KICKING THE MOLTEN ASHES: A REVIEW OF GABRIEL POGRUND & PATRICK MAGUIRE ‘LEFT OUT: THE INSIDE STORY OF LABOUR UNDER CORBYN’ (BODLEY HEAD 2020 £18.99) and OWEN JONES ‘THIS LAND’ (PENGUIN 2020 £20)
Larry O’Hara 18/12/20
What exactly did for the Corbyn project, when election defeat in December 2019 led not just to the end of his leadership, but the subsequent (ongoing) marginalisation of the Labour Left, as new Labour Party Leader Keir Starmer attempts to expunge memories of the radical interlude between Corbyn becoming Leader in 2015 and that reversal? Both books address that question, and despite flaws as definitive chronicles of record contain much of interest. Similar things are looked at: Brexit policy, the ‘anti-Semitism’ question, Labour’s campaign strategies and the role played by key individuals. In some cases, the books contradict each other, at other times sing from the same hymn-sheet.
As to whether it is worthwhile dissecting the recent past from a Left perspective, there are two views. One, held for example by the Counterfire group among others, is that defeat ‘proves’ the parliamentary road is a dead end, and should now be abandoned in favour of building struggles from below. I have sympathy with such a perspective, but pessimism of the intellect, to follow Gramsci, means an uprising/revolution along the lines of Russia in 1917 has currently, and for many years past, nothing going for it. Though the importance, indeed essential nature, of grass-roots organising and mobilising from below has everything going for it. Excluding those who want to accommodate to the Starmer regime, the second perspective is that after recovering from understandable demoralisation the Labour Left needs to regroup and fight again, this time to win. Something to be said for this too, as any transition to socialism in the West cannot ignore or simply bypass the electoral level. However, as these two books show, albeit indirectly, any Left project that relies simply on the right tactics and policy coming from the centre/summit of the party is as unlikely to succeed as any reprise of an imagined Russia 1917. What is needed is a creative tension between the mass and parliamentary levels, a strategic consideration of no interest to Pogrund and Maguire, and probably beyond the ability of Jones to comprehend. What makes the Corbyn period interesting, and explains continuing establishment hostility, is that for a brief period it seemed his leadership might combine electoral success with popular mobilisation and advance, something even codified in landmark policy documents, such as ‘Alternative Models of Ownership’, though none are analysed in either book. While it is not surprising Pogrund and Maguire (hereafter P/M) did not do this, it is something you might be entitled to expect Jones does, given his closeness to the Labour policy-making process.
THE GOOD POINTS FIRST
P/M consistently quote from internal Labour Memoranda, which allows separating wheat from chaff in strategic matters. They also provide intriguing detail (tedious meal menus aside) on the plots against Corbyn, including that concocted by those who mostly later left the party, the ‘Deck-Chair Appreciation Society’ (p.62-68/167-89). P/M also, correctly, focus on the atrocious episode following the poisoning of the Skripals in Salisbury in 2018 (p.75-87), when Corbyn seemed unable, and certainly unwilling, to criticise the Putin regime in Russia, by far the most likely party responsible. The farcical claim by the two Russian operatives identified on camera as being responsible that they merely visited Salisbury to check out the Cathedral wasn't even half-credible. That one British citizen (Dawn Sturgess) died after contact with the poison makes everything worse. P/M's account of this affair teases out an important difference between Corbyn and his Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell. Which is that “McDonnell obsessed over the pursuit of power—for without it, Labour could never enact the genuinely radical socialist programme he had spent his career fighting for. Corbyn, on the other hand, prioritised principle, especially when it came to foreign policy, a subject on which he found it difficult to either compromise or say things he did not believe” (p.84). They do not, of course, mention Corbyn was more often right on foreign policy than wrong, notably opposing both Gulf Wars. Indeed, well-founded scepticism about Saddam Hussein’s mythical ‘Weapons of Mass Destruction’ is a plausible explanation for Corbyn’s initially hesitancy in the Skripal affair.
While relentlessly hostile, P/M nonetheless provide important snippets regarding conflicts in the Leader’s Office (p.157-58). At times, though, the venom is such that they forget their own script—so while on page 281 an anonymous (of course) staffer is quoted saying in the matter of Karie Murphy, de facto Chief of Staff “99% of the loyalty went to Karie”—a mere five pages later the “office was divided between those who adored Karie and those who feared her”—not statistically congruent. P/M are insightful however, even if brief, concerning Starmer’s tactics to win over Party members in his leadership campaign (p.334-38).
Rather than using his privileged access to provide meaningful insights Jones is more intent on score-settling, or when not doing that equivocating, balancing his past against his desired current and future constituencies. Yet in one area the book excels: a blow by blow account of how the Labour Right, especially in the Parliamentary Party, consistently conspired against and insulted Corbyn and his few MP allies from Day 1 in 2015 in a nasty and vituperative manner, no more so than in weekly Commons meetings (p.72-90). This, understandably, explains the siege mentality that grew up around the leader (p.95). The importance of chronicling this internal sabotage cannot be overstated, as too many have a vested interest in glossing over these events. Among their number are hacks like P/M, who state that after the failed coup against Corbyn in 2016, when 23 out of 31 Shadow Cabinet members resigned following Hilary Benn’s sacking, that “the Project demanded the support of MPs and gave them nothing in return” (p.32). All most really deserved was deselection, but sadly none suffered it.
