First published April 23 2020 on Lit
For a minute there it looked as if Keir Starmer’s plan to sell himself as all things to all Labour members had worked. In the days following his election as Labour Party leader on April 4th, Starmer a) got through a TV interview without saying anything mad or contemptible, b) cleared the cranks out of his cabinet and replaced them with dull but competent MPs, c) met with Jewish groups without anyone leaving in tears, and d) did all this without incurring the wrath of the outgoing Corbynites. The ceasefire lasted all of one week.
On Easter Sunday, (perhaps reflecting on the themes of death and rebirth), someone leaked an 800-page report to Sky News claiming to prove that Labour’s woes under Jeremy Corbyn — specifically of antisemitism and losing elections— were at least partly the fault of a cabal of scheming party officials.
I was inclined to credit this claim, having watched the evidence amass in broad daylight for five years of a high-level plan to destroy the party. But the tale had a twist. The report pins the blame, not on the far-Left incompetents promoted by Mr Corbyn, but on the unhappy few who thought his project was a terrible mistake.
Allegations thrown at these staffers, which include racism, sexism, deliberate sabotage of Labour’s election prospects, and – with a straight face – “factionalism”, are hard to verify. The report vanished from the internet after Labour was told it may have breached its employees’ privacy. (Starmer has ordered an independent review into both the leak and its contents.) The excerpts published by pro-Corbyn website Novara Media, which had every motivation to run the juiciest parts, are surprisingly weak.
What we can say is that the macro claim of a fiendish plot as the cause of Labour’s troubles is manifest garbage. The Labour Party did not lose two general elections (the second its worst loss in 85 years) and become a safe space for anti-Jewish paranoia because a few party staffers were rude and insubordinate on WhatsApp. (Incidentally, I’m sure the pro-Corbyn WhatsApp groups are a model of decorum.) Such tripe can only be believed by a fanatic or a fool, or perhaps both.
Step forward ex-shadow chancellor John McDonnell on Twitter: “It’s nearly a week since the leak of Labour Report which if true constitutes biggest scandal in Labour’s history both preventing a Labour government & undermining fight against antisemitism but not a peep out of ‘swords of truth’ columnists at @guardian who hounded Corbyn for years.” (sic)
Aside for being one for the time capsule in distilling the Corbynite style, notice that McDonnell is complaining that Guardian columnists are not covering divisions in the Labour Party more energetically! This, along with the far-left leaking a report to Rupert Murdoch’s Sky News to smear the Labour Party, is truly the moment of apotheosis for the Corbynite Left.
It’s also of a piece with the broader “narrative” (better to say fairy tale) being energetically spread online about where it all went wrong for the faithful. In his first interview since finally stepping down as leader, Jeremy Corbyn mused that “had the party been more united than we had been in 2016, I’m absolutely confident we could have won that general election…”, meaning the one in 2017.
This is Corbyn’s garbled and euphemistic rendition of a tune played by Richard Burgon during his deputy leadership bid. Burgon had opined that “if it hadn’t have been for the disloyalty and the disgraceful behaviour by members of the parliamentary Labour Party in 2016, we’d be three years into a Labour government now”.
The behaviour in question was the vote of no confidence in Corbyn after his “present but not involved” performance in the EU referendum, and the leadership challenge after he refused to step down. This context is one of the many reasons Corbynites might want to beware of invoking counter-factual history and ‘what-ifs’…
But what’s key to notice here is the emergence of what Professor David Hirsh describes as a “stab in the back myth”, a consoling lie that says all the Corbyn Left’s problems are the fault of covert enemies within and without. If the analogy seems extreme, turn to Corbynite MPs Jon Trickett and Ian Lavery, writing about the leaked report for the revived Tribune (and republished by its owners at Jacobin).
Labour staffers, they write, “acted in a conspiratorial manner”, adding that this alleged conspiracy involved “setting up a shadow operation to protect their chosen sons and daughters” – the sons and daughters an apparent reference to non-Corbynite MPs. The use of “chosen” here seems a tad thoughtless in view of the circumstances, though it’s in keeping with the general thrust of their argument. (It’s depressing, too, that these claims appeared in the magazine that once published George Orwell.)
Though it’s touching to see Corbyn and McDonnell revert so quickly to their true form – spreading conspiracy theories to a dwindling audience, the David Ickes of frontline politics – this sinister nonsense is exactly what you don’t want being injected into an already ailing political culture. The clear aim is to make Corbynism’s most blatant failures disappear, thrown on to some low-level staffers who can be cast into the desert, leaving the faithful washed clean.
Like Nostradamus freaks who, having wrongly proclaimed the end of the world, dust themselves off for the next prediction, the Corbynites clearly don’t see defeat as any cause for doubt or self-criticism. Far from “a period of reflection” (remember that?), let alone any shame over what they have done, the Corbynites plan to carry on as if nothing much has happened. This despite their amazing election propaganda and moral blackmail about how declining to vote to make Corbyn PM was to enjoin mass death, the selling of the NHS to Donald Trump, and the destruction of the planet. (In the event, the one horseman they didn’t predict – pestilence – is the one that came calling!)
This is why Keir Starmer’s dream of a “broad church” Labour movement may be disturbed by crashing reality. Politics isn’t a wrangle between reasonable lawyers and judges, or an appeal to the good sense of an open-minded jury. It involves real conflicts of interest and ideology, is often pursued by actors of bad faith, and requires knowing an enemy when you see one.