A week before the general election of 2019, Jeremy Corbyn’s private secretary furnished his aides and closest allies with an itinerary. Among its contents was a giddy encapsulation of what would happen to the Labour leader and his circle on 13 December: “busy day!!! Number 10”.
Instead, as the political journalists Gabriel Pogrund and Patrick Maguire put it, “an era collapsed around them”. Not much more than two years before, Labour had achieved its biggest increase in vote share since 1945, and the summer’s great cultural moment had been the massed singing of “Oh, Jeremy Corbyn” at Glastonbury; now, amid the darkness and rain of winter, a great domino-chain of supposed Labour heartlands fell to the Conservatives. In the early autumn, when the Labour leader and his team had been shown polling that predicted such a disaster, the response of the then shadow minister and Corbyn supporter Ian Lavery had been disbelief: “People in the north just won’t vote Tory! It just won’t happen!” But it did.
Left Out is a meticulous and even-handed telling of Labour’s descent from 2017 to 2019, transparently modelled on the recent bestsellers All Out War and Fall Out by the Sunday Times’s political editor Tim Shipman – but where those books centred on Tory dramas of power and political success, this one is all about failure. The book’s detailed accounts of tension, fallings-out and the ingrained fondness for factional warfare on all sides of the Labour party often rock along. But for any casual reader, its main problem will be a surfeit of characters who have since slipped into irrelevance – from the Guardian columnist turned “director of strategy and communications” Seumas Milne, through Corbyn’s evidently fearsome chief of staff Karie Murphy, to an array of minor players who bounce in and out of the text.
The book’s foundation is the slightly pitiful story of Corbyn himself. As the authors put it, he “was not a politician for the Brexit age. It demanded that he exercise executive power with a regularity and force that seemed beyond him.” Pathologically averse to confrontation, he tried to avoid the issue of Britain’s exit from the EU rather than take any kind of lead. When the divisive tenor of post-referendum politics (made worse, it has to be said, by the left’s eternal tendency to internecine strife) reached his own circle, the mess that resulted was perhaps inevitable. What hardly helped was a politics that mixed its righteous belief in equality and solidarity with a ragbag of unseemly attitudes and ideas that reflected a hitherto fringe element of British politics.
One of these was a deferential view of Vladimir Putin, partly traceable to Milne and the close Corbyn aide Andrew Murray’s backgrounds in British communism, and their affinity with the old Soviet Union. In March 2018, when news broke of the poisoning of a former KGB agent and his daughter in Salisbury and blame fell on the Russian state, Corbyn made the risible suggestion that the toxic substance in question be sent to Moscow for testing. Soon after, Milne re-emphasised that proposal, and drew comparisons with the build-up to the invasion of Iraq. In the office of John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, an adviser was seemingly so enraged that he kicked a waste bin, and then let rip: “That’s fucking going to cost us the election! That’s fucking stupid. Who the fuck does stuff like that?”
The other key story linked to the ugly underbelly of far-left politics was that of antisemitism: its presence among a nasty, credulous element of the party’s new membership, the leadership’s apparent tolerance of it, and past occasions when Corbyn had either shared the company of antisemites, or come dangerously close to apparently voicing age-old prejudices (witness the occasion when, in 2013, he took issue with unnamed “Zionists” who “having lived in this country for a very long time, probably all their lives, don’t understand English irony” – on the face of it, a classic view of Jews as an eternally alien presence).
To some of his supporters, Corbyn’s stubborn and defiant responses to this unfolding disaster may have looked commendably principled, but they deepened the mire. A prime example was Corbyn and Milne’s refusal to entertain the idea of Labour officially embracing the entire text of the definition of antisemitism authored by the International Holocaust Remembrance Association, which caused weeks of political fallout until the party’s national executive committee finally adopted the document in full. Another was the episode involving the veteran Jewish Labour MP Margaret Hodge, who accused Corbyn to his face of being “an antisemite and a racist” (or, in some accounts, “a fucking antisemite and a racist”) and was then the subject of formal disciplinary action. As seemed to happen quite a lot, John McDonnell felt the whole thing was a mad diversion: “He did not see the point of jeopardising Labour’s standing for the sake of winning an argument with an elderly Jewish MP on a point of principle that was to most voters beyond arcane.” But the damage was done.
