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What’s left of the ‘Project’?

An account of Labour’s Corbyn era, Left Out, is essential reading, says Robert Latham

25 September, 2020

Jeremy Corbyn on election night in June 2017

Divided parties never win elections. Left Out: The Inside Story of Labour Under Corbyn is essential reading for any Labour party member who still needs reminding of this basic fact of political life. It charts the Corbyn “Project” (the authors’ phrase) between the general elections in June 2017 and December 2019.

Left Out follows the precedent of fellow Murdoch journalist, Tim Shipman, who dished out the dirt on the Tories in his excellent books All Out War (the 2016 referendum) and Fall Out (the 2017 election). All these books are racy and gripping reads. They rely heavily on unattributable leaks. Those who leak invariably do so for ulterior motives.

Labour’s leaks seem to flood in equal measure from the Leader of the Opposition’s Office (LOTO); the Labour party HQ (based at Southside) and the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP). All were at war with each other.

The book starts on the election night of June 8, 2017, which no one in LOTO had expected Labour to win. Eight weeks earlier, Theresa May’s lead was some 20 per cent; Labour’s final internal poll put it at 13 per cent. As the BBC’s exit poll predicted a hung parliament, Seamus Milne’s reacted with disbelief. One colleague described him as “Cassandra, the prophetess of doom”.

Jeremy Corbyn, who had never sought the leadership in 2015, was one of the last to recognise that he might win. It was John McDonnell who felt vindicated. Over the previous 40 years, while others in the Campaign Group had posed and protested, he had set his heart and mind on preparing the left for government.

With May’s coalition with the DUP seen as inherently unstable, for the first time the Project saw itself as a government in waiting. The omens looked good. The most outspoken critics of the Project began to brief that they would be willing to return to the Shadow Cabinet. Some in LOTO urged a unity reshuffle. This did not occur because of two unshakeable traits in Corbyn’s leadership: loyalty and a pathological hatred of confrontation.

In 2016, Karie Murphy had been appointed to create order, out of the chaos, at LOTO. She ruled with a rod of iron. In February 2018, she summarily dismissed Iain McNicol, the general secretary. She arrived for his execution with a list of his successes and failures, described as containing three sentences of praise and 110 on his failures. McNicol was replaced by Jenny Formby, a former partner of Len McClusky. The authors assert that she had little desire for the job.

Corbyn only ever had the support of a minor­ity of the PLP. After Owen Smith’s Chicken Coup of June 2016, most accepted that he would lead Labour to the next election. In January 2018, a cabal of 15 MPs first met to plot their future: Plan A was to stay and wrest control from the Corbynites; Plan B a blue print for outside the Labour Party.

In February 2019, just seven opted for Plan A and took the path to political oblivion.

The book ends with the election in Dec­ember 2019. In Septem­ber, at the party confer­ence in Brighton, the leadership was warned that Labour would lose the election. A YouGov report projected that Labour would win as few as 138 seats, the worst result since 1917.

Labour’s head of data, Tim Waters, concluded that telling Leavers that Labour would deliver Brexit risked a Tory majority of 150. Europhiles made up the bulk of Labour’s support. For every one Leave who abandoned Labour, three Remainers would do the same.

By this time, the party was in disarray. On the eve of the conference, there was a failed coup against Tom Watson, the deputy leader. A few days earlier, Andrew Fisher, head of policy and author of the 2017 manifesto, resigned, unable to work with Milne. In October, with the election looming, Karie Murphy was eased out of LOTO and dispatched to Southside, having lost the confidence of both Corbyn and McDonnell. There had been persistent complaints of bullying.

Corbyn was no longer the politician that he had been in 2017. Brexit and antisemitism had sapped his confidence. Described by McDonnell as “the nicest man, I have ever met”, Corbyn had become the most unpopular leader of the last 45 years.

Antagonism set in early in the election campaign. Corbyn refused to travel in Labour’s election bus, because it was powered by diesel. He was often late for events and seemed to purposely overstay to minimise his day’s commitments. The draft manifesto was not shared for fears of leaks. Many of these initiatives, while individually popular, did not, in the eyes of most voters, make for a coherent package.

Labour had no answer to Johnson’s mendacious slogan “Get Brexit Done”. Labour’s Red Wall collapsed. However, Labour’s fudge on Brexit had one consolation. Labour retained more Remain seats than projected, particularly in London. Labour salvaged 202 seats but the Tories still had a majority of 80. Just the worst result since 1935.

The authors recognise that, while Corbyn did not win power, the Project did precipitate lasting political change.

The Conservative party has disavowed austerity. Labour’s centre of gravity has been dragged conclusively and irrevocably to the left. Keir Starmer won the leadership by embracing, rather than repudiating, Corbynism.

A once moribund grass roots has been transformed into the largest political party in Western Europe, with a membership that continues to grow.

• Robert Latham is a former Camden councillor and was a leading supporter of Kier Starmer’s leadership campaign

Left Out: The Inside Story of Labour Under Corbyn. By Gabriel Pogrund and Patrick Maguire. Bodley Head £18.99

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