A review of Gabriel Pogrund and Patrick Maguire, Left Out: The Inside Story of Labour Under Corbyn, Random House (2020), £18.99.
Owen Jones, This Land: The Story of a Movement, Allen Lane (2020), £20.
Leo Panitch and Colin Leys, Searching for Socialism: The Project of the Labour New Left from Benn to Corbyn, Verso (2020), £14.99.
Grace Blakeley (ed), Futures of Socialism: The Pandemic and the Post-Corbyn Era, Verso (2020), £14.99.
In the year since Jeremy Corbyn stepped down as leader of the Labour Party, socialist theorists and journalists have sought to analyse and explain the failure of the Corbyn project. For those such as Leo Panitch, Colin Leys and Grace Blakeley, who broadly identified with Corbynism, rapid analysis was crucial in order for the left to recalibrate its strategy. Blakeley has pulled together a collection of essays theorising Corbynism’s failure and its lessons, Futures of Socialism; Panitch and Leys’s Searching for Socialism explores the historical roots of the Corbyn project and sketches out a future for the Labour left. More journalistic accounts include Left Out by Gabriel Pogrund and Patrick Maguire—an “inside story” of Corbyn’s leadership after the 2017 general election, which emerged less than six months after he stood down as leader. The left-wing columnist Owen Jones published his own account, This Land, shortly after.
This article explores these various accounts and asks what they add to the analysis developed by authors in this journal since Corbyn’s victory in the Labour Party leadership contest of 2015.1
The personal and the political
Left Out and This Land share a similar analysis, arguing that Corbyn’s leadership failed due to his personal shortcomings and his unwillingness to compromise with the right of the Labour Party. Revolutionary socialists will, of course, disagree with this. Indeed, these books’ tales from inside the Corbyn camp—and in particular how it handled its two great crises, the Brexit debate and the charge of antisemitism levelled at Corbyn—are illustrative of the constant pressure to retreat and compromise that tore Corbyn’s leadership apart and drove it to defeat.
Of the four books reviewed here, Left Out is the only one whose authors did not support the Corbyn project. Pogrund and Maguire’s perspective is that Labour would have fared better with a more right-wing leader. Nonetheless, this is no hatchet job. With one or two exceptions, its account, based on more than 100 interviews, has not been widely contested.2 The book charts how right-wing Labour MPs continually battered Corbyn’s leadership into backing a second referendum on membership of the European Union and pushed it towards calling for a Remain vote. MPs demanded Labour adopt positions that sought to preserve the status quo, such as support for a customs union with the EU. Some sought to drive a wedge between Corbyn and his supporters using groups such as Another Europe is Possible as left cover, all the while corralling them behind a right-wing vision of Remain.3
The role of Corbyn’s successor, Keir Starmer, is particularly interesting. Pogrund and Maguire say that as shadow Brexit minister he initially kept his distance from those openly pushing for Labour to move towards Remain, instead using his influence to manoeuvre Corbyn towards that position. Bureaucratic wrangling led to Labour’s 2018 conference agreeing that the party could support a second referendum if parliament rejected a Brexit deal.4 This allowed Starmer to push the boundaries further still, insisting in his conference speech that Labour might not just support a second referendum but that in that referendum “no one is ruling out Remain as an option”. By the 2019 conference, not only was Labour committed to a second referendum, but leading left-wing MPs were openly calling for Remain.
The other great crisis that helped bring down Corbyn—the smears of antisemitism—reveals the same dynamic at play, particularly over whether Labour should adopt the examples attached to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism. One example in particular, which states that it is antisemitic to describe the existence of the state of Israel as a racist endeavour, has been widely used to silence anti-Zionist criticisms of Israel as a racist state. The rows that took place inside Corbyn’s own leadership team, described in Left Out and This Land, encapsulate the contradictions of Corbyn’s position. On the one hand, activists around Corbyn argued with him not to accept the definition. On the other hand, he was surrounded by advisers, aides and allies who demanded he give way as a “tactical” retreat. They saw defending Palestinian rights as unimportant compared to the goal of achieving a Corbyn government, which, for them, meant avoiding confrontation with the right wing of the party.5
The hopes that such retreats would redeem Corbyn were misplaced. Each retreat gave greater credence to the right’s accusations that the left’s criticism of Israel is rooted in antisemitism. This in turn opened up the space for further attacks on Corbyn, as well as tarnishing the left and the Palestine solidarity movement. For instance, in July 2019, the BBC aired a Panorama documentary entitled “Is Labour Antisemitic?”6 The programme linked its accusations of antisemitism explicitly to the left’s anti-Zionism and support for Palestine. Left Out reveals that after months of retreat, Corbyn’s office explicitly told its prominent media supporters not to dispute the programme’s premise: “DO NOT ADVANCE ANY GENERAL CRITICISMS of Panorama or the show. They are correct to raise antisemitism”.7 By the time a general election was called in 2019, the argument was not whether the left was antisemitic but whether Corbyn had apologised enough.
