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A well written if self-centred account: Baroness Bryan reviews 'This is Only the Beginning'

A well written if self-centred account: Baroness Bryan reviews 'This is Only the Beginning'

Millbank, London 2010: Students protest against tuition fee rises | Alamy

3 min read

Michael Chessum's inside story of the rise of Momentum and the new left in the 2010s suffers from a superficial and London-centric approach

Michael Chessum’s starting point for this book is the storming of the Conservative Party offices in Millbank Tower in 2010. For those of us with only a vague memory of the event it is difficult to see it, as he does, as a BC/AD divide. Those active before 2010 have, in his view, a limited perspective compared with those who were politicised during the student unrest and occupy movements of the early part of the 2010s. The new activists he calls “a generation without a history”. 

This group, he explains, were unable to find a true home in either Labour or the organised far left movement and lacked not only a political expression but also any form of collective political strategy. The opportunity presented by the successful nomination of Jeremy Corbyn and the subsequent leadership election gave a focus to some of this group.

 As often happens in politics, it is easy to look at what is happening in your immediate vicinity and think that it is the centre of everything. It can be easy to forget that there are many other events happening to people elsewhere and that they are as unaware of you as you are of them. The account is almost totally London focused. For example, there is only a passing reference to the Scottish independence movement, which is mentioned as an aside with comedian Russell Brand’s call for a revolution. 

The author’s self-belief is clear as he planned to put himself at the centre of the Momentum movement. He writes: “I decided that I would have to climb its structures and seek to build for it a democratic youth organisation, and there began in earnest my journey into the new Labour left.”

He does not deal with the issue of anti-Semitism, which is a huge omission

What should not be forgotten is that it was a time when tens of thousands of people became involved in a politics for the first time, and that should be celebrated. The Labour Party became the largest political movement in Europe and gave many people a belief that change was possible.

The roots of its demise are described in some detail, but not actually explained. The “blame” is directed at individuals rather than politics. Chessum, a staunch opponent of Brexit, has no understanding of why working-class people voted to leave. Secondly, he does not deal with the issue of anti-Semitism, which is a huge omission. 

The book reads well but skims rather than penetrates; he assumes in many cases that there is no counter argument to his own positions. To use back at him his own words, he is an activist without a history. If he looked more closely at the origins of the Labour Party in the working class, community based socialist societies like the ILP and the trade unions, this may have given him a deeper understanding. He kindly gives a bibliography of other books covering the same period. A reader may find a better analysis in one of those.

Baroness Bryan of Partick is a Labour peer

This is Only the Beginning: The making of a new left, from anti-austerity to the fall of Corbyn
By: Michael Chessum
Publisher: Bloomsbury Academic

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