Both books excessively use unsourced quotes. P/M justify such by saying that “events that appear in this account are those deemed most important by those who were there” (p.7) but aside from the fact unsourced quotes cannot be verified, some ‘events’ described didn’t happen, such as a ‘nervous call’ to ITN to suppress some footage of Corbyn having a domestic discussion with his wife (p.319)  or the claim Corbyn mistakenly confused the Portuguese Prime Minister with a Conservative MP (p.202) . The broad range of sources they spoke to: over a hundred (p.6) has its own potential downside: speaking anonymously makes it easy to slip in untruths (as above) and fillet out/downplay important truths, all for partisan reasons. After all, it is unlikely many interviewees imagined these authors support Labour, given the Sunday Times/Times editorial stances. By too often not knowing who said what, we are unable to assess veracity.
Jones naively states source “anonymity does not make what they are saying any less heartfelt or true to them” (p.9). He cannot know that: the real question is whether readers might agree with such ‘truth’: hard to gauge when those cited haven’t the courage to speak openly. ‘Feelings’ are no substitute for facts, though in his world may be. A good illustration of how problematic is his approach is citing Jonathan Ashworth, Shadow Health Secretary, as an impartial commentator. Not only has Ashworth form as a hostile anti-Corbyn figure, he is married (albeit now separated) to Emilie Oldknow, former Labour Director of Membership Services until resigning in March 2018, heavily (and discreditably) featured for anti-Corbyn plotting in the leaked Labour NEC Submission concerning anti-Semitism. Jones seems not to have considered the taped telephone conversation between Ashworth and a Tory friend undermining Corbyn’s regime/chances made public days before the 2019 Election might have emerged with Ashworth’s approval. Speaking of the earlier Labour Right attempt to remove Corbyn Ashworth stated “We fucked it up in 2016 when we went too early. People like me were saying internally this isn’t the right moment, but I got ignored” . Because Ashworth is a known quantity, we can thus treat anything he told Jones with appropriate scepticism: not so other anonymous sources.
POGRUND & MAGUIRE TACKLE THE CORBYN PROJECT: OR DO THEY?
You might think, or at least hope, that any effort to understand Labour under Corbyn would display a rudimentary understanding of what the ‘Project’ might have been: after all several previous attempts to do so could have been drawn on . Yet the very first Chapter (by two political correspondents remember) entitled ‘The Project’ never properly defines it, although the phrase is used continually throughout the book. Rather, we are given snide potted biographies of Corbyn, McDonnell, Milne and others, but virtually no political content. Which makes almost amusing their final dig that “by 2019, the Project—pulled apart by the centrifugal forces of Brexit and personality clashes—was barely a coherent entity” (p.359). Being charitable, it is possible to infer ‘The Project’ was in P/M’s view merely short-hand for Labour being elected, but that can hardly be all, for Blair/Brown/Starmer believe in getting elected too. Missing is any real sense of politics and indeed history—superbly illustrated by P/M’s claim that Corbyn “was a man whose like had never been seen at the top of British politics” (p.7). Leaving aside Michael Foot (Leftist credentials severely eroded by the time he became Leader in 1980) does not the name George Lansbury (Labour Leader 1932-35) mean anything to these savants? Evidently not. They do make some rhetorical feints to give unwary readers the impression of even-handedness: admitting for example that “the distrustful and openly mutinous culture of [administrative HQ] Southside…was one of many obstacles imposed by hostile forces that the Project ultimately could not assail” (p.7-8), and Southside was “never reconciled to the Project…to them Corbyn and Corbynism was never legitimate” (p.358). Yet, when it mattered (coverage of anti-Semitism) as we shall see, they accept Southside’s version. As for the right of the Parliamentary Party, apparently “Corbyn was loathed because he could not win” (p.358)—yet given many in the PLP did their best to prevent that, and Corbyn in 2017 achieved a bigger swing to Labour than any since 1945, this is not serious analysis. There is a space for it: but not in this book. What many in the PLP and Party Administration believed was not that Corbyn couldn't win, but that he might, and the policy consequences of that.
JONES ON CORBYN
With his proximity to the Corbyn regime, Jones captures something of the man’s character, by nature conflict averse, often vague, responding to adversity with a bunker mentality (p.97/315). However, too often Corbyn is criticised for simply not adopting his own perspectives: for instance Corbyn’s aversion to the mainstream media, refusing to dance to their tune (p.92/97). The Jones approach is to be (very) wise after the event, while offering little of substance. Thus, Jones claims Corbyn’s camp made two disastrous errors in 2019: “First, its paralysed response to Boris Johnson becoming Prime Minister…Labour had no meaningful plan in place to deal with an outcome which could have been predicted for months” (p.313). His alternative? Not stated. Then the follow up truism— “a disastrous lack of strategy and narrative” (p.313). Very helpful: not. The final piece of wisdom is to criticise Corbyn because enemies using the anti-Semitism issue to toxify his brand “would have been far less effective if the leadership had moved faster, further and more proactively to show genuine resolve and empathy in combating the menace of anti-Semitism” (p.314). Given Jones knows Corbyn is no anti-Semite, indeed has a track-record of supporting the Jewish community (p.222)--this advice is superfluous.
John McDonnell is (justifiably) treated favourably by Jones: it was a “tragedy” he never became Leader (p.315), and is praised for being far quicker than Corbyn to see how the 2018 Skripal poisoning damaged Labour (p.111). Though the awkward fact most Labour MPs would prevent him reaching the ballot paper, as in 2005, is surely relevant. The importance of McDonnell’s change in attitude from accepting Brexit to opposing it during 2019 (p.208) is rightly highlighted by Jones, and too the fact he did not apparently speak to Corbyn for months over the handling of the anti-Semitism issue (p.242).
