While This Land offers an insight into Corbyn’s leadership, Owen Jones draws the wrong lessons to be learned, argues Shabbir Lakha

Owen Jones, This Land: The Story of a Movement (Allen Lane 2020), 352pp.

Following the defeat of the Corbyn project at the 2019 general election, a number of attempts have been made to analyse what went wrong. The latest post-mortem comes from Owen Jones in his book This Land: The Story of a Movement.

Jones introduces his book by saying ‘if our time is to come, then we must learn from our past’ (p.10), and to that end he brings together accounts from a wide range of voices of those involved in the project and offers a behind the scenes look at the last five years. The main theme of the book is the dysfunction of the leadership operation. He paints a picture of a leadership office in constant chaos, unable to strategise effectively and, by 2019, fractured and demoralised.

While detailing the massive assault on the leadership waged by the media and the party’s MPs and machinery, it was Corbyn’s indecisiveness, conflict-averseness, inexperience and incompetence that is largely the source of the failure, we’re told. As Jones says, ‘ultimately, leadership had to come from the leader – and it didn’t,’ (p.108) and ‘the buck stops with him’ (p.315).

While there is undeniably some truth to the allegations, the weight afforded to the operational failures of the leadership gives a skewed version of events that obfuscates more than it enlightens. If there are lessons to be learned for the left, and there are, they won’t be found in this book.

Principles and pragmatism

One of the strengths of This Land is the accounts from those working in the leadership office which lay out the hostility faced by Corbyn, his team and his supporters. Though many of us knew it was happening, the sheer scale of the day-to-day abuse and subterfuge is shocking.

Labour MPs would use the weekly PLP meeting to heckle and shout vulgarities at Corbyn and his allies. Labour staffers, as exposed by the leaked report earlier this year, were apparently actively working against the leadership including by delaying action on antisemitism cases. Georgie Robertson who was seconded to Labour HQ in 2017 during the general election campaign, said:

‘It felt as though you were in the room with the enemy, with the Tories. There was constant sabotage, leaking and briefing’ (p.70).

Despite this, Jones argues that Corbyn’s leadership shot itself in the foot by picking ‘needless fights’. The ‘classic example’ that Jones offers is Corbyn’s response to the Skripal affair where he questioned the government’s narrative. Jones says:

‘Given that Labour would inevitably end up accepting that the Russian regime was behind the Skripal poisoning, it was hard to see what was to be gained by voicing such scepticism, particularly since it allowed the leadership to be demonised as Britain-hating extremists’ (p.110).

Jones seems to ignore the fact that to this day the government has failed to produce definitive evidence, nor does he take into account that the ramping up of anti-Russian rhetoric at that exact moment was part of the growing tensions between the West and Russia which were being played out in air wars over Syria and on the borders of Eastern Europe.

Why would an anti-war leader of the opposition not question the government’s line? Given the media was already labelling Corbyn as a ‘terrorist sympathiser’ and ‘extremist’ for his anti-war credentials, what did he have to gain by abandoning his principles?

This becomes one of a number of examples Jones uses, including ‘anthem-gate’ and resistance to the immediate adoption of the full IHRA definition on antisemitism, where he laments that Corbyn was not pragmatic enough. Ironically, Jones’s account of Corbyn’s response to the Manchester terror attack is entirely positive. The decision to question the role of British foreign policy in relation to terrorist attacks was risky to put it mildly, and as Jones recounts, many in Corbyn’s team were opposed to the approach. However, up to 75% of the population agreed with him. So the lesson according to Jones is that principles are only worth sticking to if they work in your favour.

The real lesson of course, is the opposite. It was when Corbyn stuck to his principles that public trust in him was built, and it was when he refused to confine himself to the establishment’s terms that he was able to shape public opinion, not just reflect it.

The Brexit dilemma

Jones calls Brexit a ‘Bandersnatch’ for the Labour leadership, after the Black Mirror film in which every possible outcome is a bad one. Jones’s explanation for how Brexit became the undoing of the Corbyn project rests on three factors. Firstly, Brexit created a culture war which saw people identifying as Leavers and Remainers which cut across class lines. Secondly, that there is a growing generational political divide. Finally, that Labour found itself in the impossible situation of negotiating a majority pro-Remain membership and a majority Leave-voting electoral base.

