The harsh fact about the Corbyn project is that the only one of Labour’s hard-left MPs able to win the party leadership was the person least suited to lead.
While others in his faction — most notably John McDonnell — made enemies and were feared, Jeremy Corbyn was sufficiently liked that even people who disagreed with him signed the nomination to get him on the ballot. With hindsight, this lack of enemies should have been a clue.
For the inescapable conclusion of a new and sympathetic look at the period is that Corbyn was probably the worst prime ministerial candidate put before the voters in modern times. Leaving aside his political positions, he was temperamentally incapable of doing the job. For Owen Jones, the Corbyn project’s important media cheerleader and semi-insider, the drama of those years is almost Shakespearean. Jones’ own doubts about Corbyn appeared early but his enthusiasm for the wider project is undimmed.
As one would expect, it is an easy read. Jones is a fluent, if occasionally breathless, writer. There are rather too many “seismic” events and at one point he describes a little-noticed trade union campaign as the biggest since the general strike of 1926. He also makes little effort to understand opponents, who are always driven by base motives.
But these are quibbles. The fundamental issue lies with its intent. While Left Out by Gabriel Pogrund and Patrick Maguire is a sympathetic but devastating reportage of the Corbyn project, Jones has a more political purpose. This is his attempt to maintain the manifesto without the man and, as with many on the left, the search is for reasons why the agenda still stands despite its comprehensive rejection at the 2019 election. In part, this means showing the failures not only of the man and his close aides but also antagonistic party staff.
Jones still views politics through a class construct. Yet while he is shrewd enough to see the problem in this approach for Labour, he struggles to get past it. He knows that Brexit cut across the class divide; he knows that many traditional Labour voters are socially conservative. Class defines his politics but it is not true of all his target voters.
Like many on the left, Jones’ true target is the “centrists”, the moderate left who stand in the path of a more socialist option. For Jones it is essential we accept that the centre cannot hold. But this may be a counsel of despair. For one thing it misreads the voters, since the evidence is that confronted by hardline Labour and hardline Tories, they are more likely to tack right. Furthermore, the centre can move. It shifted from austerity politics but the beneficiary was Boris Johnson.
Where Jones is strongest, and impressively so, is when he turns his analytical gaze on his own side. His dissection of the anti-Semitism issue is heartfelt and intelligent. His account of the infighting and weakness of the leader’s team rings true, though this is a manifestation of Corbyn’s own failures. He correctly observes that Brexit left Labour on a hook, torn between its largely Remainer membership and the angry Leave voters in its most vulnerable northern seats.
We cannot know that the party’s split could have been overcome, but we can know that Corbyn did not try. He never sought to lead. He was uninterested in Brexit, so the leader of the opposition had nothing to say about the biggest issue of the day. Others fought over the direction, Corbyn disappeared.
And this was not just true of Brexit. At almost any moment of conflict, he fled. He would — according to Jones — just absent himself. What is clear is that those around Corbyn knew he was nowhere close to prime ministerial material. But while they saw him as a titular figurehead for the greater project, voters simply saw a weak leader.
Having lost heavily, the left’s fight is to maintain the case for its ideas. But remaining relevant must mean reaching a truce with the current Labour leader Keir Starmer. Jones sees this. It is not clear his allies yet do. Jones, like others, wonders what might have been had the more impressive and ruthless McDonnell (former shadow chancellor, and a longtime friend of Corbyn’s) been leader. The best guess is Labour would probably still have lost but possibly not in a way that cost the left control of the party.
But this is for the counterfactuals. The Corbynites lacked the political dexterity to compromise with the electorate. Any dilution of their beliefs was seen as treachery. Dissatisfied with half a loaf, they opted for none at all.
This Land: The Story of a Movement, by Owen Jones, Allen Lane, RRP£20, 352 pages
Robert Shrimsley is the FT’s chief UK political commentator
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