ANTI-SEMITISM WEAPONISED: THE BACKGROUND
The battle over alleged widespread ‘anti-Semitism’ within the Labour Party has recently reached new heights, following publication in November of a critical Report  by the government created ‘Equality and Human Rights Commission’. This was depicted by the media as indicting Jeremy Corbyn, a Left-leaning prominent supporter of Palestinian rights. Corbyn’s characteristically measured rebuttal of that dominant media narrative  led to him unprecedently (for an ex-Leader) being suspended first from the Labour Party as a whole, and then, when reinstated, from the party in parliament by successor Keir Starmer . This is the subject of furious ongoing debate . My own take for clarity: any anti-Semites in Labour (there are undoubtedly some, albeit very few) should of course be opposed, and dealt with if necessary by expulsion: but not without regard to due process, or by outsourcing to an external body, and certainly with sensitivity, as in the article footnoted . Do we really want a world where politics is outsourced to unelected Quangos like the EHRC? A truly Orwellian situation that would be. A key test for any book on politics is does it aid understanding of events that occur after publication, rather than before, when hindsight operates? On this count, anti-Semitism, both books score well, though not perhaps in the way their authors intended.
INADVERTENTLY REVEALING: POGRUND & MAGUIRE ON ANTI-SEMITISM
P/M start with the unsubstantiated falsehood that “questionable rhetoric and overt hatred towards Jews had always found a happy home on the outermost edges of the organised left”, and after admitting under Corbyn party membership swelled to half a million preposterously claim this was due to “an influx of members whose prejudices for so long went unchecked in little-read pamphlets and poorly attended meetings” (p.98). Preposterous because how could earlier ‘poorly attended meetings’ suddenly became half a million? And no evidence regarding “little-read pamphlets” is offered. Though P/M admit “many Corbynites saw the anti-Semitism allegations as yet another proxy for factional squabbling—and a way for the Jewish Community’s mainstream bodies to punish him for his opposition to Zionism” (p.99)—particularly supporting Palestinians, this is not their own view, or should I say stance, given their fundamental dishonesty. P/M hide behind the formulation that “many of Corbyn’s intimates” (no names of course) believe the “anti-Semitism scandal” was something “the Project forced upon itself” (p.6). The accuracy of the above-mentioned Corbynite take on the matter is, however, underlined by P/M’s revelation that Corbyn’s (questionable) approval of a latently anti-Semitic mural 6 years earlier in 2012 “came to the attention of Luciana Berger”, a Jewish MP, “the morning after her second trip to Fair Oak Farm” for an anti-Corbyn meeting of the Labour Right in March 2018 (p.100). Hardly coincidence. A wave of attacks on Corbyn then ensued, spearheaded by the Jewish Chronicle: which Pogrund used to write for though unaccountably (or maybe not) fails to mention. P/M’s basic intolerance is highlighted by criticising Corbyn’s friendship with anti-Zionist Jews. That this indicates he is not motivated by anti-Semitism but anti-Zionism, something entirely separate in principle, (wilfully) eludes P/M, who of party group Jewish Voice for Labour patronisingly state “the problem for [Corbyn] was not so much that their views were illegitimate but that they were foreign to the majority of British Jews” (p.109). Maybe so, but irrelevant to an anti-Semitism charge. What is striking here is the depth of divisions within the Jewish community, verging on mutual hatred, which undermines the false view of a united body speaking with one voice adhered to by the Board of Deputies and many anti-Semites alike.
Helpfully though, P/M disclose that during the row about whether Labour should adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Association (IHRA) definition of anti-Semitism , itself heavily criticised  the pro-Zionist Jewish Labour Movement (JLM) Chair Ivor Caplin and Executive Member Neil Nerva met Labour General Secretary Jenny Formby and expressed no concerns about the original amended version Corbyn and his allies favoured (p.111). They seek to minimise the significance of this encounter by making snide comments about the two. Thus (unlike virtually nobody else in the book) there are insinuations about JLM leaders disliking ex-MP Caplin being supportive of New Labour, “making frequent use of an ex-MPs access to the parliamentary estate” and even having “delusions of grandeur”, as well as (wait for it) having “already met Jenny Formby once before in private” (p.110). Nerva is described, I kid you not, as “an eccentric Brent councillor known to wear Crocs to Labour meetings” (p.110). A clear hanging offence? I mean the Crocs not the Brent bit…This low-level character assassination by P/M would be puerile were it not serious. I suggest P/M engage in such antics to distract attention from blatant JLM insincerity here. For the subsequent media/political furore ensuing when the JLM and others changed their stance indicates, considered in the light of this meeting, that what was at stake was not anti-Semitism so much as political manoeuvring by the Labour Right/their allies. If the Chair, who by their own account was no Corbyn sympathiser, and his colleague found nothing to object to, why, legitimately, would others in the JLM?
On the anti-Semitism issue, as elsewhere, P/M have a four-part method: outlining an issue, giving space to a right-wing critique of Corbyn, then mounting a half-hearted defence, before finally concluding with another attack. A fifth ploy is when the facts are blatantly against them, they are either ignored or a weasel formulation is used. For instance, when speaking of demands by Starmer’s opponents in the Leadership election that he publish his list of donors because “for all his claims of unity” Starmer “was running a Trojan Horse campaign for Blairite financiers”, they coyly state these worries “turned out to not to be entirely misplaced” (p.352). Predictably, though, P/M do not provide crucial detail: Lord Waheed Alli (ennobled by Blair) donated £100,000 24/2/20, and Trevor Chinn, head of Zionist organisation BICOM, £50,000 on 26/2/20. Starmer took advantage of a loophole in Labour’s rules to avoid declaring (admitting) this and similar funding till the updated Parliamentary Register of members interests on 14/4, after voting had finished on 2/4/20 .
