In December 2019 the Conservative Party secured a landslide General Election victory under the leadership of Boris Johnson, gaining an eighty seat majority over the Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour Party. Several months later the Labour Party had a new leader, Sir Keir Starmer having secured a comfortable victory on a subtly though not overtly anti-Corbyn platform. Corbyn has since been suspended from Labour and as of yet has not had the whip restored, and it seems unlikely he will. In the space of three years, the Labour Party had gone from denying the Conservatives a majority government and making a substantial gain in votes and seats on a relatively radical manifesto, to a disastrous election result and the party’s worst performance in a General Election since 1935. This period and the surrounding issues it raised form the basis of Owen Jones’ book ‘This Land: The Story of a Movement’. This Land is an attempt to grapple with the reasons behind the rise and fall of Corbynism, and Jones weaves in and out of the major issues of this period, with chapters on the leadership elections, Brexit, Anti-Semitism and the two General Elections.
The unfolding events of this period are viewed through the prism of the Labour Leadership and its surrounding periphery; despite the title proclaiming this to be a story of a movement, the majority of the book is bound up with inner party intrigue and drama played out through the leadership. This focus fits with the main narrative that presents the failures of Corbynism as a combination of poor strategy from Labour and overt hostility from sections of the media, the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) and the party’s own internal bureaucracy. This Land points out the mishaps and lack of strategic direction from Labour and how through this Corbynism’s perception was gradually changed in the eyes of the public. The high point of 2017 was not capitalised on and Labour lost itself among inner party strife, Brexit and a reinvigorated government under Boris Johnson.
This Land is more political theatre than political analysis and the way Jones presents his arguments enhances this point: there are numerous interviews and one gets a sense of how Corbyn’s Labour functioned during this period. It is a book more concerned with the how than the why. This focus allows Jones to fulfil This Land’s aim to rescue some of the ideas of Corbynism while allowing for a crude critique, albeit one that tends to focus on the inabilities of certain individuals at the top, notably Corbyn and Seamus Milne. This leads to a book that doesn’t really want to grapple with any of the broader questions or implications of social democracy or radical politics in the 21st century; instead we are given a front row seat, and guided through the administration and organisational chaos that was Corbynism which makes for a mildly entertaining, yet markedly unfulfilling read.
This Land begins with a context-setting chapter, in which we are given a whistle stop tour of recent British political history. Jones attempts to set the stage for the Corbyn leadership election, and it’s a reasonable summary covering several decades leading up to the aftermath of the 2008 recession and the pitiful Labour leadership of Ed Miliband. Jones is eager to stress the anti-austerity and wider global movements that came about during this period as prime examples of the political character of Corbynism. These points are reasonable enough but this commentary does feel rushed at times and too little is said on certain issues, for instance the crisis of Keynesian social democracy in the 1970s. Jones is eager to point out the Thatcherite revolution and its inheritance by Tony Blair, but talks little of the conditions that made this possible. Jones does have a habit of making throwaway statements which simply reinforce his own perspective on an issue that often could be considered more complex and would no doubt irk many on the right of the Labour Party as above. Details aside, Jones is right to draw attention to this issue as it was clear Corbynism did not appear out of thin air and that it attained a mass swell of support from various places and among differing groups. The nonsensical media response at the time did not get much better and would set the often hysterical tone adopted by many who opposed Corbyn. The stage established, Jones moves into the events of the period.
The best parts of This Land are those covering the leadership elections. Jones provides a compelling read on both, with the 2015 election being the stand out section. The way the election played out benefits from Jones’ approach as the sheer surprise of it makes one more interested in how it was ever possible rather than any grandstanding narrative on why. Jones does well to note the complete lack of ideas emanating from the Labour Party at the time and the fateful decision of all three leadership rivals (Burnham, Cooper and Kendall) to abstain on Iain Duncan Smith’s cruel and vindictive Welfare and Reform Act in 2015 as a watershed moment for many in Labour. It captured everything wrong with the previous five years of caution and inaction and the sham that was Miliband’s leadership. It needs reiterating that Corbyn was a politician of circumstance. 2015 was his moment for many reasons, and he and his followers simply seized it. The opportunity arose in no small part down to those who hated Corbyn. The book works effectively in following events like these given its focus on behind the-scenes functions. There is an undeniable excitement to it; however, on more nuanced issues that require a broader theoretical analysis, Jones is found lacking.
