Daniel Wood writes a review of "This Land: The Story of a Movement" by Owen Jones.
It didn’t take long for the post-mortems to start arriving following Labour’s crushing defeat last year. Almost as soon as the exit poll landed, in fact. Now, months later, with a new leadership in place, several authors have attempted to understand how the left was able to take control of the party, achieved the biggest increase in vote share since 1945, and then had the whole thing collapse around them.
One of these is Owen Jones’s own reflections on the Corbyn’s years, This Land.
Jones seeks to not only examine how Corbyn led the party, but also how this unlikely figure inspired a movement. Jones comes, as he acknowledges, as both an ‘observer and a participant’; someone who felt a responsibility to use his position as one of Britain’s most prominent left voices to defend the Corbyn project from a ‘relentless onslaught’, while voicing criticisms when needed. Indeed, he writes of declining an advisor’s position from John McDonnell as he felt this would be a ‘violation of journalistic ethics’. Now he offers a ‘clear-eyed assessment’ and the inside story.
The books initial strengths lie in its ability to expound upon where the hunger for change came from. How the ground was laid throughout the Blair-Brown years to the defeat of 2015 for a ‘straight talking’, radical politics. Or at least, it adeptly gives the left’s own narrative for its path to the leadership – victory through disappointment.
Jones often provides a detailed and insightful view into Corbyn’s Labour Party – of the initial confusion having won the contest, how luck and determination saved Labour in 2017 against the backdrop of an imploding May campaign, and how Brexit, despite the assumption that it was the Tory’s cross to bear, proved equally effective at carving up Labour. For the few heroes (Andrew Fischer, James Schneider, for example) the focal point of Jones’s criticism rests with Seumas Milne, the columnist turned spin doctor. Despite his geniality, for Jones, Milne was simply unable to run a competent leadership operation. There’s also Karie Murphy, who comes in for less criticism, but (as I read it) appears as a self-styled political bruiser who in the end just didn’t really know what she was doing.
But for whatever strengths Jones brings, there are fundamental flaws to this account. There is never the sense of a true reckoning, not just with how the party was run, but the very basis of this ‘movement’, and who was, ostensibly, calling the shots. There is never any proper introspection into the unease Corbyn induced not just in the PLP but the country at large. It might be true that Corbyn faced a sceptical media – and it might be true that there was a lot to be sceptical about. Frequently there is little effort to engage with the deeper criticisms – with simple reductions to critics of good faith and bad. An example being the 2017 Parliamentary debate to extend anti-ISIS airstrikes into Syria. This is presented merely as a commitment to ‘bomb Syria’, which Corbyn-opposed Labour MPs backed to humiliate the leader. No context is given. No mention of the operation already underway in Iraq that the vote would merely extend across a border which practically no longer existed. No mention of how weeks earlier ISIS supporters had massacred 130 Parisians. No mention of ISIS at all, in fact. Now this might not have changed your view on whether additional strikes were wise. But at least be open about it.
Then there’s Jeremy.
Corbyn, we are assured, is a decent man who fell into a position he didn’t expect to win and, despite having a personality and temperament not exactly crafted for high leadership, did his best to try and bring about a fairer country. Yet again, other than a few asides, there’s never a real sense of tackling Corbyn’s history head on, rife with ready-made Tory attack lines, the orbit of weirdos he so often found himself with. Other than a sense of ‘this is our one chance’, it’s never detailed why it was sensible at two elections to advocate making this serial ditherer, who would go missing or turn his phone off when stressed, Prime Minister. Was this the best we could do? (Evidently no – to Jones it’s John McDonnell who emerges as Labour’s lost leader).
The chapter on antisemitism is further evidence of this problem. Despite initially presenting antisemitism’s history on the left (followed by an aside on how Luciana Berger’s online abuse stemmed ‘predominantly’ from the far right and ‘some claiming’ to be on the left) Jones spends much of the chapter working around how Labour found itself in this crisis, with Corbyn so often at its centre, and the failure to address it. Moreover, for a ‘clear-eyed assessment’ there’s a curious lack of self-analysis. Why did Corbyn so often find himself in the company of Jew haters? Why did he defend that mural? Why did Jones describe his apology as a ‘relief’ when here he notes Labour was already failing? After publishing her report, did presenting Shami Chakrabarti with a peerage (not mentioned) compromise Labour? Was it proper for Jones to tweet out after pictures emerged of Corbyn laying a wreath for Black September terrorists that ‘No one has killed by a wreath’ [sic]? Should Jones have rebuked the Panorama investigation [here relegated to one oblique reference] as being ‘tawdry’ with all the levity of a Hammer Horror film? Did this not count as a ‘violation of journalistic ethics’? In the end, it seems that the intersection of politics and journalism can be just as stomach churning when found on the Left® as when among the usual ‘establishment’ hacks.
The collapse of 2019 was long in the making with multiple causes. Corbyn is gone now. Many things worked against him. But any diagnosis must include that a fundamental point was his own ineffectualness and the hostility he induced in the public, not just because of the media, but the existence of his own history and record. To see less is a failure to recognise the conditions which kept Boris Johnson in No 10 and the determination that will be needed to kick him out of it.
Daniel Wood is a writer living and working London, soon to start an MA at the University of Manchester.
He tweets at @DanWood1994.