⛰ What It’s About
The rise and fall of Corbynism. From around 2015 – 2019.
🔍 Key Takeaways
- Party had shifted away from socialist policies due to Blairism
- Corbyn elected by membership to show support for further Left ideals
- Corbynism gave fragmented activist groups a common cause
- Miliband wanted more social change but confined by Blairite faction. However, bridged gap to Corbyn
- Labour being against Scottish independence caused mass defection of Scottish voters to SNP
- Poor management in leadership office. No plan upon appointment. Director of Strategy and Communications Seumas Milne didn’t conduct proper media schedule/plan. Executive Director Karie Murphy, while effective, allegedly created toxic workplace. Corbyn avoided conflict
- PLP and Labour HQ largely opposed to Corbyn, harmed party effectiveness. Did not support his policies, alienating pro-Corbyn membership
- British media largely biasedly hostile to Corbyn
- Labour 2017 manifesto was very popular, people admired Corbyn’s affable nature
- Don’t underestimate grassroots canvassing
- Brexit: Leave victory based on emotional argument opposed to Remain’s cold economic one. No plan meant it was harder to critique “Trying to scrutinise Brexit was like nailing jelly to a wall”
- Vague position harmed public perception. Post-referendum Corbyn could not decisively support either Leave or Remain. Party membership pro-Remain but need to win Leave-supporting constituencies. In end pushed for 2nd referendum with a credible Leave option
- Anti-Semitism by some MPs, particularly Ken Livingstone. Party disorganisation meant complaints not handled properly. Corbyn fumbling on issues. Lack of media strategy meant void filled by media pointing out issues
- Mismanagement, division over Brexit, and missing the opportunity to criticise Johnson’s appointment led to 2019 election defeat
- Ultimately, Corbyn’s legacy is that more left ideals are in the mainstream. Starmer said policies going forward would be based on 2017 manifesto
- “Brexit underscores that culture wars are poison to political causes focused on redistributing wealth and power, rather than on cultural identity.”
- “The left’s central dilemma is this: how to win the support of older citizens without betraying the hopes and dreams of their children and grandchildren.”
What I Liked About It
Coherently explains the impact, and goals of Corbyn’s movement. Is also completely honest about its shortcomings.
What I Didn’t Like About It
It could have gone into more detail about Blair’s polices, why were they more right wing?
Who Should Read This Book?
Anyone interested in Labour’s history for the last 5 years. People curious about why Corbyn rose to power, why he was supported, and why he ultimately lost. I think anyone involved in Left wing politics could learn a lot as its important to learn from the party’s mistakes.
Buy the book, Author Socials
📚 Chapter notes
1: Before Corbyn
Labour had seen a shift from left to right within the part. Due to era of Tony Blair, who said of Thatcher
“I always thought my job was to build on some of the things she had done rather than reverse them.
“Many of the things she said, even though they pained people like me on the left… had a certain creditability.”
Left of party in despair. John McDonnell led a small group of MPs who were dedicated to bringing the party back left. Not much action due to fear of party leadership.
Corbyn’s entire career had been devoted to foreign affairs: Opposition to 2003 Iraq invasion, campaigns for oppressed people (Kurdish, Palestinian, Chagos Islanders). Long-standing MP for Islington North.
In the wake of Blairism and the 2008 crash, new left-wing movements arose. Anti-Gov cuts, anti-capitalism, anti-war. However, frayed and disconnected. Not a challenging unified movement.
Prior to crash, Tories had backed Labour’s spending plans. Post, they framed crash as being a result of Labour’s spending. Labour and LibDems also committed to spending cuts.
Many people alienated by Labour turned to Lib Dems. They promised abolishment of tuition fees and pledged not to increase VAT. Coalition gov elected. Conservative chancellor George Osbourne unveiled £7 billion slash from welfare state. Increase in tuition fees radicalised many young people.
Protest against Vodafone (£6 billion unpaid tax) brought tax evasion to national attention, created new activists.