The book maintains a structure similar to twenty four hour news coverage; it is orientated around how Labour reacted and responded to events and mainly provides perspectives on this. While context is provided it is often brief and tends to only reinforce Jones’ own narrow views on a given matter. This approach makes sense for Jones, as the aim is clearly to rescue certain political ideas of Corbynism, but it fails to appreciate that it was these ideas that generated so many of the issues Corbynism faced to begin with. The opposition to Corbyn was at times ridiculous but it was not merely a case of disillusioned Blairites working to oppose Corbyn (though many went above and beyond what would be deemed reasonable inner party opposition) but rather those Blairites having fervent disagreements on Corbyn’s politics. The same can be said of the political classes, among journalists and the ever-growing numbers of B-list actors, crap comedians, overrated novelists and lord knows who else bemoaning Corbyn on Twitter.
Much of this opposition, no matter how petty it was at times, was political. Disputes over issues such as the intervention in Syria and the broader commitment to NATO did not stem from petty vindictiveness but were for many Labour MPs positions they adhered to and were associated with Labour and its history. Added together, it is true Corbyn faced a huge task by any measure; Jones even notes this in a title of a chapter ‘It’s going to be brutal’ on the internal opposition, and it is safe to say it was brutal indeed.
Jones wants the reader to acknowledge this excessive hostility against Corbyn from numerous quarters, but also proclaims that had Labour been more strategic and media savvy things could have been different. This seems to ignore the basic principle undermining all of this: Corbyn professed and represented a strain of social democracy completely at odds with large sections of his own PLP and the political classes, many of whom are still coming down from the heady days of New Labour. Some, I fear, will live in 1997 forever. Several years of crippling austerity and even the vote to leave their much loved European Union could not convince many to actively support Corbyn even when he endorsed Labour opposition to both of these policies. So where does this leave us? Corbynism without Corbyn may seem an alluring offer but there is little to suggest their opponents would have treated any other Labour leader espousing Corbyn’s politics any less harshly. Any notion of a savvier, more media-friendly personality taking Labour forward with the politics of nationalisation and higher taxation seems fanciful and does not tally with the historical record.
The two big issues in the book that reinforce this nonsensical approach are Brexit and Antisemitism. The two presented Corbynism with its two biggest problems during this period, at least in media coverage to which This Land gives major emphasis. Brexit is presented by Jones as a paradox for Labour; he uses a Black Mirror reference to Bandersnatch, which having never watched the programme I did not get. The basic premise is that Labour could never truly win on Brexit, and its demographics meant it was always going to lose in some way. The 2019 election does seem to bear this out to some degree. This is not a controversial position and Brexit was a difficult position for any Labour leader to find themselves in and it was certainly not one of Corbyn’s making. All that being said, as if to totally undermine his own argument Jones reverts to his main narrative and premise: who was to blame and why didn’t we do things differently. Discussing the day to day Labour PR escapades is all very well, but they wouldn’t have avoided this basic conundrum to begin with. The question arises as to why Jones places such value on this as opposed to the broader context of shifting demographics and party political allegiance in the UK, not to mention the internal dynamics this scenario played out among Labour’s membership and its voter base. The answer is potentially twofold. One possibility is that he doesn’t actually know the answer (which is fine – I don’t either). However, maybe an attempt to examine this would have been useful given Jones is attempting a ‘clear eyed assessment’ of Corbynism. Would it have hurt to look at the evolving nature of social democracy in 21st century Britain, how this divided people on Brexit, how class and cultural issues often contradicted each other? The second possibility is that this alternative focus doesn’t fit with a narrative that is essentially trying to ascribe blame to individuals and primarily ignore broader political issues. It’s hardly surprising that the book has received a far more negative press from the Left than the Right and it is little wonder given its attribution of blame to figures such as Corbyn and Milne.
The approach to Antisemitism is similar; again, we are given a guided tour of poor strategic mistakes, missed opportunities and crank behaviour from Corbyn supporters such as Chris Williamson (“King of the cranks” as Jones refers to him) and Ken Livingstone. Jones is more forthright in noting that the Antisemitism crisis need never have happened, that it was a self-made crisis of Labours own making whereas Brexit had a wider political nature. Yet we are of course treated to numerous references of overt hostility to Corbyn and his principled position on issues such as Israel and Palestine which, it is insinuated (though never stated), helped create these problems.
