Jeremy Corbyn Was Successful When He Stuck to His Socialist Principles

Owen Jones’s This Land promises to tell the story of the movement behind Jeremy Corbyn and his ultimate failure. While it offers important comments on the obstacles Labour faced, its strategic proposals are less convincing — watering down some of the principles that allowed for Corbyn's initial victory.

Jeremy Corbyn campaigning in West Kirby, UK. (Andy Miah / Flickr)

After defeat comes the long battle to define it. According to Owen Jones, the British left’s most prominent commentator, there are three narratives about Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party and its failure. One, favored by much of the establishment, is that Corbyn’s tenure was defined by intolerance, extremism, and an abiding unfitness for “high office.” Another, much more popular among its grassroots supporters, is that the Corbyn leadership was sunk by a campaign of sabotage by the establishment, inside the party and out, and that the man himself was destroyed by an unprecedented smear campaign.

Between these two narratives, Jones sets up his new book, This Land, as offering us something of a middle path. His proposed corrective admits the formidable odds, vicious hostility, and difficult political conditions Corbynism faced, but also charges that the leadership “shot itself repeatedly in the foot.” Above all, Jones thinks, there was “a disastrous failure in strategy.” This Land is confidently framed as a kind of instructive work of history, oriented hopefully to the future: emancipatory projects are not destined to fail, but “if our time is to come, then we must learn from our past.”

Jones intends his book, then, as a productive exercise in lesson-learning, retrospectively mapping the Corbyn leadership’s key failings and strategic errors. Yet, the approach he adopts poses problems for the book’s chances of fulfilling its central task. Jones openly declares his standpoint as that of the participant-observer, and then goes on to produce an uneven mixture of narrative journalism, fragmentary oral history, and autobiographical commentary. We hear more participant than observer, and the product is less a history of Corbynism than a kind of memoir.

That’s not to deny that there is a recognizable strategic perspective in This Land. But it’s not a very good one — and beneath a focus on tactical expediency, it often casts aside precisely the principles that mobilized activists behind Corbyn’s leadership to begin with.

Corbyn’s Court

This Land’s greatest strength is its key source material: interviews with over a hundred of Corbynism’s key players. Snippets of Jones’s many conversations are often insightful, even if much of this insight makes for exceedingly grim reading. Interviewees generally serve to narrate the book’s most consistent theme: the dysfunction and incompetence of Corbyn’s operation. It’s worth noting that the book is less (as its subtitle suggests) “the story of a movement,” and more that of Labour’s high politics. Its dramatis personae rarely leave Corbyn’s Westminster office.

One of Jones’s central arguments is that a more competent political-strategic operation would have enabled Corbyn’s leadership to weather political storms much better than it actually managed. With notable exceptions like the 2017 election, where the party defied expectations to deny the Tories a majority, the charge sheet is damning: no long-term strategy, reactive and ad hoc communications, and loyalty prized over talent in making appointments.

Then the nadir: during the 2019 election, we are told, the warring factions of Corbyn’s team worked in silos, barely interacting with each other. Corbyn’s speechwriters were left without key messaging lines and were sometimes not told the themes of his speeches until the night before. In the unlikely event that the Labour left ascends to the leadership again, this recent experience would appear to provide object lessons in how not to run a political office.

But Jones’s overwhelming focus on the internal politics of Corbyn’s office — and especially on the supposed incompetence of strategy and communications director, Seumas Milne — seems to eclipse, or leave too implicit, the point most salient for his lesson-learning mission. That is, as Joe Guinan has recently stressed, that Corbynism was “a long shot, a short cut;” Corbyn’s sudden rise to the leadership in 2015 was a political accident of sorts that outran the Left’s structural capacities and collective experience.

So, whether or not Milne “has much to answer for,” as Jones declares, or that he tended to “waltz in and out [of meetings], often munching on food,” would seem to tell us little about what lessons should guide us going forward.

Strategy: Red Lines

Some years ago, Jones worked in John McDonnell’s parliamentary office alongside Andrew Fisher, later Corbyn’s director of policy. And in This Land, McDonnell and Fisher emerge before long as the book’s heroes. Why? Jones’s old comrades, it seems, stand for the kind of sensible, hard-headed strategy that Corbyn and Milne sorely lacked.