“The prospects for millennials appeared especially rocky: punished on one hand by the slashing of social provisions and services, and on the other hand by a job market increasingly dominated by low-paid and insecure work, which they would enter saddled with debt from increasingly expensive university courses. Given that, by the end of the 2010s, over half of school leavers were enrolling at universities, this scenario played a major role in shifting their generation leftwards.”
Huge student protests inspired unions like Unite, to strike. Built up network of activists.
2: From the Ashes
In 2010, Ed Miliband, son of Marxist/Jewish Refugee, became leader.
Ed declared New Labour “dead” due to failure to address inequality. Won support of major trade unions. He had noble aims but trapped in Blair-leaning party. ‘Austerity-lite’ became party mantra. Conflict with shadow chancellor Ed Balls. Party lacked coherent vision. Crucified by press. However, his tenor served as bridge between NL and radical change. Suggestions such as freezes on energy bills scared Tories.
Even Blair stated NL spending was a mistake. Party failure to refute claims led to election defeat. Austerity justified as cleaning up Labour’s mess, “welfare state was generously handing out hard-earned tax-payers money to the idle”. “For fully five years, polls showed the public blamed Labour for the cuts more than the subsequent coalition government that had implemented them. This was a tragic case study of what happens when a social-democratic party surrenders to the narrative crafted by the right.”
Labour allying with Tories and supporting Remain Scottish referendum cost them a huge bulk of Scottish supporters who went to the SNP.
New leadership contest. Supported by McDonnell, Corbyn put on ballot as principle showing Left presence in party. Corbyn impressed crowds with off-the-cuff speeches on housing and privatisation, won large support. People joining party to vote for Corbyn, activists. Brought together Left factions.
3: ‘It’s Gonna Be Brutal’: The War Within
Corbyn had never had any kind of ministerial role.
“There are three key windows for an opposition leader to make an impression: when they assume the leadership, at their annual party conferences and at general elections”
Right wing press came for him. Stats show 57% of news articles had antagonistic tone. Over half of all articles failed to include his views. Another 22% showed them without context or distorted them.
Vast majority of Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) did not support him. Labour Party HQ had alleged toxic culture which sought to undermine leadership, hurt party performance. Leaking/briefing. The Party’s Government and Legal Unit searched social media for abuse against Labour MPs, excluding Corbyn-supporters. MPs briefed The Guardian that as soon as Corbyn assumed leadership 12 MPs would resign, and a coup would follow.
Corbyn actually appointed many right of the party into top positions. Only key allies were John McDonnell (shadow chancellor), Diane Abbott, Jon Trickett. Yet almost entire shadow cabinet has campaigned against his election as leader. Corbyn project stymied in infancy, policies supported by Corbyn/membership not pushed through. Instead, they supported more Tory policy such as being against nationalisation of steelworks, anti-junior doctors strike, pro-bombing in Syria (directly defying their leader). Alienated membership. Corbyn could not count on his party for support.
Brexit result: Corbyn: Article 50 must now be invoked. Que resignations from Remain supporting MPs including shadow foreign secretary Hilary Benn. Vote of no confidence, Corbyn loses 40-172. Pressure even from Labour-backing Daily Mirror “GO NOW”. He does not resign because of mass membership backing. New Leadership contest, Corbyn wins by landslide.
Upon victory, Corbyn project (conceived 3 months prior) had no plan for leadership. Settled upon rail nationalisation. First speech rambling, poor media experience. Having worked in background, Corbyn resented new rules he had to play by for media and tradition. E.g. Roasted for not singing national anthem at memorial service.
Media and political bombardment made Corbyn and higher ups ‘anti-social’, barring out both enemies and potentially sympathetic voices.
Disorganisation. Lack of resources. Labour HQ provided insufficient funds, less than Miliband. Job roles unclear. Staff opposed to Corbyn’s views/politically inexperienced. Corbyn averse to conflict. With decisions, would want it to be unanimous, if not he would put it off. Struggled chairing meetings, turn up late, clam up. Didn’t do media training, failed to reiterate party points in interviews.