P/M depict Corbyn’s right-wing opponents (until they left in 2018) in the party’s Southside Administrative HQ as wanting to deal with anti-Semitism allegations but being frustrated by the leadership (p.240-41) when the reverse was the case. To be precise, in 2017 one member was expelled for anti-Semitism, in 2018 ten: by 2019 after Jennie Formby as General Secretary streamlined the procedure, forty five were expelled and 104 quit during proceedings . This is not to say all expulsions were justified, but it cannot be denied the Corbyn leadership took the issue seriously, contrary to P/M’s account.
Predictably, the July 2019 BBC hatchet-job Panorama programme fronted by John Ware entitled ‘Is Labour anti-Semitic’ was treated by P/M as though its allegations were factually correct (p.240-45), and there is no mention most ‘whistle-blowers’ in the show were JLM activists .
Yet more P/M disingenuousness is mentioning a “hostile crowd” outside Labour’s Faith Manifesto launch 26/11/19 (p.322), without divulging chief organiser Jonathan Hoffman had recently been given a (legal) restraining order for bullying pro-Palestinian activists: reported in Pogrund’s old paper the Jewish Chronicle (19/6/19). There are other instances where P/M twist, distort or simply omit relevant facts in this area but you should now have the measure of how accurate, and honest, P/M are.
A HYPOCRITICAL WEATHER-VANE: JONES ON ANTI-SEMITISM
Jones coverage of anti-Semitism allegations shows him not so much political strategist as a weather-vane, tossed this way and that by prevailing winds. His prevarications nonetheless underscore why the anti-Semitism issue has been such a useful stick to beat the Labour Left with. He states MP Luciana Berger “had been systematically harassed by anti-Semites, predominantly on the far right—some of whom had gone to prison for making death threats…but was also targeted by some claiming to be on the left” (p.211). The targeting of Berger by Garron Helm of the now outlawed neo-Nazi ‘National Action’ was disgraceful . However, given the current suspension of members of her old local party (Liverpool Wavertree) for criticising Berger (who after all stood against Labour in 2019), which took place before ‘This Land’ went to print , this casual insinuation of Left anti-Semitism is unacceptable. While Jones rightly criticises “conspiracism…a belief in shadowy individuals pulling strings behind the scenes” (p.216), he absurdly terms it Leftist. After correctly criticising Israeli policy, he then capitulates, writing that “for many Palestinians the concept of Zionism cannot be separated from their lived experience of occupation and the deprivation of their own right to national self-determination”. True: but then immediately states “different sensitivities apply to discussion in the West” (p.219), elaborating with the straw man argument that “for many Jews, angry denunciations of Zionists mean one thing…purely and simply a contemporary manifestation of age-old angry tirades against the Jews” (p.220). Yet what most of the Left, including Corbyn, object to is Zionism (not necessarily angrily), and this conflating anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism Corbyn and most Leftists have spent a lifetime rejecting, so Jones is really disappointing here, as well as egregiously insulting Palestinians. Apropos angry denunciations of Zionism though, did not his own appearance on BBC Question Time vehemently denouncing Israeli maltreatment of Palestinians (12/7/14 still on You-Tube) which elicited a stirring round of applause exactly fit the bill as something Jones now disavows? Or was it alright then but not now? Or is he saying angry denunciations of Zionists actions are acceptable, as long as there is no mention of the ideology inspiring those actions?
Ironically (if one is still allowed the word in any discussion of anti-Semitism) Jones does concede Corbyn’s pro-Palestinian views were why many Zionists found him unacceptable (p.222), but immediately negates this understanding by criticising Leftists who believe the “anti-Semitism crisis was entirely manufactured as a means to destroy the Corbyn project” (p.225). Here he is in accord with P/M. Unfortunately, while not entirely manufactured, certainly exaggerated: read carefully both these books, especially P/M, provide ample evidence for that proposition. Jones for sure knows Corbyn, and the vast majority of Labour members, are not anti-Semitic (p.255). However, it appears Jones is shamelessly positioning himself as a post-Corbyn commentator Zionists can ‘do business with’.
Jones says this issue (and Brexit) exemplify “a classic failing of the Corbyn era: resisting taking an unavoidable step, then suffering self-inflicted damage, and gaining no credit whatsoever for finally bowing to the inevitable” (p.212). What counts as ‘inevitable’ is that elusive miasma ‘public opinion’—luckily Lenin and any other leader of consequence always seek to shape public views rather than slavishly follow them. Jones does not grasp that if Corbyn or whoever capitulates to transient opinion as he suggests, even were electoral victory to come, it would be meaningless, as Starmer may find out.
BREXIT: JONES THE SOMERSAULT ARTIST
Speaking of Brexit, Jones coyly alludes to his own political somersaults on the issue: first supporting it (p.169), then criticising, then ostensibly accepting it and finally supporting a second referendum (p.259). Unfortunately, he is not honest about what he said in 2015, described in the book as merely a suggestion “the Left debate the case for a Left exit” (p.169) when he in fact initially advocated exit: the clue being even in the article’s title “The left must put Britain’s EU withdrawal on the agenda” . In 2016 I drew attention to his earlier change of heart, in particular the unscrupulous way when flipping from an anti to pro EU perspective did not explain his altered views in a way that took account of his original arguments. Nothing wrong with changing your mind, it is the explanations for why that deserve consideration, to assess how genuine it might be. For what it’s worth, my own political journey from indifference regarding the EU to rooted hostility illustrates hopefully what a genuinely felt change of mind reads like: judge for yourself .