The potential fix, Jones says, came immediately after the 2017 general election, which was ‘the ideal moment for Corbyn to make categorically clear that it would never support a second referendum, and would seek to implement the 2016 decision’ (p.184). Jones accepts that backing a second referendum was the fatal decision, but that the indecision of Corbyn’s leadership meant that by 2019 it had no choice but to adopt that position. What Labour should have done, Jones argues, is define its Brexit position clearly after the 2017 election and win over the membership; the vacuum that was created by not doing so allowed for the membership to become committed to a second referendum.

However, the problem is that Labour did in fact begin defining its Brexit position straight after the election. Labour’s 2017 People’s Brexit position allowed Labour, not to ignore Brexit as Jones suggests, but to cut through it with class politics. Nevertheless, in August 2017, the leadership allowed Keir Starmer, who we now know to be such a good faith actor, to begin defining Labour’s position on a customs union.

This immediately set Labour up as moving towards Remain, or a ‘Brexit just in name’ position. This was pounced on by the Tories and Nigel Farage. At the same time it began the process of back and forth over the intricacies of what a potential Labour Brexit could look like which drowned out everything else Labour had to say and allowed the right – both the Tories and those within Labour – to set the terms of debate. This may have proved unavoidable, but Labour kickstarted the process and left Starmer and Thornberry to determine the direction in which it was heading.

Labour’s membership is presented as an untameable behemoth which, on the issue of Brexit, was at odds with the leadership. It was clear that the right certainly thought so, and were attempting to use Brexit as a wedge between Corbyn and his supporters. It is true that the majority of Labour members in 2019 supported a second referendum. Interestingly, Jones himself points out that the People’s Vote campaign, while gaining some ground among Remainers in general in 2018, was failing to win over Corbyn supporters who saw it as the right-wing project aimed at undermining the left, which it was.

What did begin to make inroads, was Another Europe Is Possible, whose national organiser Michael Chessum boasts to Jones, ‘we detoxified the anti-Brexit cause’ (p.191). AEIP gave the People’s Vote campaign a left credibility with its ‘Left Bloc’. Its conference resolution that tried to force the leadership to accept a second referendum in 2018 (and was only stopped by a fudge reiterating that it was still on the table), essentially weaponised the membership against the leadership. Their actions weren’t limited to the Labour Party; in 2017 some key figures in AEIP, along with Jones, sought to split the anti-Trump movement along Brexit lines. They tried again amid the opposition to Johnson proroguing Parliament in 2019 with their ‘Stop the Coup’ campaign, which attacked Leavers and demanded a referendum instead of an election.

The cumulative effect of all this was to create an inaccurate impression of the membership, such that the leadership felt it had no choice but to go along with a second referendum. Jones describes a meeting in May 2019 (at which point he had also publicly proclaimed that a second referendum was the only option for Labour) where Corbyn told senior Labour HQ officials and party whips, ‘we’ve taken the membership too far. We’re not going to get away with it, we are going to have to back a second referendum’ (p.209). Sadly, what was missed was that while a majority of Corbyn supporting Labour members wanted a second referendum, they still backed Corbyn.

The antisemitism saga

If Brexit was used by the right as a stick with which to beat the Labour leadership, this was doubly true of the allegations of antisemitism. The level of assault was such that according to the book, Bad News for Labour: Antisemitism, the Party and Public Belief, between June 2015 and March 2019 there were 5,497 stories relating to Corbyn, Labour and antisemitism in just eight national newspapers. A survey showed that when people were asked to estimate the percentage of Labour members involved in antisemitism complaints, on average they guessed 34%. The real figure was in fact under 0.1%.

According to Jones, the left’s inability to deal with the antisemitism allegations adequately stems from a failure to understand how deeply it affected the Jewish community. The premise is that these were largely good faith allegations, while only ‘some cynically deploy the charge of antisemitism’ (my emphasis, p.220). The evidence shows that the reality is an inversion of Jones’s assumption. For example, 90% of the 200 complaints lodged and highly publicised by Margaret Hodge in 2019 (and for which she personally held Corbyn accountable) were found to be unrelated to Labour members.