Seamus Milne (Guardian Journalist) made Director of Strategy and Communications (Labour leader’s brain). Inexperienced for the job. Poor management of strategy. Staff found him hard to contact to sign off on press releases. There should have been a calendar for press events.
Double-standards. Slated for suggesting Putin could have been unaware of Salisbury attack, when May made same suggestion two days prior. Regardless, poor handling by Corbyn, he asked May about working with Putin to figure things out, why?
Karie Murphy made Executive Director of Leader’s Office. Reorganised office to be more effective, cracked down on internal enemies. However, atmosphere of fear, allegedly loyalty more important than job performance.
5: How to Run a Campaign
May calls general election for June 8 2017. Done so Tories could have greater majority to negotiate Brexit. Labour 24 points behind in polling. Labour had to support GE or risk appearing weak. Had to shift narrative away from Brexit.
Play into societal dissatisfaction. “Since the financial crash, living standards for Britain’s workers had been squeezed for the longest period since perhaps the 1750s”. Anger over austerity. “For the many, not the few” slogan established.
Poor performance in local elections.
Corbyn targeted young people and non-voters (only 44% of 18-24 year olds voted in 2015). Set up outreach programmes, minority focused. In contrast to coalition voter suppression (they had introduced new form of voter registration which meant less young people.
Undermining in HQ, lack of work, prioritised safe Labour seats rather than winnable marginals. Failed to target non-voters. Secret project ‘Ergon House’ saw resources diverted to MPs right of the party.
Campaign policy led, well organised by Jon Trickett, Milne, Fischer, Murphy. Election campaign put Corbyn in spotlight, became well-liked for calm, affable demeanour. A seasoned campaigner. Mass rallies. May however, controlled meetings, questions vetted, unlikable.
Labour manifesto, most radical programme since 1983. More investment created by hiked takes on rich, tuition fee abolition, living wage, public ownership on utilities. Manifesto leaked, liked by voters. Union financial support, grassroots army. Mass canvasing. Social media content by Momentum. However, Tories had £25 million in donations (more than twice of Labour), and right wing press. Corbyn’s commentary on terrorist attacks, that they were partly due to Tory police setbacks and foreign policy, struck a chord.
Election: May lost majority (“Dead woman walking” – George Osbourne), Labour gained 30 seats, some losses though. “The election result proved that when radical policies were spelled out without apology, but defiantly and in primary colours, people were hungry for them.”
6: The Brexit Bandersnatch
Any decision Labour would make regarding Brexit had negative outcome. Brexit an issue that cut across class politics, which Labour depended on. Pulled focus away from domestic policies, Labour defined by one issue.
Post-war, L divided by Europe while Tories in support. Throughout 80s, Thatcherite free marketeers embraced EU (less restrictions). 1988 – President of EC Jacques Delors gives speech to Britain’s Trade Union Congress, “social Europe”, greater worker and social protections. Thatcher pissed, Eurosceptism became associated with right. Corbyn had voted no against EU in 1975 and voted down legislature granting them power. However, come 2016 he had little interest in EU matter.
Upon becoming leader, issued statement committing to campaigning for Remain. Support for Leave very low for party members and unions.
Official Remain Campaign – Britain Stronger in Europe. Corporate sponsors and decisions made by Cameron/Osbourne. Labour campaign headed by Alan Johnson, Blairite who hated Corbyn, didn’t organise campaign well. Corbyn believed in ‘remain and reform’.
Brexit fought on issue of immigration. Cameron had repeatedly said it was too high, threatening way of life. Set impossible targets for reducing it, that when missed, undermined faith in democracy.
Corbyn appeared at Remain rallies, but like of media strategy by Milne meant little exposure. Staff unmotivated, supporting a Tory-backed campaign. Didn’t realise Leave support in de-industrialised North.
“Where the Remain side concentrated simply on a cold economic argument lacking any soul, Vote Leave focused on emotion, deploying the devastatingly effective ‘Take Back Control’ and scaremongering about migrants, concocting the false claim that Turkey would join the EU, and distributing lists of EU rapists and murderers in Britain.”
