By Dorian Lynskey
Left Out: The Inside Story of Labour Under Corbyn by Gabriel Pogrund and Patrick Maguire (Bodley Head, £18.99)
This Land: The Story of a Movement by Owen Jones (Allen Lane, £20)
On March 1st 2017, the week after Labour lost the Copeland by-election, Owen Jones published a column in the Guardian with the headline: 'Jeremy Corbyn says he's staying. That's not good enough.' More in sorrow than in anger, Jones voiced what he had been saying in private for months: if Corbyn could not turn the party's fortunes around, he should step down and allow a younger left-wing MP inherit what insiders called 'the Project'.
"If Labour loses the next election a rightwing Tory government, infused with an increasingly xenophobic and authoritarian brand of populism, will have a whopping, unassailable majority," Jones warned. "Corbyn will certainly resign. The left will be blamed for breaking the Labour party. Several leftwing MPs will lose their seats. The remaining MPs will certainly not nominate any candidate on the left. The party will hurtle off to the right."
That scenario was largely correct, but about 2019, not 2017. In the short-term, Corbyn defied received wisdom to lead Labour to 40% of the vote, a swing of historic proportions. The day after that result, Jones wrote a very different column, combining triumphalism with repentance and a dab of blame-shifting: "I wasn't a bit wrong, or slightly wrong, or mostly wrong, but totally wrong. Having one foot in the Labour movement and one in the mainstream media undoubtedly left me more susceptible to their groupthink. Never again." From now on, he would only err in the opposite direction.
Jones was not alone. Corbyn may have lost the election but he won a resounding victory over the media and Corbynsceptic Labour MPs, and he adopted the traditional victor’s attitude towards compromise. Talk of replacing him, whether from critical friends or sworn enemies, died the moment the exit poll came out.
He dismissed advice to tame his doubters by welcoming the more amenable back into the shadow Cabinet and rejected a plan to work on a soft(ish) Brexit deal with a humiliated Theresa May. At Glastonbury, he received a hero's welcome which felt bizarre to me at the time – although I was stuck behind a tree so perhaps I missed the full effect – and now looks like the definition of hubris.
Perhaps it's hindsight talking, but James Schneider, Corbyn’s director of strategic communications, claims to remember worrying about what the coming period of cultural polarisation and parliamentary trench warfare over Brexit would do to the leader's movement politics. "Fucking hell," he said, "we are done for."” The Project's doom was not averted, merely postponed.
Left Out and This Land are fundamentally the same story told from different angles. Though young, Pogrund and Maguire are impartial hacks of the old school (for the Sunday Times and Times respectively), who provide the same ultra-detailed, in-the-room storytelling as Tim Shipman. We learn perhaps too much, for instance, about the catering skills of Change UK's Gavin Shuker. Jones, a left-wing celebrity and lightning rod, was by his own admission both observer and participant: a Guardian columnist so close to the Project from day one that he was offered a job in Corbyn's office.
Perhaps surprisingly, and to the credit of all three authors, their accounts usually concur, often right down to specific sources and anecdotes. That's reassuring, though the story itself is traumatic. "I've never been involved in anything so unpleasant and bitter in my whole life," Corbyn ally Andy McDonald says of the parliamentary Labour party (PLP) meetings following Corbyn's ascent to the leadership. Four years later, Tom Watson was confiding to Peter Mandelson that his job as deputy leader felt like swimming through a "terrible swamp".
While it is hard to square some of Jones' columns at the time with what he clearly knew was happening behind the scenes, his candour is better late than never. Left Out, by opening with the 2017 election result, is all fall and no rise. Jones, on the other hand, starts by whizzing through the left's wilderness years, from the rise of neoliberalism in the late 1970s through the humbling of Tony Benn in 1981 and the triumph of New Labour in 1997, to the unexpected window of opportunity opened by the failure of Ed Miliband's vacillations and the swelling of protest movements such as UK Uncut. Even in his insider account of Corbyn’s 2015 leadership campaign, though, there are ominous signs: John McDonnell advises the candidate not to risk the left being "annihilated". Adviser Cat Smith asks him: "Do you want this?"
Now there's a question neither book can answer. Corbyn was the 200-1 longshot with no leadership experience and, it transpired, no capacity to grow into the role. If he did actually want to be prime minister, then he certainly didn't want to do what it took. The inherent problem with maverick anti-politicians, on both left and right, is that they tend to be bad at politics. Corbyn's myriad weaknesses came to include his strengths: personal loyalty and a distaste for confrontation are admirable in many jobs but not that of a party leader.