McDonnell’s great virtue as a politician, in this telling, is that he picked his battles. While Corbyn and Milne caused “needless fights” and leaned into “pointless controversies which delivered no political gains,” McDonnell was much more astute. Yet, he defended the “the red lines that mattered.”

For Jones, the red lines that matter are “public ownership, tax justice and investment” — thus seeming to focus solely on domestic economic policy. In other words, he is telling us that McDonnell and Fisher understood the need to compromise on troublesome issues of foreign policy and security.

When, in spring 2018, Corbyn and Milne did not immediately accept media assertions that Vladimir Putin was responsible for the poisoning of a former Russian spy and his daughter on British soil, McDonnell freelanced, pinning blame on the Kremlin.

And that summer, faced with calls on Labour to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA)’s examples of antisemitism into its code of conduct —  even the one ruling that it is antisemitic to call Israel a “racist endeavor” — Fisher argued that the leadership should immediately swallow this, in effect ignoring the concerns of Palestinians and their supporters. To have resisted their adoption at all, he tells Jones, was “just a fucking idiotic thing to do.”

Ultimately, this type of attitude is the core of Jones’s strategic retrospective. The path of least resistance on these controversial issues of imperialism and nation, he thinks, was simply to capitulate and thus move on: these were the “wrong” hills to die on. But such a perspective is bad politics — an economism that wishes away the pervasive effects of empire — and worse history.

It’s not only that Corbyn’s long-standing anti-imperialism was key to his principled appeal in 2015 and 2017. But as Leo Panitch and Colin Leys point out in Searching for Socialism, “the more Corbyn gave way, the more intense became the pressure on him to go further.” Concession, avoidance, and apology simply did not stem the tide. The brilliance of McDonnell’s economic vision is not in doubt, but the record suggests that his Damascene conversion to a conciliatory and non-antagonistic approach — on imperialism, Brexit, and party democracy — was a road to ruin.

At best, This Land’s conclusions here are hard to distinguish from those of the other recent book-length post-mortem of Corbynism, by Gabriel Pogrund and Patrick Maguire — journalists at the Rupert Murdoch–owned Sunday Times. At worst, Jones appears to exalt what were failed tactical maneuvers on McDonnell’s part into a strategic maxim.

Brexit and Fatalism

From Jones’s account of Brexit, it seems that Corbynism’s great moment of triumph and vindication sowed the seeds of its destruction. Labour’s historic surge in the 2017 general election deprived Theresa May of the majority necessary to pass her withdrawal agreement, reviving Parliament as a contested political arena. In time, sure enough, Corbyn was trapped in Westminster; his left-populist insurgency in the country smothered by the parliamentary games over Brexit. “Fucking hell, we are done for,” thought Corbyn’s head of strategic communications, as he recalls to Jones.

This is by now a relatively standard story. So, too, is Jones’s account of why exactly Brexit was so damaging to Labour: it descended into a “culture war” that cut across class lines, polarizing the country into “Remainers” and “Leavers.” These fault lines ran straight through Labour’s already fragile electoral coalition and pitted the (more pro-Remain) membership against many long-standing voters.

In the end, interminable equivocation over Brexit “destroyed Corbyn’s appeal as a straight-talking man of principle and shattered the unity of the Labour leadership.” Jones also rightly suggests that Corbyn should have used his political capital in the immediate aftermath of the 2017 election to “make categorically clear that Labour would never support a new referendum.”

Yet overall, in his account of Brexit, Jones seems to bow to the kind of fatalism that he set out to dispel. This Land’s point of departure is that the Corbyn project was not bound to fail against insurmountable odds, but rather was shot through with dysfunction and catastrophic strategic errors.

When it comes to Brexit, though, Jones’s ultimate judgements are that “whatever decisions the party made, it would not have ended well,” and,  crucially, that in the end John McDonnell was right to push for a second referendum and Remain because “Labour had no real choice.”

This rather suggests that, in the end, there was no road for the Corbyn leadership on Brexit that didn’t lead to defeat. Perhaps this is correct, but if so, it pushes us toward a far gloomier conclusion than Jones appears to intend.

For although the Brexit crisis was historically particular and in some ways uniquely intractable, it became on a quite fundamental level merely the British episode of a more general global phenomenon: the rise of “disaster nationalism.” This is a challenge facing the Left everywhere, suggesting that the social and cultural dividing lines that drove Brexit will endure.

