Writing an honest account of Corbynism and its defeat: my response to Len McCluskey

Len McCluskey is a titan of the labour movement and, to my mind, a trade union leader defined by courage, principle and determination. Vilified by the British corporate media, the Unite union in general, and McCluskey in particular, played a pivotal role in the rise of the British left in the 2010s: from the active support offered to movements fighting injustices ranging from tax avoidance to austerity, to Corbynism itself.

McCluskey has written a review of my new book, This Land, about the rise and fall of Corbynism. Its tone, of paternal disappointment, was one I genuinely appreciated. Above all, it expresses another signature trait of McCluskey: of loyalty, in this case, defending the reputations of leading figures in the besieged Corbyn reputation from my own conclusions.

Again, it’s worth setting out the purpose of my book. Its codename was ‘Operation Salvage’. It was intended as a contribution to an effort to rescue the policies and vision of the left from the rubble of that bleak December. That meant looking at what the Corbyn project was up against — internal sabotage, external onslaught — as well as the mistakes that were made. Without doing the latter, a fatalistic conclusion is arrived at: that all transformative political projects of the left are inherently doomed, because they will always be sunk by opposition from within and without. That logic leads you in two directions — either to give up on politics, or to hurtle off to the right. I reject both directions, which is why I think examining what could have been done differently to avoid electoral obliteration is such an important task.

An easier route to applause would have been to write a book detailing how Corbynism was brought down entirely by its opponents, rather than a book which would upset everyone. But that would have been fundamentally dishonest and promoted fatalism and nothing else.

When I began this project, other than a determination to defend left ideas, I had absolutely no motive or firmly established preconceived conclusions. My position was this: I would interview Jeremy Corbyn’s operation — and indeed I interviewed the vast majority of those who worked there, from the most senior to junior staffers — and I would go where the evidence took me, however politically or personally uncomfortable that might be. That’s exactly what I did, without any personal vendetta against anyone.

Len says:

Owen clearly has a personal problem with Seumas Milne, who we are corralled into believing was responsible for all the woes of the Labour Party.

This is untrue on both counts. I have nothing but respect and admiration for Seumas, who once essentially a mentor, and who has been wrongfully demonised by the media and who has personally paid a huge personal cost, and neither does the book advance the argument he was “responsible for all the woes of the Labour Party.” There is nothing I agonised over more, nothing I was more tortured over, than writing about the role of Seumas in this book. There are four pages dedicated to his strengths: his intelligence, his integrity, his warmth, his loyalty, his hinterland. Everything and anything positive any staffer told me about Seumas went straight in the book. I even sent the pages listing his strengths to one of his closest supporters to ask if I had missed anything out: their response was no, I had not. From coming up with “for the many not the few” as Labour’s dramatically successful slogan in the 2017 election campaign, to his commitment to a Brexit strategy driven by an understanding that leave voters were disproportionately concentrated in marginal seats that Labour needed to retain or win, it was all in the book.

But the very basic problem I had to contend with is that the vast majority of people in Jeremy Corbyn’s operation felt — and very strongly felt — that Seumas was simply ill-suited for the job that he was in. This is just a straightforward and inarguable fact. Now the counter-argument here is, well, the Labour leadership had fractured into warring camps by 2019 — which is absolutely true — and those making this argument had political reasons for believing this. But that just isn’t the case. Staffers who I interviewed who emphasised they had the same politics as Seumas, principally on Brexit and international issues, all had the exact same opinion as almost everyone else. So I had a choice: do I honestly reflect what the vast majority of Seumas’ own colleagues thought, or do I lie? And I chose to do the former, not out of any grudge, but because you can’t write a book about what happened to Corbynism without an honest assessment of the role of the Executive Director of Strategy and Communications, who had the total support and trust of the leader of the Labour party.

On antisemitism, Len says:

On anti-Semitism this failure is displayed once again. Having given a brilliant and detailed polemic of the history of anti-Semitism, he veers away to lay blame at the Milne and Murphy, based on a distorted view of what it was like trying to deal with the constant daily attacks.

This does not accurately reflect what I wrote in my chapter on antisemitism.

As it so happens, Len and I are at one on Labour’s antisemitism crisis. In the immediate aftermath of the 2019 electoral rout, Len listed as the number two mistake during the election campaign:

Secondly, failure to apologise for anti-Semitism in the party when pressed to do so, capping years of mishandling of this question.