In the case of both Brexit and antisemitism, the pressures to compromise were twofold. Firstly, there was a need to try to hold off the constant threat of sabotage by the Labour right and, secondly and linked to this, to try to make Corbyn’s politics work within the framework of the parliamentary system. Pogrund and Maguire set out how a group of right-wing Labour MPs began meeting in secret to plot ways to undermine Corbyn after the 2017 general election. This ended in a breakaway by seven Labour MPs to form the Independent Group in February 2019. The split was a failure; far fewer MPs joined its ranks than its founders hoped for, and the group dissolved itself ten months after its foundation. However, as Left Out shows, its real impact was to cow Labour’s leadership. John McDonnell, Corbyn’s left-wing shadow chancellor, feared a split would damage Labour more than the accusations of antisemitism. “He was, according to his aides, haunted by the role the Social Democratic Party (SDP) had played in splitting the vote”.8 In the wake of the split, “Corbyn would make major concessions to prevent any more defections”.9 These included promising to back a second EU referendum and suspending left-wing MP Chris Williamson: “Outside of the Labour Party, the splitters appeared to have taken only a week to effect the shift they had wasted the best part of a year agitating for inside it”.10 According to Pogrund and Maguire, McDonnell was one of the strongest voices calling for compromise with the right on both Brexit and antisemitism. They argued that his predilection for compromise was a result of his fixation on winning government office:
McDonnell obsessed over the pursuit of power—for without it, Labour could never enact the genuinely radical socialist programme he had spent his career fighting for… McDonnell had never shared his comrade’s passion for international affairs—and nor was he willing to let it derail the best chance the Labour left would ever have of forming a government on its own terms.11
Despite the evident failure of such retreats, Jones generally agrees with McDonnell that they were necessary. He shares the view of Corbyn’s head of policy, Andrew Fisher, who claimed resisting adoption of the examples attached to the IHRA definition was a “fucking idiotic thing to do”. Despite recognising that there were “valid criticisms of the IHRA examples, not least from the perspective of Palestinians,” Jones argues that Labour did not have “the political capital or space to engage in this debate”.12 To take another example, when a former Russian spy, Sergei Skripal, and his daughter were poisoned in Salisbury in 2016, there was huge pressure to rally behind the Tory government and the drive to strengthen the security services. Jones complains that Corbyn should have gone along with this. Refusing to do so was “a classic example of the kind of needless fights the leadership chose to pick”.13
Almost all of these “needless fights” relate to one of Corbyn’s great strengths, his anti-imperialist politics, which are the key to his political identity. However, there is a wider argument at play here. Jones’s real complaint is that Corbyn was unwilling or unable to “play the game” well enough and thus prove his compliance with the rules of the parliamentary system.14 That Corbyn’s leadership did increasingly—and fatally—attempt to “play the game” gives the lie to Jones’s claims that “Corbynism rejected the parliamentary focus of traditional Labourism” and that it “existed primarily as an extra-parliamentary movement”. 15In reality, it was the failure of Corbynism to break free of parliamentary restraints that led to its downfall; yet Jones wishes the party could have had a leader more willing to compromise in order to “secure power”, namely John McDonnell.16
Structures and socialism
Panitch and Leys’s account in Searching for Socialism seems, on the surface, to be diametrically opposed to Jones’s. They recognise that, with his retreats, “the more Corbyn gave way, the more intense became the pressure on him to go further”.17 Their perspective is that Corbyn’s leadership failed to go far enough in enacting structural changes to the Labour Party and developing a strategy for achieving socialism by transforming the state.