An observation on this point, throughout the book Jones notes the principled position Corbyn has adopted throughout his career on numerous issues and lauds this; it was and remains an obvious reason why he was endorsed and elected to the leadership. Corbyn was the opposite of the professional New Labour politicians of the era, his cautious approach to foreign policy was undeniably a strong selling point. It is curious then that on so many of the issues related to Antisemitism, Jones ignores this centrepiece of Corbyn’s character and bemoans his lack of realism on the issue. The point here isn’t whether Corbyn was right on these issues, but that Jones wants him to stick to his principles on the one hand while getting rid of them on contentious issues, notably those Corbyn had long held dear. The mantra appears to be something like “we need conviction politicians who will also throw this away for media savvy relations, and to avoid political crises existing entirely on Twitter.” Added to this there is of course the accusation that many who inflamed this crisis both internally to Labour and externally did so out of sheer malice towards Corbyn and hatred of any progressive politics, yet as above this is accompanied by numerous examples of poor media PR to appease these cynical opponents who Jones criticises. In Jones’ schema, Corbyn’s strength was his principles but he should have shed them in order to appease his opponents who were motivated by cynicism and hated him anyway. The book never resolves this confusion and the contradiction remains untackled.
Jones makes an interesting observation on the problems of Left Antisemitism, seeing it as a blind spot related to how people on the Left often engage in criticism of Israel and Zionism and how this takes on conspiratorial tones related to capitalism. This is for the most part reasonable enough and does speak to an often real problem which is not strictly confined to the left but can be present within it. Bizarrely enough, Jones then engages with the cases of Labour MP Siobhan McDonagh (a Blairite, Jones kindly informs us) and the journalist Stephen Pollard (then Editor of the Jewish Chronicle) who drew Jones’ ire: they both sought to draw a link between the Corbyn project and its ‘Anti-Capitalism’ by comparing his language with Anti-Semitic tropes. Jones does not hesitate in lambasting this:
‘Both attempted to conflate antisemitism with any left critique of capitalism – any attempt, in other words, to suggest that challenging the increasing concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a tiny elite, or holding the financial system to account for the crash, was somehow a display of anti-Jewish prejudice’.
There is a certain irony here in trying to criticise these bad faith attacks, Jones uses the language that both McDonagh and Pollard had drawn attention to, notably the notion of an all-powerful elite. By deploying this personified language when critiquing capitalism Jones does himself few favours in seeking to disprove their points. This focus on elites and shady all-powerful groups controlling society tends to be at the heart of nearly all conspiracy theories, especialy Anti-Semitic ones. Jones had gone from starting his chapter by noting this blind spot to then engaging in exactly the sort of populist rhetoric that attributes the problems of capitalism to the few and that are often at the heart of Anti-Semitic views of capitalism. The link drawn by McDonangh and Pollard, while no doubt cynically deployed, is hardly helped by the use of such language which forgoes any nuanced structural critique of capitalism, something which as one would expect is sorely lacking from the book.
In summary, it seems the idea that Corbyn’s positions on Israel and Palestine and his anti-imperialist background did not figure in many of the accusations and accounts of Antisemitism is wishful thinking; the two were absolutely related, and this was clear from the moment of his 2015 election victory. By just the same token it is clear that in critiquing capitalism and engaging in anti-imperialism, many on the left often engage in crude personified criticism that does not sufficiently grapple with capitalist relations. This leads to populist rhetoric on elites that can drift into conspiratorial ideas that bear some resemblance to Antisemitism. The first of these statements would likely get me expelled from Labour, but the second would probably get me promoted; such is the moronic way the issue has evolved. Neither statement is particularly controversial. For politicians in a party that cynically manipulated its way into a war, who have shown no interest in Antisemitism or any other forms of racism for that matter before Corbyn’s election, to currently come alive on this issue is hardly credible. All that being said, Corbyn’s past helped create this situation: one cannot ignore his defence of the Mear One mural, his past statements and his sharing of platforms with organisations with known Anti-Semitic ideals all stemmed from his anti-imperialism, and display the short sightedness of these campaigning approaches. These links were always going to draw a hostile response from sections of the Labour Party and beyond that see much of the modern criticism directed at Israel as de facto Antisemitism.
Despite this past Jones wants us to somehow believe that a crisis was avoidable had Corbyn simply reneged on this very background, which oddly enough he found it hard to do even when suspending and expelling critics of Israel, it was obvious his heart was never in it. When taken together with Jones’ constant endorsement of Corbyn’s principles, this is a very odd formulation. It seems to me that while I disagree with several of Corbyn’s foreign policy positions, he would have been much better served by sticking to these principles and trying to argue them out rather than acquiesce to positions he (and many of his supporters) did not truly believe in. Even after endorsing the IHRA definition of Antisemitism and reforming the party’s internal complaints system, it was never enough for some and it is likely it never would have been. Corbyn was never going to be trusted on many foreign policy issues, and large sections of the British Jewish community would never trust a Labour leader with his political background on issues such as Israel/Palestine. Jones’ constant pontification on this being a media crisis misses this point entirely. This is not to suggest Corbyn sticking to his guns would have worked any better, it seems highly unlikely it would have enamoured him to much of the British Jewish community, yet it can hardly have been any worse that what actually occurred.