Now clearly Len is partly criticising Jeremy Corbyn’s disastrous performance in his interview with Andrew Neil, in which he bafflingly failed to apologise for antisemitism in the Labour party, despite having done so on previous occasions. But when Len rightly says this capped “years of mishandling of this question”, we then have to ask: Who is responsible for this mishandling? Was it entirely Corbyn’s fault, or was it wider than that?

What my chapter sought to do is look at a collective failure to deal with antisemitism. That included looking at the role of the party machine when was it was under the control of anti-Corbyn elements, the role of Corbyn, and the role of the broader leadership.

The chapter in fact details positive contributions made by Seumas and Karie Murphy, the former chief of staff, to tackle the antisemitism crisis. Karie’s various frustrated efforts — including repeatedly approaching Lord Michael Levy, whose allies, as the book points out, praised her — are detailed, as are Seumas’: for example, the two of them pushing for Jeremy to do the powerful speech on antisemitism he always failed to do at the Jewish Museum.

But it also details their failings, too, because it is an honest, rounded account. Len was among those voices pushing for Jeremy to adopt all the examples accompany the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition in full from the very start. As the book details, there are indeed problems with two of the examples that should be discussed in a rational and calm way, but Labour did not have the moral or political authority on this question by that point, and it was entirely obvious that it would end up signing up to the examples in full. Instead, the party chose to spend weeks getting hammered over its failure to do so, until it eventually signed up in full — which was completely predictable — but did not gain any political credit for doing so.

But while Len pushed for Labour to sign up to the IHRA examples, and while it was also true that the Labour leader did not wish to do so, it was Seumas who led the determined and doomed push against doing so. By definition, Len must believe that Seumas did the wrong thing here.

Similarly, while I did list Karie’s own positive contributions, I also noted her email slapping down staffers who came up with a proactive plan and strategy for the party to deal with antisemitism. Again, this is a fact. An honest account looks at the successes and failures of each leading figure. That’s what the chapter on antisemitism did.

Len writes:

When you are in a war — and be under no illusion, from day one of his leadership, Corbyn was subjected to an internal and external war — you develop methods of defence and attack that change by necessity almost on a daily, if not hourly basis. Being in your living room, observing with a typewriter, is a damn sight easier than being in the ditches on the front line, trying to dodge bullets flying at you from all angles, especially from your own side.

There are a few things to note here.

Firstly, the book looks at the internal and external war in great detail — from the bullying at the Parliamentary Labour Party, the wrecking behaviour of several Labour MPs, the entrenched hostility of the party machine, the often unhinged media hostility.

Secondly, there are worrying implications in this paragraph. Why should journalists criticise anyone in politics based on this logic? Politicians can simply dismiss anyone scrutinising them as carping from the sidelines from their typewriter or indeed MacBook.

Thirdly, please allow a bit of comradely irritation to creep in here. Although Len does say “Owen should have known this given that he has been subjected to attacks for the stance he has taken on some issues,” the idea that I’m somehow immune from the onslaught against the left in the last few years is a tough one to swallow. Let’s park the relentless political victimisation from within the overwhelmingly hostile media industry in which I work — most of which I’m not even at liberty to publicly discuss. The fact I have used my platform to support left-wing causes and movements — not least Corbyn’s own leadership — has led to a relentless campaign of harassment and worse from the British far right, including weekly threats of violence and death, being repeatedly mobbed by fascists in the streets, and indeed being beaten up by a Nazi and his accomplices. That Nazi is now serving a 2 year 8 month prison service, while just this week another far right extremist was given a suspended prison sentence for another death threat. Every day I have to manage the threat to my own safety and those around me (it should be noted that two members of Corbyn’s own operation were assaulted trying to defend me). All of us on the left have had to suffer and make sacrifices in these last few years.

Len adds:

I would have expected him to try to understand what it must have been like running an operation in such extreme difficulties (Stephen Bush clearly understood in his New Statesman review of Left Out and This Land). Instead, he displays no empathy towards such intense and immense circumstances.

The book does do this. It just also reflects the sincere distress and upset felt by the dedicated socialist staffers — who were also working in an environment defined by “extreme difficulties” — at how the operation was managed. As our greatest living trade union leader, I’d hope Len would understand why I thought it important to take into account the complaints of the unionised workforce in the Labour leadership operation, which led to a near-unanimous motion condemning management passed by their trade union branch.