They trace the roots of Corbyn’s leadership from the birth of the “Labour new left” in the 1970s, with Tony Benn as its figurehead. Panitch and Leys describe this as the expression within the Labour Party of the New Left, a current that was critical of both Communist and traditional social democratic parties and that looked to the creation of new democratic socialist organisations. Their “Labour new left” wanted to transform Labour into such an organisation. Although this current saw dangers in attempting to work through the state, it thought it could build a counterweight against its potential co-option by opening Labour’s structures up to mass participation through links to social movements and by establishing the sovereignty of members over MPs. Once this was achieved, the Labour Party would be able to attempt “a broader democratisation of society, the economy and the state”.18
Panitch and Leys agree with the fundamentals of this strategy. They blame the Labour Party’s historic failures on a “philosophy of politics wherein MPs saw themselves as the agents of the ‘national interest’”.19 As Panitch and Leys see it, the central problem is one of ideology. They blame Labour’s commitment to managing capitalism and the state on its leaders’ rejection of class politics. In fact it is the other way round—Labour’s orientation on the state leads it to try to manage society in the interests of capital and hence against working class interests. Panitch and Leys conclude that a different leadership, with a different “philosophy of politics”, one of working “in and against the state” in order to transform it, could turn Labour into a vehicle for socialism. Searching for Socialism describes Corbyn’s leadership as the greatest success for this strategy so far. This is not just because it put the left at the head of the party but because its mass support had some of the characteristics of an extra-parliamentary movement. Momentum, the organisation launched to back Corbyn, was the “signal organisational achievement of the Corbyn years”, because it turned this support into a “significant intra-party and electoral force of the kind needed to take the project of the Labour new left forward”.20 However, they acknowledge that Momentum had its problems, including its own lack of internal democracy and “a tendency to focus on internal party issues and electoral campaigning at the expense of engaging in class-based struggles, organising and education”.21 In fact, within months of its foundation, Momentum was beset with arguments over these very questions. Some activists did argue that Momentum should be a broad social movement, but its founder, Jon Lansman, ensured it kept its narrow focus on party activity.22 It remained an adjunct to a project built around parliament and elections.
Panitch and Leys are not uncritical of Corbyn. Under his leadership the structures of Labour were not democratised in the manner for which they hoped. Corbyn and his allies did not develop sufficiently far-reaching socialist policies to transform the state. They also lacked a vision for how these policies could be implemented through a state machine weakened by neoliberalism and in the face of likely economic sabotage of any genuine socialist measures. “A crucial element missing from the manifesto was any significant move towards democratising the state,” and proposed economic reforms in a report commissioned by McDonnell were “far from anything that might be called a socialist strategy”.23 Panitch and Leys are particularly concerned by McDonnell’s “public silence” on how and when Labour would implement capital controls: “McDonnell told participants at The World Transformed in 2017 that plans were in hand to deal with capital flight or a run on the pound, but he did not indicate what they were”.24
Panitch and Leys explain these failures as a result of the left’s weakness, which it developed after spending years on the sidelines only to find itself suddenly catapulted into the leadership. The left did not have the time to first democratise Labour and then develop fully socialist policies. Panitch and Leys agree with Labour activist Ben Sellers: “We did it back to front”.25 In this game of snakes and ladders, winning the leadership is supposed to be the final step. Because of this, they say, Corbynism was too reliant on the support of unions and at the mercy of the Parliamentary Labour Party. Labour’s Brexit row meant Corbyn “inevitably became immersed in parliamentary procedure”, they claim.26 “The intellectual, strategic, tactical and organisational burdens of carrying forward the new left project all fell on a handful of socialists in Corbyn’s team, who were necessarily anxious to avoid a party split—not least since winning elections was indeed crucial to the project”.27 This has some echoes of the pragmatism that Jones identifies with McDonnell. Panitch and Leys also admire McDonnell, commending his “sophisticated ‘in and against the state’ strategic orientation”.28 Yet this approach leads the party to a traditional difficulty, summed up by Benn as the “usual problem of the reformer”: “We have to run the economic system to protect our people, who are locked into it, while we change the system”.29
Panitch, who sadly died in December 2020, spent much of his time in politics trying to address this problem. In a contribution in the 2020 edition of Socialist Register, written with his co-thinkers Sam Gindin and Stephen Maher, he takes up the question of McDonnell’s economic strategy in more detail. The essay, written before Labour’s 2019 election defeat, argues that a Labour government would be in no position “to introduce capital controls without immediately inducing more severe economic hardship than the austerity they are pledged to end”.30 It would have to “tread cautiously through piecemeal interventions against capitalist power and advance reforms that risk being overwhelmed in these conditions”.31 Though broadly welcoming of McDonnell’s approach, the authors criticise some of the industrial strategies considered by McDonnell for emulating “such uncompromisingly capitalist regimes as Singapore, South Korea, Japan—and most notably, even the United States itself”.32 This, they say, reflects Labour’s failure to articulate how its plan to manage industry “within the framework of global capitalism relates to the development of a transformational socialist strategy”. This in turn reflects a bigger problem: “For a socialist-led government in the current conjuncture giant steps would be impossible, but small steps risk being swallowed into the logic of the system”.33
The problem is presented even more starkly in a 2016 article by Panitch and Gindin in 2016 in which they examine the failures of the radical left Syriza government in Greece. They agree with Syriza MP Costas Douzinas, who argued that the party needed a strategy that operated within three timeframes. To survive in the short term it had to implement the austerity measures imposed on it by the Troika. It also needed a medium-term plan to implement “clear socialist” measures that would “mitigate” this austerity. This would be a “bridge” to a longer-term socialist strategy that can be realised “only by continuously and simultaneously implementing and undermining” the agreement with the Troika.34 Panitch and Gindin’s criticism of Douzinas is that he only mentions in passing “close contact with the party and social movements”.35 They argue that Syriza’s flaw was its failure to mobilise its activists and social movements in support of its socialist measures.
