Left Out by Gabriel Pogrund and Patrick Maguire. (Bodley Head 2020. £18.99)
This is billed as the ‘inside story of Labour under Corbyn’, which says exactly what’s inside the proverbial tin. It is at times insightful, gossipy and scandalous – and as such is hugely entertaining. That the Corbyn project was something of a train wreck by well before the 2019 General Election is now received wisdom and this book shows why. Always an uneasy amalgam of leftist forces (from quasi-Stalinists like Seamus Milne to Bennites, Trotskyists and single-issue campaigners), the surprise was more that the unique circumstances of the 2017 election had enabled them to do so well against the odds. But as one commentator put it, the soufflé never rises twice.
Much of it centres on the machinations of the Leader Of The Opposition’s Office (referred to internally as LOTO) and the internal factionalism that developed there enveloping all else, and their parallel and persistently difficult relationship with the official Labour HQ at Southside, still jam-packed with Blairites and Brownites. To say that policy-making and strategic decisions were made on-the-hoof (when they were made at all) is an understatement. What strategy did emerge – including Labour’s eventual and painful drift towards Remain – was often at the behest of the ‘grandfather’ of the Corbyn project, namely former Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, but this was frequently in the face of opposition from other faction-fighters, including Corbyn’s Chief of Staff Katie Murphy, Unite chief Len McCluskey, and Milne.
Over time, Corbyn himself cut an increasingly sad figure in many respects, exhausted and irritated by the job in almost equal measure, and especially unable to understand the furore over anti-semitism in the Party. A backbench campaigner at heart, this attitude never really left him. It was an irony that the backbenchers in the Parliamentary Labour Party, some of whom were to defect to Change UK and/or the Liberal Democrats, ended up being as much a thorn in his side as he had been to Blair and Brown under New Labour – if not more so.
The book also covers the plotting and dynamics behind the succession of Keir Starmer as leader over Rebecca Long-Bailey in the wake of Corbyn’s 2019 election defeat and is telling in its analysis:
‘… on no subject was [Corbyn] more stubborn that his own sense of identity. The painful compromises inherent in the unusual lives of holders of high office – the encroached privacy, the punishing schedules, the relentless demand for executive decision-making and swift judgement – never felt within his command… Unable to rewrite the rules of the game as he had promised, he preferred to ignore them… By 2019, Corbyn had created a vacuum for others to fill. Keir Starmer in particular has reason to be grateful for Corbyn’s squeamishness with power. The Project not only squandered its inheritance from the membership, but left its children without any meaningful bequest’ (p.357).
There is a fair chance Starmer will lead Labour to their next election victory, despite his Trotskyist origins, but clearly more as a latter-day Brown from the Party’s ‘soft left’ than as a Bennite like Corbyn. Plus la change…?