Richard Price, Leyton and Wanstead CLP reviews This Land: The Story of a Movement by Owen Jones.
Allen Lane 352 pp £20
I first met Owen Jones in 2000, when aged 16 – preternaturally gifted and confident – he attended a couple of meetings I helped organise. Our paths crossed when he worked for John McDonnell during the abortive John4Leader campaign in 2007. Since then, he has become probably the most widely read and followed writer and media pundit on the Labour left.
In contrast to Gabriel Pogrund and Patrick Maguire’s right wing attempt at a Corbyn post-mortem, Left Out, Jones stresses that he is writing as “both observer and participant”. I guess it’s what we do in this journal all the time, but it’s not an entirely comfortable balancing act, because he’s constantly inserting himself into the narrative, popping up in Labour HQ’s corridors of power. And while his media prominence has the advantage of access to many senior figures across the spectrum of Labour opinion, there’s too little on the grass roots of the Corbyn movement outside of the Westminster bubble.
In the book’s opening pages Jones sets out to navigate between what he sees as two flawed narratives. The first, from the right of the party sees Corbyn as “midwife to Brexit, morally disgraced by the evil of antisemitism, intolerant of dissent, [he] offered a policy prospectus which was self-evidently too extreme and otherworldly for the sensibilities of the British public”.
The second, from the left, “contends that Corbyn and his project were wrecked solely by a deliberate campaign of internal sabotage within the Labour Party itself, wedded to a vicious and unrelenting onslaught from an overwhelmingly antagonistic establishment media”.
Nobody doubts the importance of the hundreds of thousands of new and returning members in 2015-6. One of the book’s stronger sections is its sketch of the post-Blair, post-Iraq landscape, scarred by austerity and its impact on young people. Even so, it’s a stretch to claim that the Labour left had “all but evaporated” by the Blair honeymoon. The Grassroots Alliance took four out of six of the NEC constituency seats in 1998, and the role of the pre-existing Labour left in Corbyn’s victory in 2015 has been largely excised from history.
A recurring theme is Jeremy’s weakness as a party manager, who “repeatedly shot [himself] in the foot”. While it’s true to say that never in his wildest dreams prior to 2015 could Jeremy have seen himself in the role, the relentless hostility of a large group of the PLP meant that he was faced with continuous fire-fighting on a scale that no previous leader has faced. There’s confusion as to whether Jeremy’s “zen-like” calm was an asset or a mark of emotional detachment.
When the chips were down, immediately after the Copeland by election defeat in February 2017, Jones’ column in the Guardian came close to calling for Corbyn’s resignation. He also repeatedly gave credence to the idea that anti-semitism was indeed a widespread problem within the party, and appears to endorse Andrew Fisher’s view that not adopting the IHRA examples in full was “fucking stupid”, even though it meant that accepting that the birth of Israel was accompanied by large-scale ethnic cleansing could render you liable to expulsion.
The villain of the piece is Seamus Milne. There were certainly many times when I longed for a left wing Alastair Campbell to run an efficient rebuttal strategy, and questioning the Skripal poisoning was a route I wouldn’t have taken, given the Kremlin’s preference for administering a substance to its opponents only available to state actors. Against that should be set Milne’s scrupulous loyalty.
The hero is Owen’s old boss John McDonnell, and he writes that “It is a tragedy for the left that [he] … never assumed the leadership”. This simply ignores the erratic nature of some of McDonnell’s politics, including wondering out loud about a new party in the late 2000s, trying to placate Margaret Hodge (she of the bogus 200 cases of anti-semitism and the disgraceful accusation of Jeremy being a “fucking anti-semite”), breaking ranks over the IHRA examples and a second Brexit referendum and his bizarre endorsement of Liam Byrne as Labour’s West Midlands metro mayor candidate.
We can agree that it was Brexit wot dun it in the 2019 general election. But it wasn’t just that “Brexit sucked the oxygen out of politics”. It was that part of the left was blowing while the right was sucking, prioritising a second referendum over everything else. And although Owen supported – correctly in my view – Norway Plus as a way out of the impasse, he doubles back, endorsing McDonnell’s approach as broadly correct.
While he insists – Santayana-like – that the left must learn from its errors, This Land is a first rough draft of history, and a fairly superficial one at that.