In both pieces, and in Searching for Socialism, Panitch and his co-thinkers’ characteristic solution is to build community and workplace struggles and “democratise” social democratic and trade union structures. This is not intended as preparation for a direct confrontation with the forces of capital and the state. Instead, their hope is that this will lay the groundwork for transformative socialist measures further down the line, avoiding any such confrontation, with the aim of eventually transcending the contradiction at the heart of the strategy. The problem with this, as they allude to themselves, is that it means accepting and even implementing capitalist demands that undermine the very left forces they are seeking to develop. Panitch and Leys end Searching for Socialism on a pensive note, explaining that this work will take a long time, and yet “time is short. This is the central dilemma for democratic socialists, not just in Britain, but everywhere”.36
Panitch and Leys provide a great deal of the political theory that underpins the strategy of the Labour left, and their influence is clear on many of the contributors to Futures of Socialism, a collection of essays edited by Grace Blakeley. The contribution from Andrew Murray, one of Corbyn’s chief advisers, paints a somewhat optimistic picture of the prospects for the left inside the Labour Party. Murray cites a YouGov poll that shows strong support among party members for the left, and particularly for organisations such as Stop the War and Labour Friends of Palestine. This leads him to conclude that Labour’s shift to the right will be limited, especially on anti-imperialism: “Pressure to cut the strings tying British diplomacy to Washington’s apron will remain potent within the party”.37 In fact, anti-imperialism has borne the brunt of Labour’s shift to the right—with an assault on the right to criticise Israel and a recent speech by Starmer reasserting the party’s commitment to support for the US.38 Even if we give Murray the benefit of the doubt and consider that his essay was likely written in the earlier months of 2020, it is still a naive prediction. However, other contributions take a broader strategic view. Economist James Meadway develops arguments similar to those of Panitch and Leys, calling, for instance, for major reforms to the financial system. He says an oversized and over-powerful financial sector has distorted the economy and the government’s economic decisions. The task for a left-wing government, he argues, is to shrink and restructure the financial sector, “breaking up large institutions and creating an ecosystem of different financial institutions”.39 Yet the problem with this argument—as with many of the book’s contributions—is that it is based on finding ways to circumvent or mitigate resistance from capital, often by using the state. None of the arguments in the book overcome the central flaw at the heart of this strategy.
Cristina Flesher Fominaya’s assessment of the radical left Podemos party in the Spanish state is a case in point. Flesher Fominaya recounts Podemos’s journey from a “movement party” in 2011 to its entry into government in 2020 as the junior coalition partner of the social democratic PSOE party. Today Podemos “can only minimally be understood as a movement party”,40 she says, describing the erosion of internal democracy, the removal of opposition, and the consolidation of power behind its leader, Pablo Iglesias. Nevertheless, her account of Podemos’s role in government regards it as positive. She argues that the government “rapidly moved forward with progressive policies”, heralding standard social democratic reforms such as minor increases to pensions and the minimum wage.41 She does not consider the broader question of what entering a coalition in order to prop up a party that Podemos once sought to challenge—and which is managing the pandemic in the interests of capital—might mean in the longer term. Fominaya does at least point to the contradictions between the state and the movement, explaining that “the term ‘hybrid party’ embraces an internal contradiction between movementist and party-political logics of collective action”,42 but the analysis does not progress beyond this point. Instead she ends: “Podemos’s initial success stemmed in large part from its ability to win over grassroots support from Spain’s progressive social movements… Whether it will be able to thrive as a party in the absence of so many of its former supporters is an open question”.43
The problems of the orientation on Labour shared by most of the contributions to this collection do not negate the value of many of the essays. For instance, Sian Errington outlines the destruction wrought by a decade of austerity and how it has left low paid workers most vulnerable in the Covid-19 pandemic and public services less able to cope. She argues that the anti-austerity politics advanced under Corbyn’s leadership have to continue, including “rebuilding a mass movement and becoming part of the social fabric in the local communities and workplaces, as well as gaining ground in parliament”.44 Simukai Chigudu describes the original campaign to remove a statue of arch-imperialist Cecil Rhodes at Baliol College, Oxford, in which he was centrally involved, and the hostility it encountered. He is optimistic that, after the explosion of anti-racist struggle in 2020 and the resurgence of anti-racist theory, such campaigns “will have a greater critical mass”.45 However, the way that these kinds of campaigns could be integrated into a strategy for socialist transformation is never successfully addressed. The final essay by James Schneider, who served as Corbyn’s head of strategic communications, seems to tie together the different strands of the book, referring to the “multiplicity” of strategies and arguments for how and what to organise: “If they broadly run in the same direction and there is a degree of coordination between them, progressive forces could be strengthened, preparing the ground for the next opportunity for advance”.46 This is optimistic, but the left needs more than optimism.
