'The Tories have a lot for which to thank Jeremy Corbyn' - Lord Mandelson on Left Out
Jeremy Corbyn addresses the 2015 Labour conference | PA Images
Lord Mandelson reviews Left Out, Gabriel Pogrund and Patrick Maguire’s meticulously researched, and at times shocking, account of the events leading up to Labour’s ‘humiliating’ 2019 election
Reading this book, Left Out, written by two professional young journalists from whom I suspect we will be hearing more in the future, is a sobering and sad experience. An accurate understanding of the Corbyn era is necessary, though, for all those who care about the Labour Party and the future of British politics.
It is, of course, incredible that, within a relatively short space of time, Labour could have come from three successive, and largely successful, terms of government – backed by large majorities in parliament, headed by two political titans, achieving so much for so many people – to the shambles, rejection and eventual collapse of what is euphemistically called the Corbyn ‘Project’. How this happened – which is the subject of this highly readable ‘fly on the wall’ account – and in particular the erroneous interpretation of Corbyn’s election ‘victory’ against Theresa May in 2017, offers a pointer to what Keir Starmer has to do in his steep mountain climb back to power.
Let’s start with the term, ‘Project’, as this book generously uses in relation to Corbyn’s leadership. This suggests goals, purpose, coherence and organisation, not to mention strategy. This meticulously researched book reveals that Corbyn and the politically dissolute team around him had none of these things throughout their time in control of the party. Corbyn himself did not even want the job of Labour’s leader let alone expect to get it. When he was dragged into standing for the leadership upon Ed Miliband’s resignation in 2015 (it was his ‘turn’ to be defeated on behalf of the hard left Campaign Group of Socialist MPs) he did so half expecting that he would not even gather the required nominations. Many of the useful idiots who offered to nominate him did not share his politics, and thought a Corbyn leadership unimaginable, but nevertheless felt that friendship or fair play were grounds enough to put him into the race. Thus started the chapter of accidents that led to Labour’s ultimate humiliation in the 2019 election and an 84 seat majority for Boris Johnson. The Tories have a lot for which to thank Jeremy Corbyn.
Back then, in 2015, Labour was in a bad way. Most people in the party had either started or ended up thinking that they had got the wrong Miliband. Ed set about the demolition of New Labour and its time in government with gusto, which was confusing and demoralising enough for many in the party, but then did not replace it with either a coherent philosophy or political battle plan of his own. Not surprisingly, faced with the austerity policies of the Cameron coalition and with nothing inspiring on offer to rally round, Labour members – including the thousands of newly recruited young idealists as well as the individual trade unionists specially enrolled for the purpose by Unite the Union – turned to something they thought would be genuinely new and fresh: Jeremy Corbyn. In the event, like Ed Miliband, it turned out that he had no coherent alternative to offer apart from his particular brand of street protest and leftist rhetoric – he just wanted to continue the New Labour demolition project where his predecessor left off.
Left Out conveniently for Corbyn skips over his abysmal performance in the 2016 Brexit referendum and takes up the narrative with his first election in 2017. I understand why the authors are kind to Team Corbyn over this election, partly because they need something good to balance the rest with and partly because, as I said publicly at the time, Corbyn displayed a temperament and spirit during the campaign that was attractive and admirable (especially in contrast to Theresa May). The result was genuinely surprising, indeed unique in my political experience. You can almost always tell at the beginning how an election is going to turn out. Not this one.
I think the electorate intended to give the Tories a landslide not least because their assessment of Corbyn was so negative. The Tories assumed that Labour was so weak, that delivering Brexit so popular and the media so partisan, that they could coast to victory. But their policies were divisive and extreme – including their offer of a hard or ‘no deal’ Brexit. And as for May, having called the election unnecessarily in the first place, she acted as if she didn’t have to turn up for it subsequently. As happens, hubris was followed by nemesis. But that is what Corbyn himself experienced after his ‘brilliant’ defeat.
Corbyn and his team misread the surprising outcome and thought that one further heave would be enough. But the determining factor in the election had not been Corbyn’s appeal but the nature of the Tory campaign, their record in government, their Brexit mania and their principal standard bearer.