“The Leave Campaign, accordingly, didn’t define its plan for Brexit at all: with no plan, there could be no risk. They portrayed the referendum as simply a vote to leave the EU, with no sense of how close of distant the ensuing relationship would be. Trying to scrutinise Brexit was like nailing jelly to a wall.“
Two thirds of L voters went Remain, only 40% of C voters. Majority of working class under age 35 voted Remain.
In response to result, Article 50 “must be invoked now” – Corbyn. Angered largely Remain supporting party. Split in party. Still Corbyn had mass support post 2017 election. Author argues that following this, Corbyn should have (while acknowledging hurt) dismissed another referendum, on point they couldn’t win election with that stance. He could have then presented Brexit plan that protected jobs, workers, environment.
L didn’t display its stance clearly. Top team wanted to keep things vague and avoid party talking about it.
2018: pro-Remain movement gathered pace. People’s Vote campaign evolved out of Britain Stronger in Europe. Made up of Labour MPs increasingly hostile to Corbyn (convenient wedge issue between membership and leadership, trying to mobilise breakaway party).
Paradox for Corbyn. Sought to democratise party, but vague stance didn’t align with pro-Remain members. Blairite faction Remain.
May’s deal butchered, both L and C MPs. Some saw it as too hard, other too soft.
Change UK formed, eight L MPs, three T. Suspiciously almost all went on to corporate positions. Soon tanked.
Labour MPs ordered against voting for 2nd referendum. 17 rebelled.
With Brexit in spotlight, L’s domestic policies could not get hearing. Polling tanked. Without media strategy, C could shape the narrative.
Supported another referendum to not lose membership.
7: The Antisemitism Crisis
In 2012, Corbyn defends artist who’s graffiti critiquing capitalism was covered on grounds of it being anti-Semitic. Head of Comms issued statement without apology, gave out one too late. Corbyn criticised for writing forward to 2011 edition of 1901 book by liberal historian, contained passage claiming European finance controlled by a ‘single and perculiar race’.
Jones argues a blind spot can emerge since Jewish people are often defined as white. Makes it seem like anti-Semitism less abhorrent than other forms of racism.
Torchbearers of Labour left such as Tony Benn supporters of early Israeli State. However, Israel’s war with the Palestinian Liberation Organisation and its 1982 invasion of Lebanon, massacre of civilians in Palestinian refugee camps by Israel allies. Eroded Left sympathy for project.
“Many Jews who are politically hostile both to the occupation of Palestinian territories and to Israel’s depressing right-wing trajectory, nonetheless retain a profoundly emotional connection with Israel; a state which is seen as a refuge – however imperfect – if, once again, the winds shift and the antisemites come back for more.”
2015 survey: 59% of British Jews identify as Zionists, still 90% support Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state, the traditional Zionist aspiration. For many Jews, angry denunciations of Zionists mean “a contemporary manifestation of age-old angry tirades against the Jews.”
L relationship with British Jews first disintegrated under Ed Miliband. Prior to him, Jewish vote split, two thirds voting C when in office.
Corbyn committed to Palestinian justice and had good track record in dealing with anti-Semitism. Signed Early Days motions condemning anti-Semitism. Organising mobilisation against fascist National Front. In 2010 called on government to settle Yemeni Jewish refugees.
While Palestinian justice was not anti-Semitic, it attracted anti-Semites. Corbyn criticised for going to events for group Deir Yassin Remembered, who’s founder when onto support Holocaust denial.
AS by MP Naz Shah (2014) and former London mayor Ken Livingstone (2016). Resigned and suspended respectably. Aftermath of Livingstone affair: Shami Chakrabarti asked by Milne to carry out inquiry into AS in L party. Report tried to differentiate between ignorance and racism, suggested reforms of party’s disciplinary/complaints procedures, appointment of counsel to offer legal advice, increased party diversity. At press conference announcing findings MP Marc Wadsworth heckled the report for being anti-Corbyn and called for removal of anti-Corbyn MPs from part. Overshadowed report. Fuelled phenomenon from Left of party who believed crisis was manufactured to destroy Corbyn. Caused ignorance of racism.