As an indictment of Labour for not strategically linking support for Brexit (the original Corbyn and John McDonnell perspective) the angst Jones chronicles is certainly food for thought. However, while critical of Corbyn, Jones is characteristically confused as to what should have been done differently. He states after the 2017 Election “was the ideal moment for Corbyn to make categorically clear that Labour would never support a new referendum, and would seek to implement the 2016 decision” (p.184). You might be forgiven for thinking Jones believes this is what Corbyn should have done. By 2019, as Jones sheepishly admits (p.259) he himself had flipped again, this time to support a second referendum, misleading named ‘The People’s Vote’, as though people hadn’t voted in 2016. More recently, after the book’s publication, Jones has adopted yet another pose: criticising ‘hard remainers’ for giving other remainers “false hope that the referendum result could be reversed…all attempts at compromise were maligned by the official remain campaigns…every possible option other than a second referendum—or even stopping Brexit altogether without consulting the British people—was toxified” . Jones himself of course, had announced his conversion to this very cause a mere 18 months earlier: three years after these ‘hard remain’ campaigns took to the field.
Jones changing his opinions as often, to paraphrase Balzac, as his shirts, matters because it inhibits him from truly understanding Labour’s Brexit dilemma, other than the obvious fact membership EU support was at odds with many in the leadership such as Seumas Milne, Andrew Murray, Ian Lavery, Jon Trickett and Jeremy Corbyn himself (p.288). These people (as well as serious thinkers like Grace Blakeley and Costas Lapavitsas) are sceptical about the EU precisely because membership is incompatible with many of the radical economic reforms/state interventions the Corbyn programme calls for. Having no serious grasp of economic policy, this point passes Jones by. Jones also has a faulty grasp of actual politics at times too, strangely enough. Thus, he bemoans that after Boris Johnson took over as Tory leader in 2019 “the Conservative’s new mantra was ‘the People versus Parliament’: the popular will expressed by the referendum of 2016 was being deliberately obstructed by a shamelessly undemocratic and out of touch political elite. It was a framing which Milne and other aides had feared, but failed to counter” (p.278). If they ‘failed to counter’ it, this was at least partly because it was substantially true! For Jones, this ‘framing’ “in real terms…was nonsense Britain is a parliamentary democracy and the referendum result was supposed to be about clawing back sovereignty to the House of Commons” (p.279). How utterly shallow: does Jones really think many Leave voters were parliamentary enthusiasts? Rather, the slogan ‘Take Back Control’ while falsely implying ordinary people ever had control undoubtedly tapped into sentiments among Leave voters that leaving the EU might lead to control, and snub elites in the process. In any case, is it not strange for a supposed radical like Jones to fetishize Parliament this way rather than genuine popular democracy? Or is he perhaps not sincere about challenging “concentrations of wealth and power” (p.9) in an “emancipatory project” (p.10). Also, consider this: in yet another change of position, Jones has very recently criticised Corbyn’s capitulation to members wanting a second referendum because it “left [him] looking like an unprincipled zig-zagger, contributing to the collapse in his personal ratings” . In this tactic, zig-zagging/somersaults, Jones is an expert: currently five on this issue alone, and counting.
A STRANGE WEAKNESS: POGRUND & MAGUIRE ON BREXIT
P/Ms treatment of the issue is pedestrian, slightly surprising given a Sunday Times colleague of Pogrund’s has written two excellent books on the subject . Though they do reveal Shadow Brexit Secretary Keir Starmer engaged in secret talks over Brexit with Tory rebels Philip Hammond, David Gauke and Oliver Letwin, and was the key figure behind Hilary Benn’s ostensibly cross-party amendment designed to frustrate Brexit in September 2019 (p.233). Furthermore, they remind us that Paul Mason, who like Jones enjoys ‘star status’ among some Leftists, was in political cahoots with Starmer as early as August 2019 (p.334-5). However, their account of negotiations between Corbyn and Theresa May (p.209-17) tells us little of interest. Perhaps because Brexit is not as important to P/M as crucifying the Corbyn leadership for alleged anti-Semitism.
ANDREW FISHER: LABOUR’S MACAVITY?
Both books at times concentrate excessively, if understandably, on personal intrigues and departures, such as the rise and fall of Karie Murphy, Corbyn’s de facto Chief of Staff (Jones p.12-1-25/267-77, P/M p.159-66). Yet in the cold light of post-election day much of this is of interest primarily only to those involved.
However, some conflicts reported are strategically interesting, none more so than that between Andrew Fisher (Director of Policy) and Seumas Milne (Director of Strategy & Communication). Internecine if intermittent conflict between the two is covered in both books. While Fisher gets a far easier ride, fortuitously P/M let slip things about his activities that contrast with the hagiographical tone Jones adopts.