Since Corbyn’s defeat, new struggles have opened up, from the Black Lives Matter movement to the workplace battles over Covid-19. The real source of hope is that such struggles might come together with a socialist strategy that is not subordinated to the Labour Party, instead seeking a revolutionary confrontation with capital and the capitalist state. Corbyn’s defeat has opened up a host of debates about the Labour Party, reformism and strategies for socialism. It is essential to make sure revolutionary socialist arguments gain a hearing amid these discussions.
Nick Clark is a Socialist Worker journalist. He has covered the Labour Party since Jeremy Corbyn’s first leadership election campaign in 2015.
1 See, for instance, Thomas 2016, 2017; Kimber, 2020.
2 Left Out does claim that Corbyn’s wife, Laura Alvarez, interrupted a photo opportunity in Stoke—where Corbyn was cooking oatcakes—to demand he make her one. Corbyn supporters say footage does not back the story up. ITV denied that it agreed not to use the footage at the request of Corbyn’s office, leading the Sunday Times to amend the extract it published online.
3 Pogrund and Maguire, 2020, pp133-134.
4 The pivotal sentence in the motion passed at the 2018 conference said: “Should Parliament vote down a Tory Brexit deal or the talks end in no-deal, if we cannot get a general election, Labour must support all options remaining on the table, including campaigning for a public vote.”
5 Pogrund and Maguire, 2020, pp107-108.
6 Clark, 2019.
7 Pogrund and Maguire, 2020, p245.
8 Pogrund and Maguire, 2020, p175. The SDP was formed in 1981 by four Labour MPs who split from the party after the left, led by Tony Benn, had won a series of rule changes at a special conference.
9 Pogrund and Maguire, 2020, p189.
10 Pogrund and Maguire, 2020, p189.
11 Pogrund and Maguire, 2020, p84.
12 Jones, 2020, p238.
13 Jones, 2020, p110.
14 Jones, 2020, p94.
15 Jones, 2020, p80.
16 Jones, 2020, p315.
17 Panitch and Leys, 2020, p242.
18 Panitch and Leys, 2020, p14.
19 Panitch and Leys, 2020, p183.
20 Panitch and Leys, 2020, p253.
21 Panitch and Leys, 2020, p253.
22 Kimber, 2016.
23 Panitch and Leys, 2020, pp213, 222.
24 Panitch and Leys, 2020, p223. The World Transformed is a left-wing political festival that takes place on the fringe of the annual Labour Party conference.
25 Quoted in Panitch and Leys, 2020, p233.
26 Panitch and Leys, 2020, p235.
27 Panitch and Leys, 2020, p236.
28 Panitch and Leys, 2020, p 164.
29 Quoted in Panitch and Leys, 2020, p223.
30 Maher, Gindin and Panitch, 2020.
31 Maher, Gindin and Panitch, 2020.
32 Maher, Gindin and Panitch, 2020.
33 Maher, Gindin and Panitch, 2020.
34 Douzinas, as quoted in Panitch and Gindin, 2017.
35 Panitch and Gindin, 2017.
36 Panitch and Leys, 2020, p255.
37 Murray, 2020, p39.
38 Starmer, 2021.
39 Meadway, 2020, p161.
40 Flesher Fominaya, 2020, p121.
41 Flesher Fominaya, 2020, p118.
42 Flesher Fominaya, 2020, p125.
43 Flesher Fominaya, 2020, p126.
44 Errington, 2020, p188.
45 Chigudu, 2020, p217.
46 Schneider, 2020, p234.