We surely, then, need clearer lessons from Labour’s failure to navigate them. Andrew Murray, former strategic advisor to Corbyn and chief of staff at trade union Unite, tells Jones in This Land that: “It was fucking mad to go in a Remain direction given where the votes are.” In the wake of the election result, this seems hard to dispute.

The Corbyn leadership’s failure on Brexit, though, also offers a more enduring lesson for the future: allowing the Right to claim the mantle of popular sovereignty, and ceding the terrain of anti-systemic politics, is a recipe for disaster.

What’s Left?

Where might Owen Jones’s lessons about the past five years lead us politically? One particular section of This Land — where we are given a potted history of Israel to preface discussion of the “the antisemitism crisis” — helpfully clarifies the stakes. At this point, it becomes evident that underlying Jones’s ostensibly strategic stance about red lines, and which hills are worth dying on, is a more fundamental break with internationalism and anti-colonial politics.

Attacks on Corbyn over the past five years were only superficially about the man himself. Many headline-grabbing controversies had a deeper purpose, of delegitimizing the causes for which he had long stood — above all, that of the Palestinian people. Two dates are central to an understanding of this onslaught: 1948, when Israel was founded on the ethnic cleansing of over half of Palestine’s indigenous population, and 1967, when the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza began.

Faced with a Palestine solidarity movement growing in size and strength globally prior to 2015, trying to debar criticism of Israel tout court was not a tenable strategy for the Israeli state and its supporters. Instead, a systematic campaign has been waged in British public life to marginalize the Palestinian people’s struggle and its core, anti-colonial principles of liberation and return, while codifying liberal Zionism as a framework of “legitimate criticism.”

Thus, attempts to censor and silence discussion of the Nakba, and of Israel’s constitutive racism as a settler-colonial state (from 1948 onward) are often coupled with gestures to the permissibility of criticizing the occupation and Israeli “government policies” (from 1967 onward). Many of the attacks on Corbyn, in particular the protracted “debate” over the IHRA examples, crystallized this attempt at colonial erasure.

Sadly, Jones has embraced the logic of this campaign wholesale. In This Land, we are given an account of Israel’s history in which there is no mention of 1948 and the Nakba. Rather, Jones tells us that “the collective communities of the kibbutzim seemed like the incubators of a new socialist society.” It was only after 1967, he says, that Israel “came to resemble a colonial occupier.” Then comes a sentence which could have been written by Shimon Peres: “with the right-wing Likud party in power, Israel jettisoned its original socialist principles.”

Jones then goes on to declare that Israel is “fundamentally different” from European settler-colonial projects because it was founded by a persecuted people. Needless to say, this is directly contrary to the conclusions of the mainstream historical scholarship on the Middle East and settler-colonialism, the well-documented facts of Palestine’s history, and the self-understanding of the Zionist project’s founders and leaders. All of Jones’s claims are made without a single citation.

Next, Jones suggests that the Left in the West should refrain from speaking of “Zionism,” because to do so, apparently, fails to distinguish between supporters and opponents of the post-1967 occupation. This is a dangerous argument which is at once reliant on, and helps to compound, the erasure of the Nakba.

Overall, these passages read like a botched rendition of liberal Zionism‘s standard talking points and constitute a clear disavowal of the anti-colonial principles of justice at the heart of the Palestinian people’s struggle — principles whose affirmation in public debate is the bare minimum of international solidarity.

These are anything but trivial or academic historical details: rendering invisible the Nakba and millions of Palestinian refugees is a centerpiece of the escalating colonial war on the Palestinian people.

All of Jones’s arguments nudge activists to organize, as Palestinian scholars Mezna Qato and Kareem Rabie put it in Jacobin in 2013, “towards a better colonialism rather than the end of colonialism.” If “the Left wishes to be in solidarity,” they write, “it ought to affirm an anticolonial and anti-Zionist struggle.” Jones insists that everything he writes “is intended… to support struggles against injustice, and this book is no exception.” Here, again, This Land fails on its own terms.

That all this material appears in what is styled as a sympathetic retrospective on the Corbyn project tells its own story, underlining the depths of confusion and disorientation that the last five years has induced in parts of the British left.

Owen Jones is right that lessons must be learned if we are to rebuild. But despite some valuable insights about the workings of Corbyn’s leadership, This Land ultimately stands as a cautionary tale about taking the wrong lessons from the bruising experience of defeat. Picking up the pieces, at least we know where not to begin.