There is a sense when reading the book that Jones, in his overt focus on inner party intrigue, purposefully evades the main point: the lack of strategic direction was itself a political problem borne out of the situation Corbynism was in. There is a strong anti-politics at the heart of the book, one that refuses to draw any links between context and circumstance. Rather, it is in many respects a guide to how Labour should be more careful in choosing its leaders and how to do better PR in the future. On the one hand Jones laments that the radicalism of Corbynism was never realised, yet for much of the book he details the tactical mistakes Corbyn made, many of which were direct compromises on that very radicalism Jones constantly assures us was possible. The elements of such compromises are part and parcel of the history of Labourism and social democracy. A book discussing Corbynism with this context in mind would have been very welcome, but Jones never truly seeks to face this conundrum and falls back on personified critiques which depoliticises much of the strategic chaos that was Corbynism and in the end the blame seems to fall squarely on Corbyn himself.
The demise of Syriza in Greece, the failures of the Bernie Sanders campaign in the US and many other modern examples display the problems facing social democracy in the 21st century. Questions and ideas regarding this are sorely lacking from This Land; there are the usual phrases around green industrial policy, improved living standards and the end of austerity, but anybody familiar with Jones’ weekly columns would note these are never backed up with any real detail or contemplation. This is why this book is so ill-suited to providing an actual autopsy of Corbynism: it does not seek to go beyond a personified explanation for its failures. The focus on leadership and senior figures here is telling, as it exemplifies the managerialism approach often taken by populist elements of social democracy that focuses on the people at the top, rather than asking why the top exists in the first place or even how it could be replaced.
This Land reinforces this, had only John McDonnell, Clive Lewis or even Lisa Nandy (all MPs Jones has touted for the leadership at some point) become leader, things might have been different. To reinforce this utopian vision, Jones provides countless references to polls showing that Corbyn’s policies were popular with a great many of the British public. So, he concludes, if it’s not the politics and policies, it must be the messenger.
This Land falls well short of its stated aims of giving a clear-eyed assessment. It fails to do justice to the complexities of Corbynism and settles on a simplistic though no doubt reassuring narrative of individual fault. Despite Jones’ assertions the overriding sense one gets when reading the book is that Corbyn and certainly Seamus Milne are the primary individuals to blame. While not wanting to defend either, I think the period covered provides many sobering questions and issues for social democracy and radical politics. Unfortunately This Land is not a book that will greatly contribute to furthering our understanding of these failures.
- Much has been made of this qualification, I speak purely in terms of seats secured in Parliament not overall votes, and such is the eccentricity of the UK First Past the Post electoral system. ↑
- The choice of title is odd given the book’s overwhelming focus on the Corbyn leadership team and its periphery, very little is dedicated to the grassroots elements Jones often lauded as being behind Corbyn’s rise. ↑
- I use Corbynism here as a term to capture the broader political currents that dominated Labour during this period and its policies, I acknowledge it is by no means perfect. ↑
- P.13-39 UK Uncut and Occupy alongside other more international organisation such Syriza and Podemos are included ↑
- See the Formby Report for example ↑
- Tony Benn was an exceptionally gifted orator yet he faced as much hostility as Corbyn did and again Bernie Sanders in the US faces exceptional opposition, politics is the key here. ↑
- Much has been made of the Red Wall seats and their loss but simply attributing this to Brexit seems short sighted See Alex Niven ‘Why it’s time to stop talking about English identity’ and Jeremy Gilbert ‘Labour let the right shape both sides of the Brexit debate’ for more nuanced views on this. ↑
- See Oliver Eagelton ‘Vicious, Horrible, People’, McCluskey Len McCluskey: ‘I had high hopes for Owen Jones’s book on Corbynism. But I was disappointed’ and Ed McNally ‘Jeremy Corbyn Was Successful When He Stuck to His Socialist Principles’ for notable examples. ↑
- See Werner Bonefled, Journal of Social Justice, Vol. 9, 2019 ‘Critical Theory and the Critique of Antisemitism: On Society as Economic Object’ for a useful introduction of this trend. See also Postone, Moishe, 2006. ‘History and Helplessness: Mass Mobilization and Contemporary Forms of Anticapitalism’. Public Culture, 18(1): 93– 110 for useful discussions on this topic ↑
- P.254 ↑
- Nationalisation of Rail is most prominent but other issues such as a more cautious foreign policy are included. ↑
Owen Jones’ This Land: The Story of a Movement, London: Allen Lane, 2020 is available now. To order a copy go to Penguin.