Andrew Fisher took up his post in 2015, Corbyn (or perhaps McDonnell as Corbyn doesn’t do books) having been impressed by his writing . He wrote the 2017 Manifesto, and the 2019 one too. P/M state that “whereas in 2017 Milne had signed off on all strategic decisions, now he was merely one of many voices in the room. Fisher, meanwhile, had refused to share the draft manifesto with him” (P/M p.312). They also say “significantly, Milne’s exclusion meant that there was little framing or narrative to the manifesto. If the policy bonanza appeared to have been written by a policy wonk alone, that is because it had been” (P/M p.317). As for the policies, “while many of the initiatives were individually popular, they did not, in the eyes of most voters, make for a coherent package” (p.317). Not only is this last fact incontrovertible, this account comes from authors who have no liking for Milne, or obvious motive to spin on his behalf.
Jones has history with Fisher, a colleague and friend described as “intimidatingly competent” (p.22), though on reflection this accolade from Jones is not the plaudit it might seem. The consequence for the book, and Jones’ version of history, is that criticism of Fisher is airbrushed out, even when relevant. Thus, Jones mentions the December 2018 letter of complaint signed by numerous Labour staffers, criticising the divisive and toxic culture and lying/intimidation inside Corbyn’s office. However, he informs us that “though the letter mentioned ‘management’ throughout, it was Murphy the staff mostly had in mind” (p.274). Yet turning to P/M we find that both Milne and Fisher were in the firing line too, for “lack of professionalism and basic support” (p.157), the primary complaints against both “being incompetence and an inability to lead. One person in Fisher’s team claimed that the majority of his subordinates signed the letter” (p.158). Given the signatories and indeed those quoted were anonymous, if that was actually so we cannot tell. We can say, however, that Jones deflects attention from his mate Fisher, that is for sure. In marked contrast with Seumas Milne as we shall see, not one quote critical of Fisher appears in this book, even anonymously: and of course Fisher, like his friend Jones, wants to reinvent himself for the post-Corbyn era.
Turning to the crux of the matter, Labour’s 2019 Election campaign, astoundingly Jones does not mention Fisher wrote the 2019 Manifesto, even once. Yet Fisher is repeatedly cited criticising the campaign, including the Milne-inspired slogan ‘It’s Time For Real Change’, about which Fisher comments “If that’s your strategy with the slogan, you have to show how you’re real change”, which “was never worked out, and indeed it didn’t cut through” (Jones p.289). Fisher is also quoted saying that dropping a major new policy without laying the foundations to explain why it was necessary “just leaves people cold…and it did” (Jones p.299). No mention of his own role. Jones goes on to cite an (un-named) official as saying “I didn’t think the manifesto was deliverable in that time-frame” (Jones p.300). Not only does Jones omit Fisher’s involvement in this scenario, he reports with a straight face the latter decrying the fact there was “no strategy, no planning, no themes, no narrative” (p.301). Even where Jones acknowledges Fisher did something: helping construct “a campaign with policies and a basic ‘Grid—the schedule and key themes of the campaign” (p.289), his admission two pages later that “the Grid was completely ill-suited for an election campaign” (p.291) does not allude to Fisher bearing some responsibility, nor does Jones when commenting that in 2019 “the reliance on policy was greater than ever, but this time, unanchored by any clear narrative or vision” (p.298). Looked at it in the light of what Pogrund and Maguire reveal about the actual manifesto-writing process, Jones omitting the part played by Fisher but then allowing him free rein to bad-mouth the campaign nonetheless is chutzpah of the highest order.
Then there is the matter of Andrew Fisher’s resignation letter (14/9/19) complaining of a “lack of professionalism, competence and human decency” in the leadership team, although reassuring recipients that “I won’t be briefing the press against anyone…I am not sharing this message with anyone else” . Yet shared it was, to Pogrund’s paper the Sunday Times in September 2019, an event that prompts 5 pages of P/M speculation (or more precisely disinformation p.268-72) concerning who might have done it, they even tell us there were 17 people on the WhatsApp group it went to (p.263). This same Fisher who had apparently complained about a media lack of interest in himself (P/M p.263) is not included as a possible suspect. Jones himself does not even speculate as to the source (p.265) when he is in an excellent position to at least hazard a guess, not least because the day the story broke he was one of two friends who visited Fisher for a supposedly “consolatory whisky” (P/M p.266). Why might he need consoling when this gave Fisher the publicity he craved? Does Jones think readers are not interested in who leaked the letter? As have I, draw your own conclusions as to why both books cover the letter leaking the way they do.
All in all, Fisher’s role in the final days of the Corbyn regime ineluctably calls to mind nothing so much as Macavity the Cat, featured in the TS Eliot poem.
JONES ON SEUMAS MILNE: A JEALOUSY THAT DARE NOT SPEAK ITS NAME?
To be fair, while P/M have no liking for Milne, aside from fatuous comments about him drifting into meetings late carrying coffee and munching pastries, and being distrusted by most Labour MPs: who also hated Corbyn of course, what is said indicates Milne is an impressive operator. Whether it be his “refusal to commit anything to text or email” (p.15) or adherence to the old Bennite position on Brexit and opposition to the EU (p.70/192), description of the EU as ‘prophets of capital’ (p.71) and an early understanding that under Boris Johnson the Tories were “stealing our lines. We can’t attack him on austerity” (p.227). His contempt for the BBC and ITV lack of impartiality is chronicled, as too his dislike for garrulous wind-bag Robert Peston (p.313). His view Labour should not have accepted Johnson’s offer of an early election has also in retrospect been vindicated (p.290). Though he did not impose his support for the Palestinian cause on Corbyn, Milne certainly shared it. Thus, Milne emerges from P/M’s book as a substantial figure.