Len goes on to say:

In one complaint, he says of the broadband policy that it should have been trialled in the previous 18 months, failing to understand the battles taking place that sucked so much energy out of Corbyn’s team.

Here I am somewhat mystified, because Len very passionately denounces the broadband policy in my own book. Indeed he says:

In Len McCluskey’s opinion, far from being embraced in working-class communities, billions for free broad- band was seen as an absurd joke. ‘There spoke the desperation, the hope that if you come up with all kinds of policies and push Brexit aside in people’s minds, they’ll be interested in policies,’ he tells me. ‘It was the exact opposite; people thought it was ridiculous.’

He even goes on to say in my book:

Len McCluskey was damning about the campaign: ‘It was a mish mash of policies which, in my opinion, was determined by people who don’t live in the working-class world.’

Len has every right to criticise the leadership team and its failures: but it seems curious to be so critical when I do the same thing.

Len says:

Owen is obviously a fan of John McDonnell, as am I. I agree with his description of John as “Labour’s lost leader”, but it was John who ran the 2019 election campaign strategy, for which he has honourably stated “I take full responsibility”, not Murphy or Milne.

But as Len knows, one of the many problems of Labour’s general election campaign is the operation had fatally fragmented by then, was factionalised and siloed, with the consequence that it wasn’t actually ever clear who was running the general election campaign at all. And boy did it show!

Finally, and critically, on Brexit, Len says:

And on the one issue that brought about the tensions and schisms in the top team, Owen fails to point out (with the benefit of the only exact science — hindsight — something he uses often in the book) that it was Milne and Murphy who were proved right, and McDonnell and Fisher (and Owen, reluctantly) who were proved wrong.

One of the things I’ve found completely baffling about the history of Labour’s evolving Brexit position is how Jeremy Corbyn is frequently erased or at best infantilised, even though he was the actual leader of the Labour party.

Like Len, I accepted the referendum result in June 2016 and opposed any new public vote for the next three years, and wrote article after article after article after article advancing that argument. After the European elections, on 27th May 2019, I threw in the towel in a column headlined ‘A second referendum is a bad option for Labour. But it may be the only one left’.

Four months later, Labour conference near-unanimously passed a motion pledging support for a new referendum with Remain on the ballot paper, which Unite’s delegates all voted for, and which Karie Murphy pushed very hard for — yes, as opposed to a motion committing Labour to back Remain which was correctly defeated. Now there’s an obvious retort here: don’t be ridiculous, Unite and Karie fought a rearguard action against a new referendum, lost the argument and had to make the best of a bad situation they did not want. But how is that meaningfully different from my own position, let alone John McDonnell or Andrew Fisher, none of whom had any passionate affection towards the EU and simply felt the Labour party had run out of options?

The basic truth is this. The founding principle of Corbynism was that the Labour leadership would act as the tribune of the membership; that the party would be democratised. According to YouGov — which has correctly called every Labour leadership contest since 2015 — by July 2019, 79% of Labour members wanted to hold a new Brexit referendum, with 15% opposed. Just 45% of Labour’s membership had voted for their own party in the European elections.

At the same time, Labour’s vote had collapsed, not just at the European elections, when the party won just 13.6%, but in the national polls, when it fell catastrophically below 20%. Some of its support was lost to the Brexit Party, but most of its voters were Remainers, and it had largely lost support to the resurgent Liberal Democrats and Greens: their combined share of the vote was higher than that of the Labour party. What is often unremarked about the 2019 election is that, like 2017, it was almost unique in the opposition significantly increasing its share of the vote during a campaign, albeit from a low level: that’s because many Remainers flocked back, but Leavers did not. The counterfactual relies on the Labour leadership somehow facing down its own membership, Remain voters coming back to the party with no referendum commitment, and Leave voters returning, too. But the polling shows that Leave voters defected long before Labour adopted its second referendum position. There’s another point, too: Labour Leave voters are overwhelmingly not Lexiteers: they did not support Brexit because they believed the EU enshrined neoliberal principles. They tended to be the most socially conservative element of Labour’s electoral coalition — and the most likely to be opposed to Corbynism in general, and Corbyn specifically, not least because Tory attack lines on national security, patriotism and terrorism were most likely to land.

