Jeremy Corbyn was the least likely party leader in the history of modern politics. Occasionally he is compared to an early Labour leader, George Lansbury, a figure on the left who led his party to electoral doom with a romantic flourish. But Lansbury had served as a minor cabinet minister before becoming Labour leader, placing him in a different league to Corbyn in terms of experience near the top of politics. Before becoming leader, Corbyn had not been on the front bench, either in government or in opposition. Suddenly, in 2015, he won a landslide in Labour’s leadership contest. Some MPs ache to be leader of their party. Corbyn had never wanted to acquire the crown.
He was the equivalent of a tennis player in a local park being transported to the Centre Court at Wimbledon. Political leadership and the athletic artistry of tennis at the highest level have a common feature. The skills needed cannot be suddenly acquired. Leadership involves ruthless focus, discipline, a capacity to explain to the electorate a message, credible policies to back up the message and an ability to manage the party at every level, from the leader’s office downwards. There was no reason why Corbyn should have possessed such skills. He showed no inclination to learn speedily.
This was a near-fatal problem. There was another. Some Labour MPs who were shocked by Corbyn’s rise behaved appallingly. A few of them tweeted their disdain within minutes of Corbyn being elected leader and continued to offer dissent for the duration of his leadership. Not only were they disloyal; they also had no coherent strategy for removing Corbyn or an alternative left-of-centre project. Feeling besieged, the Corbynites joined the battle. On this basis alone, with both sides culpable, Labour was doomed to lose. Voters do not follow politics closely but note when different sections of a party fight each other with an intense loathing.
Yet Labour did not lose spectacularly at first. The 2017 election received little media scrutiny subsequently, in large part because so many pompous pundits were proved spectacularly wrong in forecasting a slaughter for Labour. The campaign was of historic significance. It was the first election since before the start of the Thatcher era that revolved around a debate about the ‘good that government can do’ (a quote from the Conservative manifesto). This focus worked better for Corbyn, a committed statist, than it did for Theresa May. Even so, his genuine success in wiping out the Conservatives’ majority made the scale of Labour’s slaughter in 2019 even more calamitous and humiliating.
Surprisingly, these two near-instant accounts of the Corbyn era concur in their central judgements. The authors could not have set about their tasks from more different perspectives. Owen Jones was passionately committed to the cause, living and breathing every moment of Corbyn’s leadership. Gabriel Pogrund and Patrick Maguire, though authorities on the Labour Party, work for the Sunday Times and The Times respectively, two newspapers at the heart of a media establishment that Jones views with frustrated anger.
I have not read an account of the immediate past that is as thorough and balanced as that produced by Pogrund and Maguire. They have interviewed virtually all the key players and quite a few speak on the record for the first time. As a result, the ghostly figures of caricature become more real. Seumas Milne, for example, is as notable for being unreliable and unpunctual as for being ideologically unyielding. His views on Putin’s Russia were more ‘nuanced’ than commonly perceived. In their book, Corbyn is instinctively decent rather than malevolent, and that is both a problem and a virtue.
They begin their account with the aftermath of the 2017 election. The short time span of their book allows them space to address the question of what went so badly wrong in the two and a half years that followed. Jones opens with the seeds of Corbyn’s rise, taking in the 2008 financial crash and the early, timid phase of the party’s 2015 leadership contest, in which candidates, exhausted following the general election, agonised over whether to acknowledge that the previous Labour government had been too profligate. Corbyn came along and argued that the Labour government had spent nowhere near enough and blew the other candidates away.
Yet both accounts convey the chaos of Corbyn’s office in the aftermath of the 2017 election, with Corbyn and Milne turning up late for key events and different factions fighting with one another as their priorities moved on from buttressing the leader to protecting one wing of the leadership team from the other. Corbyn comes across as a hopelessly detached figure, aloofness being his only way of coping with the impossible task that he had not wanted.
Some in his office yearned for tougher action from him on anti-Semitism allegations or a clearer line on the Salisbury poisonings. Little happened. The individual who yearned most for this was the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, the nearest to a hero in both books. McDonnell worked tirelessly and pragmatically. He wanted to win, knowing that unity and a semblance of coherence were fundamental preconditions for victory. He kept up a dialogue with the so-called moderates and spoke out publicly on both anti-Semitism and the Salisbury poisonings, to the point where he and Corbyn did not talk for several months.
Both books also provide confirmation that Brexit was a nightmare for Corbyn, dividing Labour voters and members. Corbyn thought he was being Harold Wilson-like in offering a second referendum, but he lacked Wilson’s guile and was incapable of turning the thorny offer of a plebiscite to his advantage, as Wilson had managed to do in the two 1974 elections.
The authors of both books address all the failings in the build-up to the 2019 election but understate one. Leaders need to explain to the wider electorate around the clock why they are proposing particular policies. If the ‘why?’ question is not dealt with, voters turn away. In 2019 and before, Labour bombarded the electorate with policies without explaining why they were doing so. The leadership assumed an announcement or an assertion would suffice. Given that for much of the time the energy of key players was devoured in parochial internal battles, the electorate rarely got a look-in.
Jones writes with candour, anger and regret. He delves deeper than Pogrund and Maguire, in the sense that he seeks to tell much more than a story. He hopes lessons will be learned so that if the left of Labour gets another chance, it will not be blown. Pogrund and Maguire open all the previously sealed doors that were installed to protect the fragile leader, to the point where he became far too cocooned. Their book is both a dark thriller and a farce. Hopefully in future they will apply their admirably objective curiosity to a more durable ‘project’. At the beginning, we know how this story ends, which means the question ‘so what?’ arises as each twist and turn is reported.
Corbyn never conveyed a hunger for power. During Keir Starmer’s first Prime Minister’s Questions, when social distancing was already in force, Corbyn was one of the few MPs in the chamber, sitting on the near-empty back benches waiting to ask a question. Many observers thought it both crass and odd. But for Corbyn it was a return to his natural home. The freakish career aberration of his late sixties had passed and he was doing what he had contentedly done before, seeking to make hay as a near-powerless backbench MP.