"His office was a shambles," a former shadow Cabinet member tells Jones. "And it was a shambles because of his personality: he just doesn't know how to say no." In one of Left Out's most tragicomic scenes, Seumas Milne, Karie Murphy and Andrew Fisher — described by Clive Lewis as Corbyn's "triumvirate" —fight over what exactly he means while the man himself sits there quietly, like a bad riddle.
Even Jones bemoans Corbyn's "mulish" intransigence, sloppiness, peevish impatience with the media, simplistic anti-imperialism and inability to strategise. The extreme hostility that greeted Corbyn in 2015 — from most of the media and the PLP, and a venomous clique of old-guard staffers — fostered a siege mentality that further guaranteed bad decision-making. He had innumerable enemies, for sure, but he gave them so much ammunition. It only got worse. By the summer of 2019, he was passive-aggressive, grumpy and exhausted. Aides feared that he was experiencing a nervous breakdown.
Lest you find Corbyn too pitiable, remember that the one issue on which he took a resolute stand was antisemitism, where his judgement was shamefully poor. When even loyalists were begging him to apologise, his wife Laura Alvarez and a "kitchen cabinet" of Jewish socialists in the safe space of Islington North convinced him to stand firm. He was always good at taking advice from people who agreed with him. In a long chapter on the crisis – a litany of missed opportunities which regrettably omits his own public inconsistencies – Jones reveals that Milne feared that if Labour adopted the IHRA guidelines in full, then Corbyn himself would be disciplined for antisemitism, which says more about Corbyn than it does about the guidelines.
Corbyn's passivity and indecision created a power vacuum which nobody could fill. Almost every key player turns out to have been weaker than was generally assumed. Tom Watson: the arch-plotter? Once one of Gordon Brown's most ruthless lieutenants, his appetite for political skulduggery was shrinking with his weight. The 'coup' of June 2016? A desperate convulsion born of "absolute panic". Seumas Milne, the Stalinist Svengali? A director of strategy and communications who could neither strategise nor communicate. An "absent father" figure, tardy, amateurish and remote. Jones writes damningly of his former mentor at the Guardian. "Not a single person who worked for Corbyn," he says, "is prepared to defend Milne's management abilities."
Even the more capable characters eventually floundered. Senior policy adviser Andrew Fisher was the brains behind the 2017 manifesto but quit during 2019, complaining of a "lack of professionalism, competence and human decency" in Corbyn's team. The force of will that enabled chief of staff Karie Murphy to professionalise the operation also made her an autocratic bully who fell out with Corbyn herself in late 2019 over her absurd attempt to abolish Tom Watson's job. "What I saw happen to her over the years made me think: this is how dictatorships happen," one former aide tells Jones.
The only figure of consistent substance and talent in Corbyn's inner circle was a tragic one. John McDonnell knew that he could have done the job better but also that he would never have been given the chance. Time and again in both books, he makes the right call, tactically and morally — on antisemitism, Brexit, the Salisbury poisonings, the treatment of opponents — only to be shoved to the sidelines. On all of these issues, Corbyn succumbed to the inevitable only after causing himself and his party unnecessary damage. During the summer of 2018, after falling out over disciplinary proceedings against Margaret Hodge – another unforced error – McDonnell barely spoke to the man his wife jokingly called his only friend in Westminster.
Jones, a former McDonnell staffer who calls his old boss "Labour's lost leader", reports that Momentum founder Jon Lansman approached the shadow chancellor, who was already transforming his public image from spiky socialist bruiser into amiable Uncle John, about replacing Corbyn in the spring of 2016 but was sent packing. Given that counterfactuals currently consume at least 50% of Labour Twitter, that's one worth chewing over. McDonnell's question to Tom Baldwin from People's Vote in 2018 is revealing: "Are you people who will help us win power? Or are you people who are going to stop us winning power?" Unlike Corbyn, he explicitly wanted power, because what was the Project worth without it?
Starting the story earlier than Pogrund and Maguire, Jones is strong on Labour's unexpectedly brilliant 2017 campaign (Milne lifted "the many not the few" from bad old Tony Blair) and the origins of Labour's Brexit mess. Remarkably, speechwriter Joss MacDonald admits: "Most people in LOTO [the leader of the opposition's office] did not take [the 2016 referendum] seriously at all. Most thought if we left, it wouldn't really cause us any political difficulties.” (Narrator: It did cause political difficulties.)
Even long after the result, the assumption was that it would hurt the Tories more than Labour. Corbyn himself was agnostic – he talked about Brexit "with the enthusiasm of someone reading a photocopying manual," according to Fisher – which explains both his tone-deaf response to the result and his inability to commit to a coherent stance. He was no longer, as Jones describes the 2015 version, "a plain speaker who stuck to his principles"” but a cynical triangulator with a Brexit position so slippery that Emily Thornberry was reprimanded for talking about membership of the customs union instead of a customs union. If your policy on the biggest issue of the day comes down to the difference between a definite and indefinite article, then it's probably a bad policy.