And so we return to the erased agency of Jeremy Corbyn and his key allies from the internal Brexit argument. Again, it is infrequently remarked upon, but the MP Corbyn is personally closest to is Diane Abbott. She believed the Brexit project was inherently racist and anti-migrant — leading to passionate clashes in the Shadow Cabinet and Brexit strategy meetings — and, crucially, appealed to Corbyn on the basis that the membership wanted another referendum, and without the membership, Corbyn and Corbynism were nothing. Was she wrong on this point, and if so, how?

Corbyn himself — again, the leader of the Labour party! — was increasingly concerned about the mass support for a referendum amongst the Labour membership and spooked by Labour voters’ defection to the Lib Dems in particular.

In a meeting with the party Whips and party officials in the final lap of the European elections, he declared: ‘We’ve taken the membership too far. We’re not going to get away with it, we are going to have to support a second referendum.’ That led to Karie Murphy to passionately declare ‘This is a betrayal of the working class!’ In a media interview in that final week, much to the chagrin of Seumas — largely because Seumas believed that such an intervention needed to be done properly and not on an ad hoc basis — Corbyn made clear Labour’s support for a referendum in all circumstances. In the aftermath of the European elections, Corbyn again publicly declared Labour would support a referendum in all circumstances.

In a recent interview with Tribune, Corbyn himself said:

We now have an incompetent, dangerous Tory government in office. They’re going to have to come to some kind of agreement with the EU, but it’s already proving difficult to achieve. We could have done things much better. Was there a better way? Well, obviously the party could have just reiterated the 2017 policy, which was one of respecting the referendum result and working to build a relationship with Europe in the future. But the strength of support within the party for a second referendum was absolutely huge — as was reflected in the pressures of the 2018 conference. The result was the compromise reached in 2019.

Yet the revisionist history of Labour’s Brexit decision — which is a Machiavellian alliance of John McDonnell, Andrew Fisher and indeed people like me through my Guardian columns — disastrously bounced the party into supporting a new referendum. This isn’t something I would accuse Len of, but many of those peddling this fantasy narrative relies on erasing the actual leader of the Labour party from the history of what actually happened. It is reminiscent of pre-revolutionary Russia: the Tsar’s infallibility and purity had to be sustained, and anything that went wrong was blamed on his wicked advisors instead.

So when we say Seumas and Karie — who I have huge respect for, incidentally — were vindicated, what do we mean here? None of us wanted a new referendum. All of us, within months or even weeks of each other, came to the conclusion that Labour had no choice but to back one. Whatever the leadership did, the membership — as Corbyn says, “the strength of support within the party for a second referendum was absolutely huge” — plus unions such as UNISON, GMB and the Corbyn-supporting TSSA were going to impose a new referendum at the 2019 conference.

If Labour wanted to avoid this outcome then we need to go into time machine back to 2017 — and I know this is something Len strongly sympathises with. Using the political capital of the 2017 election, Labour could have clearly defined its Brexit position, campaigned on it, and prevented a vacuum emerging which the well-funded People’s Vote filled with devastating consequences. But there are several problems with this, most notably that it relies on hindsight — would Labour have really picked such a fight when the membership were on cloud 9, the Parliamentary Labour Party suddenly at least posing as supportive, and the Tories apparently in complete meltdown, and was it really in Corbyn’s nature? There’s another obstacle, too: the Lexiteer faction of the Labour leadership were opposed to the party defining its Brexit position and even opposed supporting a customs’ union. The Labour Brexit deal they made an article of faith in 2019 was the one they opposed in 2017. It was their last port in the storm — and it was too late.

I’ll end as Len began: he is a friend and a comrade, and to the bitter end, I’ll defend him. His legacy was his critical role in inspiring a new generation of socialists who, I firmly believe, will one day triumph. Naturally, I am sorry that he is disappointed with my book — but I strongly believe that it is an accurate portrayal of the internal story of Corbyn’s leadership. If we are to salvage the left’s vision from defeat, then we must accept and examine the mistakes that have been made — and that is the purpose of my book.

Author of 'The Establishment' and 'Chavs', Socialist, Guardian columnist. Losing my Northern accent. My views etc... https://www.youtube.com/c/OwenJonesTalks

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