Pogrund and Maguire’s stories are largely restricted to goings-on in SW1. But Corbynism was always more complicated than that. Beyond Westminster, the multitudes it brought into the Labour party included thousands of spirited, open people whose politics came not from dead Russians, but a deep desire to render politics on the left much more meaningful than the pre-Corbyn Labour party would allow. These people became members and activists for the best reasons; one of the tragedies of 2019 was how they were led into an electoral ditch. On the face of it, this might be the perspective offered by Owen Jones’s This Land, whose subtitle is The Story of a Movement.
For his first 30-odd pages, he sticks to this brief, exploring such trailblazing political initiatives as the anti-tax avoidance campaign UK Uncut, and the spectacular student protests of 2010, which set the stage for a surge of interest in the politics of the left. But then, for some reason, he zeroes in on Corbyn, McDonnell, Milne, Murray, Murphy et al, and tells much the same stories as Pogrund and Maguire, but without their journalistic detachment.
Instead, he claims to bring the perspective of both “observer and participant”. When Corbyn first stood for the leadership in 2015, Jones performed at his rallies as a warm-up man, and helped build a social media campaign aimed at persuading Labour MPs to nominate him. Soon after, McDonnell offered him a role as an “unofficial adviser”, which struck Jones as “a violation of journalistic ethics”. Nonetheless, the next few years found him texting members of Labour’s NEC to ensure that Corbyn was allowed to contest the leadership election that followed the attempted Labour “coup” of 2016,hosting activists’ conference calls alongside the shadow chancellor, and more. None of these things are written about in much detail, but they suggest someone with much more than a ringside seat.
Now, his promise is of candour. Corbyn is described as “endlessly indecisive”: a man who, when faced with conflict, sometimes “didn’t come into the office or answer his phone”, “often did not seem fully present”, and was “always difficult to prep for major interviews and debates”. But Jones’s real bete noire is Milne, whom he charges with a simple “lack of professionalism”. One insider says he was one of the few people in Corbyn’s office “that you could actually discuss socialist theory with”, but in Jones’s telling, it was “impossible to get him to sign off press releases, speeches or other public interventions”, and “this apparent non-engagement would frequently bring the entire operation to a grinding halt”. From one of the Corbyn project’s most devout advocates, this is remarkable stuff. Such, perhaps, are the tensions between activism and journalism: when things are in full flow, partisan ties make frankness difficult, but after everything has fallen apart, the veracity inevitably comes too late.
On occasion, Jones’s emphasis on personal rather than political matters makes his criticism seem superficial, something made worse by the nagging sense of someone recasting small but important aspects of history, the key failing of his long and tortuous chapter on antisemitism. Inevitably, it includes Corbyn’s infamous online response to a clearly anti-Jewish mural posted on Facebook, and the statement he eventually issued by way of regret. Jones told his hundreds of thousands of Twitter followers this represented a “relief” – but here, he says the Labour leadership’s response was “clumsy” and “self-exculpatory”. There is no mention at all of the “English irony” episode. His account of the Labour report into antisemitism put together by Shami Chakrabarti doesn’t mention her quick receipt of a Labour peerage, which forever compromised the credibility of what she wrote. Most remarkable of all is the absence of the BBC Panorama programme Is Labour Anti-Semitic?, aired the summer before the 2019 election, and full of complaints not only about the party’s alleged indulgence of anti-Jewish prejudice, but the deep upset and hurt caused to Labour employees.
In Left Out, the programme and the huge reaction it sparked get four pages; here, beyond the vaguest of allusions, there is not a single mention. An explanation perhaps lies in the fact that in the opprobrium Labour hurled at the programme at the time, Jones was more participant than observer, using Twitter to try to rubbish its findings, and then doing the same on television. Now as then, he insists that whatever the outward appearance, Corbyn and his allies “abhorred” antisemitism. But even in his account, it seems that they abhorred it rather less than lots of other things.
Inevitably, these were the kind of moral contortions that bled out of Westminster, and reached the people neither of these books much mention: the voters, who had an increasing sense of the new Labour party’s problems, and Corbyn’s yawning shortcomings as a potential prime minister. Thus ensued the disaster of 2019, and the grim future it inaugurated. This is Corbynism’s real tragedy, even if it has seemingly yet to occur to many of the people who were at the heart of it. As the crises neared their climax, Jones says, Corbyn “was less sunny, less zen, angrier, more defensive”. It is not a bad description of the small, stroppy, ever more unequal country we now look likely to become.
• Left Out: The Inside Story of Labour Under Corbyn by Gabriel Pogrund and Patrick Maguire is published by Bodley Head (£18.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p over £15
• This Land: The Story of a Movement by Owen Jones is published by Allen Lane (£20). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p over £15