Even now, the literature on what will be seen as the remarkable but bizarre period when Jeremy Corbyn ran the Labour Party is expanding. This new book by Sunday Times journalists Gabriel Pogrund and Patrick Maguire will become one of the essential accounts of Corbynism and is a must read for anyone interested in progressive politics.
Why 'bizarre'? The Corbyn years upended many of the assumptions about what both British politics and the Labour Party was all about. Since the early 1990s (even before the coming of New Labour), it was clear that large parts of the electorate that Labour needed to win would not accept a radical left wing manifesto of the sort that the party had offered in 1983. Figures like Corbyn and John McDonnell were relics of a Bennite past that had no relevance to the centrist direction that the party had taken. I open Martin Westlake's fine biography of Neil Kinnock and find only one reference to Corbyn in the index, a small but telling example of his irrelevance. The MP was known as a Bennite true believer, dedicated to his Islington constituency and to human rights struggles abroad which the electorate (rightly or wrongly) did not care about.
In the aftermath of Ed Miliband's defeat in 2015 I noticed something was changing in the Labour Party. I attended the Progress conference the following week which featured the first leadership hustings (before Corbyn had thrown his hat in the ring). The candidates included Chukka Umuna, Andy Burnham and Yvette Cooper. The room reeked of a sense of political exhaustion, some of which reflected the shock at an election that many hoped Labour would win but which resulted in an increased Conservative majority. When Yvette Cooper was asked about how Britain under her leadership would be different, she merely said she said she hoped it would be 'fairer'. There was not much to inspire hopes for a progressive response to the crisis. When he entered the leadership campaign, Corbyn won because he was the only candidate prepared to offer a robustly social democratic response. His subsequent strong showing in the 2017 election was taken by Corbynistas to show that there was a broad constituency amongst the British public for a new left wing approach. The 2017 result was a shock, not least for Theresa May, and it still needs exploration. Did the Corbynistas, however, misread the 2017 result and did that lead to the total disaster of 2019?
Pogrund and Maguire do not quite answer that question in Left Out but they consider what happened to the party in the pivotal moment between Corbyn's qualified 2017 triumph, where he wiped out Theresa May's majority, to 10 pm on that cold December night when he discovered that the country had given Boris Johnson an 80 seat majority. This is in some respects too narrow a focus. There were some long term factors that historians need to consider. What, for example, did it mean in 2015 to entrust the Labour leadership (at a time when the issue of Britain's relationship with Europe was suddenly up for grabs) to a figure with a long history of Euro-scepticism?
In every other respect, this book is a triumph. The two-year focus gives a real energy and focus to the account. Pogrund and Maguire have had elaborate access to many of the participants, even if they do not speak on the record (no footnotes here). It also benefits from being even-handed. In that respect, it reminded me of another sensitive portrait of the Corbyn era that I found convincing: Lewis Goodall's essential Left for Dead? The Strange Death and Rebirth of the Labour Party (2018).
Thus the book shows that there was huge resistance to Corbyn and his followers within Labour's headquarters, peopled by figures who were signed up in the Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband era and who were appalled at finding themselves working for someone who had previously been so easy to dismiss. The authors do not provide evidence that the 2017 election was thrown by party staffers (as some claim) but clearly there was much unprofessional behaviour.
This even-handedness makes the Pogrund and Maguire account of Corbyn's leadership quietly devastating. As they put it, between 2017 and 2019, Corbyn went 'from Glastonbury to catastrophe'. They show how he was simply incapable of dealing with the two big issues he was confronted with: Brexit and anti-semitism. The new party machinery was also disfunctional, with opposition to the management style of Karie Murphy, installed as executive director of Corbyn's office. Her abrasive approach quickly made enemies across the board even among many on the left. No one in this book comes out terribly well. Pretty much everyone in the upper echelons of the Labour Party was involved in a plot of some kind. This is important. If Labour is to ask electors to trust it to run the country, the way it runs itself in opposition carries an important message. The increasingly professional style of party management under Tony Blair played an important part in the 1997 victory.
The book did leave me feeling that if, one was going to have a leader from the far left, it might have been better to have had John McDonnell. Although more of a bruiser than Corbyn, he showed a stronger sense of strategy. He recognised that Labour's constructive ambiguity on Brexit (which helped in 2017) could not last for long. Corbyn's inability to say what position he favoured on Brexit ultimately contributed to the party's undoing.
True to the authors' even-handed approach, they end up arguing that Corbyn may nevertheless have changed British politics. Through his full-throttled attack on austerity, Boris Johnson's Conservatives are claiming that they are not going back to the Cameron years and want to level up. Many will suspect this is simply a change of rhetoric. I am not sure that Corbyn had all that much to do with this but clearly the terms of political discussion in the 2020s will be very different from what went before. Waiting in the wings throughout Pogrund and Maguire's book is the figure of Keir Starmer. In our Labour Renewal Project, the Labour History Research Unit we argue that in the Starmer era, the party will need to learn how to do progressive politics better.
Rohan McWilliam is the co-director of the Labour History Research Unit at Anglia Ruskin University and co-editor of Labour and the Left in the 1980s (2017).