In This Land, Jones adopts the parameters propagated by the ardent supporters of Israel, which is that criticism relating to Israel’s government are legitimate, but criticisms of the nature of the state itself and its foundations are anti-Semitic. He writes that in 1967 after the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza and annexation of East Jerusalem, ‘with the right-wing Likud in power, Israel jettisoned its original socialist principles’ (p.218).

He then differentiates between Israel and European settler-colonialism, because ‘Europeans arrived to plant their flags to claim land on behalf of their own states, while Israel’s founders were fleeing the flags of their old nations’ (p.219). He goes on to say that the uses of ‘“Zionism” and “Zionist” in the West are deeply problematic’ (p.219). This deeply flawed revision of history ignores the reality of the Zionist movement and the foundations of the state of Israel with its links to imperialism, while offhandedly referencing the Nakba, consigning it to a footnote in history that can be overlooked.

This explains a lot about Jones’s attitude towards the Corbyn leadership’s handling of the crisis. Jones describes a meeting between Jeremy Corbyn, Seumas Milne and the Board of Deputies which was intended to negotiate a compromise to demands made by the Board:

‘[When a Board member] declared that some Labour members could not get past the creation of Israel, Milne commented: “It’s not the state exactly, it’s the ethnic cleansing which took place at the end.” It was hardly a productive comment at an event dedicated to confronting contemporary antisemitism’ (p.236).

After explaining why Palestinians objected to the full set of examples of the IHRA definition that Labour was being pushed to adopt and that their voices were being erased, Jones then goes on to say that Corbyn’s refusal to go along with it is ‘yet another example of Corbyn choosing to die on the wrong hill’ (p.240). I remember a Palestinian man in a refugee camp in the West Bank being told about the accusations against Corbyn and the IHRA definition, and he told us about his cancer-stricken wife who he hadn’t been able to visit in hospital for the last six months because of the occupation and then asked us “how is saying what’s being done to us is racist, antisemitic?”

These examples stand at odds with Jones’s purported strategy of being ‘able to walk and chew gum’ (p.227). How do you challenge actual antisemitism and at the same time defend the rights of Palestinians, when you allow the right wing to set the framework and stamp on the basic principles of the Palestinian cause at every hurdle?

The Board of Deputies is an openly partisan and staunchly Zionist organisation. Jones mentions an ‘unquestionable emotional significance of Israel to many Jews’ (p.221) and quotes a 2015 survey in which 59% of British Jews self-describe as Zionists (p.220). What he doesn’t mention is that this shows quite a large minority aren’t self-described Zionists, and that this figure is down from 72% in the same survey done in 2010. Furthermore, the survey showed that 71% support Palestinian self-determination and 24% even support sanctions on Israel.

The growth of the Palestine solidarity movement, with increasing participation and often leadership from Jewish people, has had a profound impact on shaping public opinion. Corbyn’s mistake wasn’t his lack of apology and a failure ‘to accept the inevitable’ quick enough, it was that he made those concessions at all. This allowed the right to keep pushing and for further damage to be inflicted on both his leadership and on the Palestinian struggle.

The John McDonnell show

Throughout This Land, Jones has nothing but praise for John McDonnell. He laments the fact that it was Corbyn and not McDonnell that became the leader of the party and believes that he would have avoided many of the mistakes Corbyn made. ‘McDonnell, effectively Corbyn’s second-in-command, provided stability to an otherwise chaotic operation’ (p.95); ‘he will remain Labour’s lost leader’ (p.315).

Where Corbyn is (unfairly) portrayed as a ‘gut socialist’ who relied on Seumas Milne for intellectual authority, McDonnell was himself a confident ideologue. Where Corbyn was indecisive, McDonnell was focused; where Corbyn was stubborn, McDonnell was flexible. John McDonnell ‘would avoid pointless controversies which delivered no political gains and only damaged the project’ (p.93).

While the incident from 2015, where he quoted Mao and threw a little red book at George Osborne, seems to have eluded Jones, the role that McDonnell played essentially became one of compromising with the right. It was at McDonnell’s discretion that Corbyn gave Labour MPs a free vote over bombing Syria. McDonnell defied Corbyn and called for the full adoption of the IHRA definition. When Margaret Hodge called Corbyn ‘a fucking antisemite and a racist’, McDonnell called her up to try and reconcile with her, and when the leadership didn’t drop the disciplinary action, he went public with it (pp.241-2).