Media posted stories of AS circulating in Facebook groups supporting Corbyn.
Corbyn wrote letter to Jewish leaders condemning AS, and noted it was not just a case “of a few bad apples”. Said AS had been interwoven into criticism of Israeli governments. However, jarred with his public dialogue, which was defensive. “Because Corbyn was capable of showing genuine passion and emotion about other forms of injustice, the contrast with his response on anti-Semitism was all the more glaring.” In one case, he decided not to read speech decrying AS, annoyed he had to defend himself on issue after lifetime fighting for oppressed people. Enraged many in L as C was marred in Islamophobia and AS.
Murphy contacted Lord Michael Levy, businessman, prominent Jewish figure. Levy recommended Corbyn work with former chief executive of Jewish Care, Simon Morris. However, Corbyn didn’t seem invested in AS talk, Morris never took up post as advisor. Corbyn refused to meet Daniel Levy, Jewish political scientist, because huge businessman and banker who had worked with Blair.
Conflict between Jewish Voice for Labour (pro-Corbyn group) and Jewish L members, as JVL dismissed AS as small issue in party. Corbyn didn’t engage with Jewish Labour Movement, who while hostile to leadership represented most Jewish L supporters.
In 2016 L adopted definition of AS devised by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance. Set examples of AS. However, two examples which spoke against criticising Jewish self-determination were disliked by pro-Palestinian’s. In L’s Code of Conduct, they omitted these two. Corbyn later went back on this, but damage done.
Mid-July 2016, Jewish L MP Margaret Hodge yelled that Corbyn was an AS and racist in House of Commons. Corbyn demanded apology, but resignation of Hodge would bring more attention to AS.
Lack of media strategy allowed press to fill void with articles about AS in L.
Labour’s Governance and Legal Unit (worked to purge Corbyn supporting MPs) initiated only 34 investigations into 300 complaints regarding AS. GLU asking leadership staff for their views was reported to press as improper involvement.
New General Secretary Jennie Formby did great work tackling AS. Good complaints system. Better investigations. Cases actually heard by disciplinary panels. Murphy refused to recognise severity of problem. MPs like Chris Williamson still AS. Blairites, Tories, used issue in bad faith to attack Corbyn.
8: ‘A Blizzard of Lies and Excuses’
Tories saw Johnson as leadership material due to populism.
Respecting membership, Corbyn vowed 2nd referendum, but talked down by Milne and pro-Brexit faction, public position seemed incoherent.
European election, only 45% of L members voted for own party. When Alastair Campbell announced he voted Lib Dem, kicked out of party. Angered remain-supporting L members.
L missed opportunity to criticise new C leader appointment. Milne and Corbyn unorganised and didn’t sign off on press statements. No plan, messaging all over place. Policy adviser Andrew Fisher resigns citing Party incompetence/disorganisation. Party a mess over Brexit, disagreements between Trickett/McDonnell, Watson and Starmer forcing party towards Remain. Senior officials supporting Remain on national media against Leadership stance. Deputy leader Tom Watson supported Remain in speech, one week before Corbyn’s plan to endorse future referendum alongside credible leave option announced. Corbyn furious, but couldn’t sack Watson, instead planning to dismiss him as Shadow Minister for culture/media. McDonnell convinces him otherwise, angering Murphy, “we don’t work for John, we work for you.”, attempted to have him fired regardless. Corbyn dodged issue. Watson resigned in Dec 2019.
Corbyn fed up. Some staff allege Murphy made decisions without consulting Corbyn. Corbyn’s private secretary Iram Awan discussed lodging complaint about Murphy, bullying and comments regarding to a miscarriage. Catalyst for seriers of complaints by staff. Anonymous letter, supported by 25 colleagues in office, spoke of bullying, intimidation of staff, toxic workplace that pitted staff against each other. Sexist behaviour. Murphy challenged contents. McDonnell and Abbot urged Corbyn to sack her. Corbyn did disappearing act, Murphy remained for while. Eventually she was moved from leader’s office to HQ. This had little impact on her continuing to fulfil her duties.
