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How the lurch to the left could have gone right

Former Labour Strategy and Communications Director Seumas Milne. (Photo by Leon Neal/Getty Images) - Credit: Leon Neal/Getty Images

Back in 2018, I was working on the anti-Semitism section of a book about Jeremy Corbyn.

After several emails and phone calls to the leader of the opposition’s office went unanswered, I sent Corbyn’s head of communications and strategy, Seumas Milne, the notes of my briefing from the Board of Deputies of British Jews about their meeting with the then Labour leader. They had told me that Corbyn left all the talking to an excited and aggressive Milne, who accused Israel of ethnic cleansing.

That produced a phone call, not to me but to my co-author Mark Seddon. Milne understood, he said, that I was writing a whole chapter about anti-Semitism. Didn’t we understand that mentioning the subject was just playing the Tory game? Mark replied I was not writing one chapter on anti-Semitism, but two chapters. Milne was apoplectic.

None of my questions were ever answered, and Mark and I were left contemplating the appalling fact that the Labour leader was taking his communications and strategy advice from a man who thought it was possible, in 2018, to write a book about Corbyn without even mentioning anti-Semitism.

The lobby journalists Gabriel Pogrund and Patrick Maguire, who are responsible for another book, which is just out – Left Out: The Inside Story of Labour under Corbyn – seem to agree with me that Corbyn is not anti-Semitic, and is genuinely hurt and perplexed that anyone should think he is. But they show how some of those round him saw the need to engage with the issue. And they chart relentlessly his persistent and incomprehensible failure to do so, seeming to give ground inch by inch, reluctantly and with bad grace.

Now that it can no longer do any good, Corbyn and Milne apparently want to engage with the issue, and have their day in court.

The same goes for Brexit. Corbyn never engaged. He seemed to have a policy, but not to agree with it. When asked about either of these issues, he became tense and irritable and tried to talk about something else.

That is part of the reason why, from the high point of the general election in 2017 when Corbyn did unexpectedly well and deprived Theresa May of her parliamentary majority, Corbyn’s standing went into freefall.

Pogrund and Maguire offer gruesome detail on how Corbyn’s office manoeuvred behind the scenes to keep Brexit off the 2017 Labour conference agenda, as though not talking about it could make it go away.

At the best of times, labour movement politics can be ugly, and these were the worst of times. Pogrund and Maguire have talked to everyone who mattered, and built up a gruesome picture. Their balanced, thoughtful and readable account shows us an atmosphere in which allegations of sexual abuse are seen as weapons in Labour’s internal trench warfare.

They describe how the rot began when Corbyn and Milne managed to make such a hash of their response to the 2018 Salisbury poisonings that people suspected them of being in Vladimir Putin’s pocket. The book describes how Corbyn’s office stoked anti-Semitism accusations by rebuking then shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry for asserting Israel’s right to exist, and punished her for mentioning in an email a second referendum on Brexit by banning her from visiting Nato’s annual summit.

And we find out that none of this needed to happen. There was a voice of common sense: trying to stop Corbyn making an ass of himself over Salisbury; pleading for an imaginative response to anti-Semitism accusations; demanding a clear line on Brexit; begging his leader to make serious overtures to his old enemies on the party and have a unity shadow cabinet; trying to stop his leader from taking disciplinary action against Jewish MP Margaret Hodge for calling Corbyn an anti-Semite; begging him to take the media (“the hyena class”, as Milne called it) seriously, and to stop prioritising interviews with Muslim News and a weekly Bangladeshi newspaper over interviews with the BBC; and eventually trying to stop the suicidal rush into a general election in 2019.

That voice belonged to shadow chancellor John McDonnell. And McDonnell’s reward was unremitting hostility from Corbyn’s office and so serious a rift with his oldest friend in politics that they were not on speaking terms throughout the summer of 2018, and blanked each other when they passed in the corridor.

They fought over issues great and small, and one of the smaller ones was whether they should cooperate with me and Mark Seddon. McDonnell saw nothing but good in helping two left wing writers whom he and Corbyn both knew, and he promised me he would intervene.

He tried, and failed. But when the book came out, he went out of his way to pose for a picture of me presenting him with a copy.

McDonnell was a serious politician and a heavyweight shadow chancellor. As Pogrund and Maguire put it: “McDonnell obsessed over the pursuit of power – for without it Labour could never enact the genuinely radical socialist programme he had spent his career fighting for.” If it had been McDonnell’s turn to carry the left’s flag in the 2015 leadership election, I feel pretty sure we would not now be looking at an 80-seat majority for the least trusted and most reactionary prime minister of my lifetime, and a no-deal Brexit.

That is Corbyn’s legacy, and he must own it. In a sense it is Milne’s legacy even more than Corbyn’s, for Pogrund and Maguire make it clear that Corbyn’s temperament, and his dislike of confrontation, meant that the man he called “the great Milne” was calling the shots.

Milne was a left wing journalist all his working life, a former industrial correspondent and opinion page editor. It sounds like a decent CV for the job. But here’s the problem. Pogrund and Maguire say Milne had “flirted briefly with Stalinism in his youth.” That’s one way of describing a man who worked at the Stalinist magazine Straight Left, and to this day will not hear a bad word about Arthur Scargill.

Practical politicians like McDonnell know, as Harold Macmillan put it, that what decides the agenda is “Events, dear boy, events”. Milne and Corbyn acted as though they could rewrite the agenda, and subject it to ‘the line’.

And this book reveals that on election night 2019 it was Milne who circulated The Line that true believers have parroted ever since: it was all the fault of the Remainers, and if only Labour had listened to “working class communities” and followed the Boris Johnson line on Brexit, all would have been well.

It’s tosh. But it’s the line.

Left Out: The Inside Story of Labour under Corbyn, by Gabriel Pogrund and Patrick Maguire, is published by The Bodley Head

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