Even more, when Corbyn didn’t tow the government line on the Skripal affair, McDonnell publicly ‘intervened to shift Corbyn’s stance, arguing that the leader’s position had been “misread”, announcing that Labour agreed “Russia’s to blame”, and called for Labour MPs not to appear on Russia Today’ (p.110).

For all his radical red lines, he repeatedly tried to make Labour look palatable to the financial elite and assure them they had nothing to worry about from a Labour government. His fear of a split in the party over Brexit (p.200) drove him to adopt a Remain position at odds with the embattled leadership trying desperately to hold the line: the line which it turned out it absolutely should have held. McDonnell backing a second referendum and speaking at the People’s Vote rally became the moment when Jeremy Corbyn’s isolation within the party and his own leadership – which the right was striving for – became complete, and it was key to the leadership taking up the second referendum position.

When an election looked inevitable in October 2019, McDonnell did a wildly unnecessary interview with Alastair Campbell where he said Blair isn’t a war criminal and shouldn’t be remembered for Iraq. He said that Campbell should be allowed back in Labour, and, speculating on an election defeat, that he and Corbyn would both resign. While McDonnell’s labour movement credentials are unquestionable, and I’m sure he was acting in good faith, the fact is that he was wrong again and again. The pragmatism and party loyalty above all else that he represents, and which Jones thinks is a better approach, were actually the low points of the project that ultimately did the most damage.

Where next for the left?

Although the book is sub-titled The Story of a Movement, there is very little mention of the movement in it despite the huge role that it played. In 2015, it was off the back of the anti-austerity movement that Corbyn’s platform was set and it was the movement that organised the initial rallies of his campaign. In 2016, it was the movement that pushed Momentum into calling the rally in Parliament Square (not Trafalgar Square and not organised by the leadership office as Jones claims, p.83) that proved pivotal in countering the ‘Chicken Coup’. In 2017, the movement played a major role in shifting the conversation from Brexit to the NHS and austerity, and in the aftermath of the election, the People’s Assembly’s 100,000 strong demonstration helped provide a focal point for a left on the front foot.

Corbyn’s biggest strength was that he came from the movement, something which longstanding organisations on the Labour left did not understand. After 2017, some in the leadership believed the project’s success was solely down to policies and door-knocking. This was a mistake. Where in 2017, campaigning organisations were invited to a meeting with the strategy and comms team to agree a plan, by 2019 the leader’s office wanted nothing to do with the movement. One aide admitted to scheduling Corbyn in for anything else intentionally, as soon as they found out a demonstration had been called, in order to avoid Corbyn speaking at it. This was a deliberate attempt to separate Corbyn from much of his base.

While Jones might be right that aspects of the leadership should have functioned more coherently, it was the attempt to make an insurgent man of the people look more ‘prime ministerial’ (of which detaching him from the movement was a part), that was a mistake. And contrary to Jones’s conclusion that the leadership should have been more pragmatic, it was strongest when it was at its most radical.

‘Would it not have been wise, sometime between the 2017 and 2019 elections, for another torchbearer of left politics to take [Corbyn’s] place?’ asks Jones (p.315). In a passing passage of the book, Jones describes his disillusionment with the Labour leadership in 2016 and the first half of 2017 where he publicly pushed for Corbyn’s resignation ‘in favour of a younger MP who would be committed to the policies that had inspired Corbyn’s supporters in the first place’ (p.115). In some ways, this book seems to be an exercise in justifying the decision, by him and a few others around the leadership, to undermine Corbyn and seek his replacement as soon as the going got tough.

That much of the membership that supported Corbyn, later voted for Keir Starmer shows the weakness of the idea that policies are everything, and which ignores the direction of travel. While Jones’s introduction states that ‘Labour’s rout in 2019 has been used to suppress the political imagination of those aspiring for a better world’ (p.10), and he wishes to counter it, his book largely reinforces that very fatalism.

Yet, the Corbyn project wasn’t doomed to fail, and the lessons for the left are that it must present a radical and principled alternative and cannot be confined within the halls of Westminster.

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Shabbir Lakha

Shabbir Lakha is a Stop the War officer, a People's Assembly activist and a member of Counterfire.