Jones, however, has a dislike for Milne verging on the pathological, undermining his claim to be writing a “clear-eyed assessment” (p.9). He starts calmly enough, admitting Milne, his former mentor at the Guardian, possesses undoubted wit, wide reading intelligence and charm (p.99-100). The fact Corbyn often introduced ‘The Great Milne’ as the “person who thinks for us” (p.100) is hardly to Milne’s detriment, even if to Corbyn’s. Milne is also described as working a 12-hour day and seven-day week (p.100). Jones also concedes that at “key moments he made judgement calls which were controversial but subsequently vindicated. After the horror of the Manchester bombings in 2017, Milne was among the loudest voices calling for Labour to link the hiked risk of terrorism with British foreign policy, a position which, it turned out, chimed with the British public…and…Milne’s assessment of electoral reality about the importance of winning round Leave voters concentrated in marginal seats—was sound” (p.101). An impressive record, you might think, even if it should be conceded that Corbyn's reponse to the Manchester attacks resonated in part for domestic policy reasons: his denunciation of cuts in police numbers, especially armed police, which took place on Theresa May's watch first as Home Secretary then as Prime Minister.
However, after these remarks the tone changes, and nearly ten vituperative pages attacking Milne follow. A former aide (anonymous of course) is quoted attacking him for not adhering to deadlines, or covering issues of the day, being unable to think in advance and not very proactive: ironically the Manchester bombing and Brexit put the lie to that on the same page (p.101). According to yet more anonymous aides his “apparent non-engagement” (p.101) meant Milne often “simply wasn’t physically present…would turn up to strategy meetings late and would waltz in and out often munching on food…often wouldn’t turn up at all” (p.102).
The barrel is further scraped criticising Milne for allowing a behind the scenes documentary without clearing it with others first (p.103)—the same Milne criticised for not understanding 24/7 media coverage needs (p.101). Attempting to get serious the all-seeing Jones tells us “the Corbyn project was glaring in its lack of strategy—and given Milne was executive director of communications and strategy, the buck stopped with him” (p.104). Not strictly true: that would be Corbyn but even if partly true, why then is Milne held responsible here in a way that Fisher, who wrote the 2019 Manifesto isn’t? Another detractor states “there wasn’t any strategic direction…Seumas never provided us with a strategic direction” (p.104). Which doesn’t quite explain Jones citing what sounds like two Milne strategy documents (p.287/288), though perhaps Jones simply didn’t understand them.
While criticising Milne as a poor delegator, Jones nonetheless describes his de facto number two James Schneider “as organized, extremely bright and [he] became one of the most competent senior members of Corbyn’s staff” (p.106). While not doubting this, one must ask: how did this happen if Milne did not delegate? Condescendingly, Jones remarks “Milne’s talents and skills are undeniable, and he would have fared well as a trusted political adviser to Corbyn”, concluding this diatribe by saying that “ultimately leadership had to come from the leader—and it didn’t” (p.108). Contradicting what he wrote four pages earlier, but you’ll understand by now consistency isn’t a Jones trait.
One thing Jones criticises Milne for illustrates, even though Milne was ultimately proved wrong, the difference between a critical mind and weather vane. In relation to the Skripal poisonings, he quotes a “deeply damaging” Milne briefing to journalists where he apparently said “there is a history in relation to weapons of mass destruction and intelligence which is problematic to put it mildly” before suggesting the nerve agent could have ended up in random hands, I.e. not necessarily the Russian state. Of this, Jones states that “given that Labour would inevitably end up accepting that the Russian regime was behind the Skripal poisoning, it was hard to see what was to be gained by voicing such scepticism” (p.110). The answer to this facile question is Milne and Corbyn (though seemingly not Jones) had clear memories of lies about fictitious ‘weapons of mass destruction’ propagated by British spooks and accepted enthusiastically by Tony Blair as justifying the Second Gulf War. While Milne’s precise formulation could have been more nuanced, his retaining a critical perspective at the time was absolutely right.
So determined is Jones to present Milne in a bad light he even rearranges the chronology so Chapter 5 on a highly creditable 2017 Election campaign is placed before that on the 2016 EU Referendum: for the success of which Milne is blamed. Reversing the order of events this way suits Jones’ purpose well: speaking of a Jeremy Corbyn speech 20/4/17 we learn “suddenly Corbynism had found its purpose, as an insurgent, take on the elite, populism: the people against the establishment. Here on the stump, Corbyn was in his element”—i.e. putting across a focussed message. Jones has to acknowledge it was Milne who coined the effective ‘For The Many Not The Few’ slogan (p.132), indeed he goes further, stating that during the 2017 election “here was the leadership working as a solidly united team with a common agreed vision: Milne refining the messages…Fisher devising the manifesto” (p.137). Not only does this shoot down in flames the anonymous detractors above, there were two key differences between 2017 and 2019: Milne, as P/M show, was no longer central, and Fisher wrote the manifesto without Milne’s strategic input, neither things referred to in Jones.
Bitterness towards Milne is not hard to explain. The age-old motives of jealousy and envy—not least of Milne’s unwavering commitment to principle including anti-Zionism--perhaps go a long way to explaining the stance of Jones and Fisher. Concerning Jones, I sense a great self-doubt: while he imagines himself a great political strategist, deep down Jones lacks the independence of mind, capacity for intelligent reflection and sense of history necessary to fulfil such a role. Instead, as his antics on Brexit show, Jones is an inconsequential lightweight: hating Milne precisely because he isn’t.
