The book’s title is somewhat misleading: it’s the inside story of the circle of advisers and strategists around Jeremy Corbyn’s office, not the story of the movement that backed him. Jones gives a lively account of Corbyn’s election as party leader and the immediate attempts by the parliamentary party to unseat him. He describes the initial disorganisation of the leader’s office confronted with the infighting of the party bureaucracy, which was resolved when the calling of the 2017 general election gave the Corbyn team a new focus: an “insurgent, take-on-the-elite populism.”
The party’s relative success in the election led to new problems, in particular the need to articulate a coherent policy on Brexit. Jones argues that the Corbyn leadership missed the chance to make clear it would not support a second referendum and present instead an alternate Brexit plan that would focus on workers’ rights and jobs. That didn’t happen: it’s easy to say these things in hindsight, but at the time the party as a whole was conflicted over whether to advocate a progressive leave strategy, or work to stay in the EU.
Jones points out that the Remain movement, which gathered steam through 2018, had the support of many in the membership who reacted to the xenophobia of Tory Brexit propaganda. But there were also bad actors within Labour who saw Brexit “as a convenient wedge issue, something to provoke a split between the Labour leadership and the largely pro-Remain Labour membership,” as he puts it – including hostile MPs and even more hostile political operatives like Peter Mandelson.
The compromises made at the 2018 party conference on the issue “catastrophically damaged” Corbyn, says Jones. Keir Starmer broke with party policy to advocate a second referendum with Remain on the ballot. But by attempting to bridge the sides in the cabinet, Corbyn, says Jones, “had spent the two and a half years since the election in a constant but erratic retreat from accepting the referendum result,” and by 2019 voters saw him as “weak, indecisive and a flipflopper.” Jones implicitly blames Corbyn’s indecision for the conflicts within his leadership team. But he doesn’t discuss the ideological confusion over Brexit on the left, some tending to submerge it under domestic economic issues, although he credits Seumas Milne with keeping Labour’s Brexit position “intentionally vague.”
Were the accusations of antisemitism in the Labour party all the responsibility of the leader? Or were there larger social forces at work? The support for Corbyn had channeled the mass antiwar movement of 2003 into the electoral system. This posed a challenge to the military and intelligence communities in the Anglo-Israeli-American alliance as well as the lucrative British arms industry with its links to both Labour and Tory politicians, both closely connected to the media. Corbyn’s foreign policy plans that would have ended the selling of arms to Saudi Arabia were a threat to these entrenched forces, and they worked assiduously to discredit him.
At first, as Jones points out, the onslaught against Corbyn centred on his lack of patriotism, then on his contacts with the IRA during the peace agreement negotiations, then on his initial decision to accept the results of the Brexit referendum. But the anti-semitism allegations were more difficult to defend against. They were taken up and amplified by Corbyn’s many political opponents in the establishment.
After Jones gives a sanitized version of the relations between Israel and Labour, he gives the impression that more effective political messaging would have dealt with the accusations. He criticizes Labour’s responses as being ad hoc, there was “no coherent strategy within the leader’s office on how to tackle claims of antisemitism,” he says. Corbyn’s public interventions “were often angry and defensive, centring on his lifelong opposition to racism.” After Margaret Hodge called Corbyn “a fucking antisemite” in the House of Commons, he was “shaken up;” when John McDonnell attempted to patch things up with Hodge, fearing a split in the PLP, Corbyn refused to speak with him and became detached from his staff. According to Karie Murphy, “he was paralysed. He was being asked to do things that in some way would confirm in people’s miinds that the reason he had to do those things was because he was antisemitic.”
Jones blames the “lack of both strategy and emotional intelligence” on the part of the leadership, which he thinks should from the start have “displayed an uncompromising opposition to antisemitism, and offered more vocal support for the Palestinian cause.” But Corbyn’s defensiveness “led him to disengage and shut down when antisemitism was discussed … Corbyn’s slow-motion collapse encapsulated that of the movement. The relationships within the leader’s office had started to crumble.” This begs the question of whether any form of strategic appeasement would have ended the assault from social forces hostile in the extreme to a socialist foreign policy. The fragmentation of the Corbyn leadership team reflected not just its unpreparedness, but the extent of the establishment’s opposition to a socialist agenda. If Corbyn appeared to be “broken” by the antisemitism claims, that demonstrated the extent of his isolation at a time when he was trying to hold the party together.
Jones constructs another narrative of leadership paralysis after Johnson took over the Tory party – it was “frozen in the headlights of Johnson’s victory.” When Tom Watson faced being sacked, “as usual, Corbyn, when faced with an impasse, had gone AWOL.” But Jones is an unreliable witness when he discusses the 2019 conference vote on a second referendum. Out of two competing resolutions, one advocated that the party remain neutral in the referendum, while the other mandated it to campaign for Remain. Delegates voted down the Remain motion, while according to Jones “during the whole process Corbyn himself had been withdrawn, almost invisible.” Jones was at the conference, as I was, so he knows that during this time the Supreme Court was adjudicating the legality of Johnson’s prorogation of parliament. Corbyn was working with MPs at Westminster to work out some kind of strategy. Before the vote on the referendum he intervened at the conference with a compelling speech arguing that the party should advocate for a neutral stance in any forthcoming referendum – which is why it was carried. He was hardly “invisible.”
Although Jones acknowledges that Corbyn was driven by a deep-rooted commitment to building a world free of exploitation and racism, he concludes that Corbyn’s aversion to conflict “rendered him chronically indecisive, and his leadership sometimes directionless and rudderless.” Corbyn was in an impossible position: “His stubbornness ensured his survival in the face of an unprecedented assault from every direction, but it also left him all too defensive and contributed to a bunker mentality some of his allies perpetuated.” Jones thinks it a tragedy for the left that McDonnell never assumed the leadership. But whether members would have voted for him, “whether there was something about Corbyn’s personality … that was key to his triumph” is untestable. But he leaves the question of what that “something” was unanswered.
Perhaps a better coda to Jones’ narrative is Craig Murray’s comments about the leaked report on rightwing factionalism within the Labour bureaucracy. He says it is hard to read the report without concluding that Corbyn lacked the requisite ruthlessness to deal with his enemies in the party. “But then, his not being a ruthless bastard is why so many people flocked to support Corbyn in the first place.”
Owen Jones, This Land: The Story of a Movement, Allen Lane/Penguin Random House, 2020