It’s true that Corbyn was the more attractive personality but most people who voted Labour did not do so to make Corbyn their prime minister or because they supported the detail of his policies. I remember on polling day knocking up UKIP supporters without a candidate of their own in that particular constituency. They were voting Labour rather than Conservative in protest against May’s cuts in police numbers, notably those in armed response. In other cases, strongly anti-UKIP voters were voting Labour because they were determined to destroy the mandate for Brexit at any cost, as well as in most cases opposing further austerity.
The election was very polarising and its circumstances drove voters into two heavily fortified rival camps with the result that the voting share of both main parties jumped skywards. Team Corbyn were delirious in their belief that, finally, centrist Labour politics had been buried and that voters had swung behind a truly radical socialist programme. But a moderate centre ground was not on offer in this election. Far from being dead it was simply not on the ballot paper.
I dwell on this ancient history, as the book does itself, because it is fundamental to understanding the over confidence with which Team Corbyn approached the next two years. Did they really think that Kensington went Labour because there was a rush of socialist blood to the head after the virtues of nationalisation and Labour economic policies were finally recognised in that constituency ? No, the eviction of the sitting Tory MP was a rejection of Brexit and fury over the mandate May was claiming.
Two years later, in the 2019 election, Labour’s policy content became more important because it was better known – spending commitments doubled and the party’s credibility halved – and its risks better understood. But something else had happened in the meantime. The Skripal poisonings – the attempted assassination of two people on British soil by Russian state actors – had happened in 2018, with Corbyn’s response that the poison should be sent to Russia for laboratory testing, keeping an open mind about Putin’s culpability in the meantime. And Corbyn’s dogged and perverse refusal to acknowledge the anti-Semitism that his supporters had brought into the Labour Party, despite all the available evidence on social media, and his adamant rejection of the International Holocaust Remembrance Association’s full definition of anti-Semitism.
Left Out goes into both these and other low points of Corbyn’s tenure, revealing much detail for the first time of how his office staff coped with his obduracy, his absences and his sheer inability to confront the truth or take the decisions for which he, as leader, was responsible. It is in many ways a shocking account, not only because of the betrayal of his own party – the fulfilment of members’ hopes and dreams was riding on his leadership – but in what it says about the consequences for the whole country had this level of ineptitude actually entered 10 Downing Street.
Take the small issue of a new private secretary for the leader, selected on the basis that she could manage his erratic behaviour. The ensuing standoff between Corbyn and his chief of staff, Karie Murphy, over the appointment of his close friend Iram Awan Chamberlain, the wrangling and shouting matches inside his office that disrupted everyone’s work and the uproar over her parliamentary security vetting went on for months. It ended only when the defiant Awan Chamberlain, who took her job literally to mean being by Corbyn’s side, was despatched by Murphy after her unauthorised attendance at a classified briefing of Corbyn by ‘C’, the head of MI6, at the intelligence service’s offices in Vauxhall Cross. This lit the fuse for the eventual removal of Murphy herself shortly before the 2019 election following an office uprising and coup engineered by Corbyn’s comrade in arms, John McDonnell, who finally got sick and tired of the whole giddy bunch of them (ideally he would have liked to defenestrate ‘strategy’ director, Seumas Milne, as well).
It would be wrong, however, to over personalise this analysis of the ‘Project’. It was not Corbyn’s failure that led to its dismal collapse but the innate nature of the project itself. Voters overwhelmingly make their choice in elections not on ideological grounds but on the basis of desired change – which credible policies will effect, implemented by leaders who can lead.
Corbyn’s belief was that Labour’s road to power leads not through a coalition of the population as a whole – the “political arm of the British people” as Tony Blair once described the Labour Party – but by promoting the rights and opportunities of Britain’s working class. He has not noticed or chooses to ignore the fact that the working class divide has fractured and that in so far as people still see themselves as working class this is not a predictor of party support.
In last December’s election, the Tories enjoyed a 15 point lead amongst Britain’s declining working class voters. There could not be a bigger indictment of Corbyn’s ‘Project’. Political projects that bear little relation to voters’ aspirations, do not speak their language, offer last century’s collectivist policies and cannot understand voters’ love of their country are bound to fail, whoever is the leader. But in our case they did not like our leader either.
'Left Out: The Inside Story of Labour Under Corbyn' by Gabriel Pogrund & Patrick Maguire is available now, published by Bodley Head.
Lord Mandelson is a Labour peer
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