Both books adopt a slightly apocalyptic tone, seeking to explain a failure seen as somewhat inevitable in the circumstances. Yet ultimately the air of impending doom and chaotic denouement conveyed is about as useless as if the dying days of the Allende regime in 1973 Chile had been recorded and transcribed. They share another important weakness: by overly-concentrating on events at the top of Labour, the bulk of the half million members, especially outside London, do not get a look in.
A potential danger is that both accounts could become accepted as a mainstream (Pogrund and Maguire) or alternatively Leftist (Jones) definitive historical record of the Corbyn regime and its fall. In P/M’s case, it would be tragic if their acquiescence in weaponizing anti-Semitism came to define Jeremy Corbyn’s time in office. Regarding Jones, the problem is even more acute. On 6/11/20 he launched his own (access by payment) You-Tube Channel, no doubt intuiting time at The Guardian may be short. Jones rails against “the corporate media”, with images of stories he dislikes from the Express, Mail and Sun, though predictably The Guardian, solvent in large part due to ingenious tax avoidance over many years by the Scott Trust, is not included. Emphasising the shallow nature of political discourse currently, while his channel has 144,000 subscribers, the more rigorous and rational Novara media, in existence for over eight years, only has 104,000. This cult of the (airhead) celebrity commentator is a real problem Left strategy needs to confront and transcend.
While the book needed to set the record straight, by Seumas Milne hopefully, hasn’t yet been written, there are significant morsels in both these tomes. Firstly, the relentless hostility of the Establishment in its broadest sense to any serious Left Government project pulsates through many pages. In particular, the resolute enmity of the Labour Right, who would far rather lose elections than see a Left government take power. In that regard attempts by the Labour Left to accommodate hostile MPs should not be repeated. If the Corbyn era showed anything, it was having most Labour Party members on-side, or at least sympathetic to the Left, even when allied to a Left leadership, is not enough. Every Labour MP not supportive of the Left, and the vast majority never were, is/would be an obstacle to any Left government. Secondly, the insulated and elitist nature of the policy-making process, barely involving Labour members, much less Momentum, is something that should not recur if progress is to be made. Though the problem goes deeper than that: without mass mobilisation of activists in the party and outside, in the social movements and the class, any radical project would be strangled at an early stage. In that regard, just as with the early 1980s Labour Left project chronicled well by Leo Panitch and others  and more recent strategic thinking , as part of regroupment prior to again beginning the long march, there is much to learn from the recent past. In this, these two books are of some, if limited, use. But while they kick the molten ashes neither is capable of anything more.
2) James Schneider on Twitter: "Yeah but not true. I was on this trip. Jeremy raised the Costa amendment as a good development (PES leaders are concerned for their citizens' rights). The Portuguese delegation were understandably confused for a minute as they didn't know who the Costa referred to was. JC did." / Twitter
3) General election 2019: Jonathan Ashworth apologises after Corbyn criticism leak - BBC News The Truth About Jonathan Ashworth and Emilie Oldknow: An Anti-Corbyn Retrospective – Thoughts of a Leicester Socialist (wordpress.com)
4) for example Mark Perryman (ed) ‘The Corbyn Effect Lawrence & Wishart 2017, the more substantial Richard Seymour ‘Corbyn: The Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics’ Verso 2017 and Robin Blackburn’s impressive meta-narrative ‘The Corbyn Project’ New Left Review 111 May-June 2018. Though John Rees ‘The Corbyn Project’ Counterfire 2019 would have been outside their time frame and ability to comprehend
7) Jeremy Corbyn to have Labour whip suspended for at least three months | Politics | The Guardian)
12) pdf (parliament.uk). See also Who funded Keir Starmer’s campaign? | by Bob Pitt | Medium 19/4/20
13) Jones p.248, see also Jennie Formby on Twitter: "My statement following today's EHRC report: https://t.co/OEqdrkaZtZ" / Twitter 29/10/19
14) ‘The Labour Party Was Wrong to Apologize to Jeremy Corbyn’s Critics’ Justin Schlosberg www.jacobinmag.com 23/7/20
15) 'Unmasked': Merseysider jailed for anti-Semitic tweet to Luciana Berger shows a 'dark side' - Liverpool Echo 22/10/14 (Alisha Rouse)
16) Labour suspends four Wavertree CLP officers - The Jewish Chronicle (thejc.com) Lee Harpin 30/5/20, Jones cites articles on Coronavirus from June 2020 on p.7/8
17) Guardian on-line 14/7/15
18) Notes From The Borderland - THE GREEN LEFT CASE FOR BREXIT 28/2/16, with later introduction 13/11/16
19) ‘Hard Remainers wouldn’t accept a soft Brexit. Now we’re all paying the price’ Guardian on-line 7/12/20
20) ‘Hard Remainers wouldn’t accept a soft Brexit. Now we’re all paying the price’ Guardian on-line 7/12/20
21) Tim Shipman ‘All Out War’ (2017) & ‘Fall Out’ (2018) both William Collins
22) Andrew Fisher ‘The Failed Experiment: and how to build an economy that works’ Comerford & Miller 2014
24) see Leo Panitch & Colin Leys ‘The End of Parliamentary Socialism’ Verso 2001, ‘Searching for Socialism’ Verso 2020, Leo Panitch Sam Gindin and Stephen Maher ‘The Socialist Challenge Today’ Haymarket 2020
25) for example Christine Berry & Joe Guinan ‘People Get Ready! Preparing for a Corbyn Government’ OR Books 2019, introduction by Jones ironically, also Grace Blakeley ‘Stolen: How to Save the World From Financialisation’ Repeater Books 2019