done a good job laying out what those successes and defeats, gains and mistakes were – now he wants us all to do the analysis and learning bit. Fair enough – so I was expecting something which clearly set out what he feels the learning is and, most importantly what could and should be done differently and better in the future to improve the chances of success of any similar project of the radical left. Sadly I did not find this, even though, a bit confused, I immediately re-read the final chapter in case I had missed something. There are a few important observations dotted around which might have formed part of an overall analysis – so let’s start with them:
– Probably most importantly, is his assertion that ‘Brexit underscores that culture wars are poison to political causes focused on redistributing wealth and power rather than on cultural identity. This is an issue that the left must get to grips with.’ I can hardly disagree with that, a focus on cultural identity politics has been effectively used by centre right parties to divert attention away from the single most important driver for inequality and mass global poverty – the way in which our economic relations of production are organised: the relative power of capital and labour. But this is really tricky stuff – as the failure of Corbyn’s internationalism showed – it opened him up to allegations that he was unpatriotic. So a few ideas as to how culture wars might be tackled would have been very helpful …….
– He quotes what must have been a difficult interview with Peter Mandelson where criticisms are made that the 2020 election programme was not ‘realisable’ and that the leadership team lacked experience in winning elections. So from this we can conclude that the election offer to the electorate must be credible and achievable (a point already made by Jones) and that a team with experience of winning elections is desirable. I am tempted again just to say ‘quite’ to that – but there is a more tricky issue here if we are looking at how a leadership team for a radical left programme can be empowered and up skilled to be effective in the context of the hostilities of a general election. The individuals involved are likely to have come from the margins of a centre left party and will have little or no experience of party management and leadership. Maybe it falls to those members of the party who do have that experience to properly support and advise those who find themselves in a leadership role. This would require the party to actively address how it supports itself, regardless of which faction is in the leadership role – a matter that should concern everyone who ascribes to the notion that Labour has to win power before it can hope to effect any change. Having just written this I am aware that if Jones had explicitly promoted this I would have criticised it as being unrealistic, that external forces bearing on the party will always favour the right and expect it to manage and control the left. Hey ho!
– Jones’ frequent criticism of a lack of strategic thinking is well made, as is his acknowledgement that this is hardly surprising given the pressure the leadership team was under, both internally and externally. Maybe the suggestion could be made that the party needs to explicitly acknowledge that such difficulties are unlikely to go away and that a strategy group should be set up within the party, separate to the leadership team but whose work is commissioned by them in order to keep a grip on long term issues and to identify issues arising that require a clear, confident response. There well maybe such a group for all I know, but I guess what is key here is the relationship with the leadership team.
– There is a theme in the book that the leadership team found itself increasingly unable to respond effectively to occurring events and challenges – or simply changing circumstances. This obviously relates once more to the need for the leadership team to retain enough energy and oversight but also suggests that the party should have expectations of more flexibility and agility in responding to change. A good example of this might be the post of the leader itself. This will feel very counter intuitive given how well Corbyn performed in the 2017 election, but is it only hindsight that tells us it was bound to start going downhill from there on in? The leadership team predicted that the parliamentary tactics of the ensuing parliament would not play to their strengths and crucially, the forces that were determined to stop the election of a Corbyn led government (which, it has to be said were legion) had more time to dig dirt and smear it. Jones does flirt with the notion of a change in leadership at that point and hints that John McDonnel may have been a more successful replacement before dismissing it as being, in the circumstances, unrealistic.
So, having done my best to extrapolate from the book’s key themes the lessons for the left of the Labour party and how they might be used to develop a more effective approach in the future, I have to confess to being less than convinced! A key omission from the book for me is the lack of a fuller analysis of the underlying reasons for the rise of neo-liberalism and the withering of social democracy. I found this frustrating and not a little odd given that I know Jones is well read and cites Marx as a key influence on his politics. He makes clear that Corbyn’s election as leader in 2015 was ‘because his opponents had nothing to say’ and that the other flanks of the party were ‘politically and intellectually exhausted with no coherent vision or compelling ideas in an age of convulsion.’ Perhaps the brutal truth is that social democracy as a vehicle for even limited progressive change has had its time and that Jones is simply unable to identify a coherent view of how the left wing of the Labour Party could prove to be more effective in securing power in the future?
To my mind left of centre social democratic movements trying to gain power in the overtly hostile world of 21st century global capitalism / imperialism are seriously up against it – and as Jones acknowledges you cannot underestimate the lengths that established power will go to prevent this happening.
However, there are always conjunctions of events and crises that throw up opportunities for the radical left and one of the reasons I remain involved as a member of the Labour Party is that there needs to be organisation, structure and members in place to take advantage of such situations. As someone once said (sorry, long forgotten the source) ‘there is no democracy for the working class – only opportunities’. But opportunities have to be taken and it is possible that 2017 may have been one such opportunity, with festering anger about increasing inequality and the austerity response to the still yet to be resolved crisis of capitalism in 2007, the destabilizing impact of the narrowness of the referendum majority for Brexit and a seriously under- performing Tory Party. Reading this book leaves me with a strong feeling that the thing that tipped the balance on that occasion was the lack of Labour Party unity. Jones acknowledges the scale of the problem but offers little on how this might be improved to support a future radical left leadership. Having said that, it is a big ask to come up with a plan to tackle this given the well-honed tactic of divide and rule that is deployed by those people and organisations that have all the power.