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

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.

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.

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?

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.

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.

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.

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!

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.

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.



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