Johnson and Cummings seized “people vs parliament” populist narrative, Brexit being prevented by political elite/schemers (Corbyn now portrayed as such). They told C MP’s that if any voted to support a notion taking No Deal off the table they’d be sacked, which became true. Showed public he meant business. However, meant he lost majority. No coherent plan to turn round poor Corbyn polling.
Johnson’s deal shot down by MPs, Leave extended till Jan 2020, but this only added to perception political elite preventing Brexit.
9: Things Fall Apart
Upcoming Dec 2019 election. Lib dems: Jo Swinson wanted to win over Tory voters, made clear they would not prop up L government.
Strategic meetings poor, Corbyn lacked attentiveness and clarity over what he wanted. Milne’s colleagues repeatedly asked for strategy plan, but never received such a document. Not clear which single person was in control. Eventually points drawn out regarding Johnson just in it for the elite, but they were vague. Couldn’t commit to Remain despite membership because of need to win Leave supporting constituencies. Key slogan not agreed upon, while C succeeded with ‘Get Brexit Done’. Corbyn’s appearances were haphazardly organised, thus lacking successful media attention. In 2017, Corbyn gave personal talks to varying social groups, now he read off auto-cues from a podium, didn’t play to his strengths.
Media against him. Errors by BBC (e.g. not showing Johnson’s mishandling of a wreath on memorial day, editing clips of him on question time to only show applause, journalists reading lines written by Cummings). L comms team didn’t correct misinformation. Media highlighted AS in regards to Corbyn but turned blind eye to Johnson’s homophobia, Islamophobia, racism. Team failed to prep him properly, he was disinterested in dealing with media, disastrous Andrew Neil interview.
Grassroots and social media still effectively used, but lacked the coherent messaging of 2017.
Example of poor planning: policy announced supporting free full-fibre broadband. Should have spent months highlighting its importance first. Didn’t hammer enough at green policies, so they weren’t reported. Plan for £400 billion spending seemed far-fetched even to party members.
Brexit Party announces it won’t stand in Tory-held seats to harm L.
Election: 365 seats for C, 202 for L. fewest seats since 1935. Corbyn announces resignation.
Conclusion: The Centre Cannot Hold
Corbyn’s appointment as leader showed Left ideals are strongly desired.
Before Corbyn, little evidence L leadership commitment to progressive principles. After 2015 election, they refused to block welfare bill which imposed cuts to work-in benefits to low wage earners. This is a party founded to protect the working class. Opponents in L party showed their intentions by going on to corporate jobs.
With Corbyn, 21st century version of social democracy brought into mainstream for younger generations. Pensioners continue to vote C because they protect their interests, because they make up the largest voting group. Given their conservatism on LGBTQ groups and other religions, unlikely to vote L. “Corbynism won the support of younger people in unprecedented numbers; but it also repelled older people to an unparalleled degree.” “The left’s central dilemma is this: how to win the support of older citizens without betraying the hopes and dreams of their children and grandchildren.”
“Brexit underscores that culture wars are poison to political causes focused on redistributing wealth and power, rather than on cultural identity. It’s an issue the left must get to grips with.”
Prior to Brexit, L was already losing support to C in ageing, largely in white post-industrial areas in North and Midlands. Brexit accelerated process.
Corbyn’s experience in backbenches left him poorly prepared for arguing with people who disagreed with him, and the media machine.
Following leadership appointment, Starmer declared 2017 manifesto be seen as the backbone of policies going forward. “Perhaps, then, the legacy of Corbynism is to ensure that the new mainstream of the Labour party is one that never again commits to austerity, or the baiting of benefit claimants, or the demonizing of migrants.”
Coronavirus has shown the need for Socialist policies in Britain.