Jones was a reluctant Remainer who had previously argued for Lexit (a word he claims without pride to have invented) but he is probably right to compare Labour's Brexit quandary to the interactive Black Mirror episode Bandersnatch: every branch on the decision tree would have ended badly. Cultural polarisation wreaked havoc with Labour's coalition of metropolitan liberal Remainers and older smalltown Leavers, although it's worth noting that socially conservative northern voters were already deserting Labour in 2017 and they had many other reasons to distrust a man who couldn't even bring himself to sing the national anthem. It's not as if Brexit broke up an otherwise happy family.
Far from being the arch-Remainer, cunningly manipulating the party towards a second referendum, shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer emerges from both books as a dutiful pragmatist who would have been quite happy to get Brexit done if Corbyn and May could have come to an understanding, and only came around to the enterprise of preventing it at Labour's September 2018 conference.
Whatever the respect-the-vote crew say now, the simple fact is that a majority of Labour MPs, members and voters opposed Brexit and the push for a referendum from constituency Labour parties was a fine example of the party democracy that the Project claimed to champion. Yet Corbyn, instinctively hostile to the cross-party People's Vote campaign, even alienated socialist Remainers such as Michael Chessum of pro-Labour Another Europe Is Possible by accusing them of sabotage and collaboration with Blairites. Brexit created splits within splits, as shadow Cabinet meetings turned into brutal rows between Remainers and Leavers, with party chair Ian Lavery positively feral on the issue. When Corbyn intervened to cool down one clash with Starmer, Lavery apparently told him to "shut the fuck up".
Much though the current incumbents have lowered the bar, it is almost impossible to imagine how Corbyn's Labour party could have run the country when they couldn't even run a professional election campaign. In an August 2019 memo, Milne wrote that Labour's opponents would "seek to portray Jeremy and Labour as tired, stale, hopelessly divided, indecisive, toxic and extreme". Set aside "extreme" and that's an accurate self-diagnosis.
Now fully in control of the party machine, Corbyn's team combined incoherent messaging and an undeliverable manifesto with what Jones calls "operational collapse". The triumvirate had fallen, with Milne and Murphy demoted and Fisher halfway out the door. Even Corbyn felt disempowered. Witnesses to a dinner during the 2019 party conference tell Pogrund and Maguire that Alvarez cried: "You don't deserve Jeremy. He didn't even want to do this."
Despite all the protestations that Corbynism didn't really exist – only socialism – the left staked a once-in-a-generation opportunity on one man who, at least after 2017, clearly wasn't up to the task. For the Project, he was both genesis and nemesis. Even the succession planning was botched, with the inexperienced, overrated Durham MP Laura Pidcock the clear favourite until she lost her seat, and Rebecca Long-Bailey far from being the heir apparent.
The left would now be wise to make peace with Starmer in order to defend its most cherished policies but many Corbynites seem as wedded to surly impotence as the most incorrigible Corbynsceptics were, and where are most of them now? Not in the House of Commons.
So what is Corbyn's legacy? Despite Jones' fears in his post-Copeland column, Labour has inched, rather than hurtled, to the right under Starmer. The new leader's pledge to retain many of his predecessor's key positions suggests that Corbyn did succeed in shifting the party's centre of gravity after all. It's hard to imagine Labour abetting, say, benefit cuts in the foreseeable future. While both his opponents in 2015 and the mayfly-like Change UK lacked an inspiring vision, Corbyn did at least believe in something. But these two books amount to an irresistible argument for the unglamorous virtue of competence, without which all of the wonderful ideas that swirled around the Project were, to the country's detriment, so much hot air.
This explains both Starmer's walloping mandate from the membership and his extreme pragmatism. Like McDonnell, who provides Left Out's melancholy final image, he knows that the finest principles go nowhere without power. Unlike McDonnell, he's in the driving seat.
Dorian Lynskey writes about politics and culture for titles including the Guardian, Observer, GQ and New Statesman. He is the author of 33 Revolutions Per Minute: A History of Protest Songs and The Ministry of Truth: A Biography of George Orwell's 1984. He co-hosts the Remainiacs and Bunker podcasts. You can follow him on Twitter here. Left Out: The Inside Story of Labour Under Corbyn by Gabriel Pogrund and Patrick Maguire and This Land: The Story of a Movement by Owen Jones are both currently on sale.
The opinions in Politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.