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The problem of love in Corbyn’s Labour Party: Reflections on Left Out

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Left Out by Gabriel Pogrund and Patrick Maguire

Ever since its publication, snapshots of sections of Gabriel Pogrund and Patrick Maguire’s  Left Out: The Inside Story of Labour Under Corbyn have been gleefully shared on Twitter amongst detractors of the Corbyn project. 

It’s the revelations about antisemitism or general incompetence that seem to have attracted the most attention. For me though, it’s the following passage that jumped out:

Witnesses still dispute the cause of the conflagration, and the precise language Alvarez used to deliver her coup de grâce. One attendee recalled Alvarez ‘having a pop’ that Thompson, as a long-standing  friend of the couple, found particularly wounding. ‘Marsha finally blew and gave it right back to her.’ The previous evening she herself had rowed with Corbyn, whose lax approach to timekeeping and failure to keep to diary commitments had at points threatened to derail LOTO’s delicate plans for conference. That he was suffocated by his countless admirers did not help. On the night of Laura’s clash with Thompson, the hotel in which they had dined shut down its bar and kitchen temporarily so 120 of its staff could have their picture taken with Corbyn. One aide likened him to a ‘stroppy teenager’. When Thompson confronted Corbyn for an explanation of his behaviour, he accused her of siding with Murphy.

The confrontation took place at the 2019 party conference, at a time when Karie Murphy, executive director of the leader’s office, was losing Corbyn’s trust and under severe factional pressure from within the ‘project’. Marsha-Jane Thompson was Corbyn’s head of campaigns. Laura Alvarez is Corbyn’s wife. At the same time as this tight-knit inner circle was becoming dysfunctional, the leader was the focus of public celebration and adoration to the point that the business of leadership was imperilled. Behind closed doors, Corbyn was squabbled over; in public, he was venerated. 

The details of this particular spat are not really important, although it’s a tribute to the authors that they have revealed a steady stream of similar anecdotes. But the story seems to encapsulate a wider duality that explains much about what happened to the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. 

On the one hand of this duality lay brutal conflict; on the other, joyful love. From 2015 to 2019, the Labour Party was engulfed in waves of vicious in-fighting and almost ecstatic hope and celebration. And we cannot understand one without understanding the other; the queasy dialectic they produced eventually leading to ignominious defeat.

Jeremy Corbyn was the propulsive force at the heart of this dialectic. He was the object of love, hate and struggle. Yet at the same time, as Left Out shows, he was often curiously disengaged. He loathed confrontation of any kind. He spoke in generalities. He avoided detail and the messy business of party management. 

Usually, I am suspicious of historical accounts that centre on particular individuals. Social and political movements are rarely reducible to one person. Yet Jeremy Corbyn’s role within the Labour Party might be an exception. While the social and political forces that propelled him to the top and that resulted in electoral semi-success in 2017 and total defeat in 2019, are multiple and complex, in the end we cannot understand what happened without a clear focus on Jeremy Corbyn himself.

Or, rather, on ‘Jeremy Corbyn’ himself. There were multiple constructions of who he is and what he represents and it was these constructions that were the object of struggle. The movement that elected him and adored him usually constructed him as a man of unimpeachable integrity, of unflappable plain-speaking kindness, of idealism and as the embodiment of the hope of change. Amongst his detractors, Jeremy Corbyn was, according to taste, a crank, an antisemite, a lover of tyranny, a naive fool and an empowerer of bullies. 

The hate and the conflict that scarred the party from 2015 and 2019 was, largely but by no means completely, the result of the clash of these irreconcilable ‘Jeremy Corbyns’. 

The antisemitism issue is the most devastating example of this. Antisemitism on the left is not new, and the expansion in the scope and seriousness of the problem would have been an inevitable result of the election of any left anti-imperialist Labour leader. But what shifted the problem from ‘difficult but possibly solvable’ to ‘impossible and unsolvable’ was the use to which antisemitism was put in defending Corbyn from perceived and real threats. The 2016 coup against him from his critics in the PLP triggered an outraged response from those for whom Jeremy Corbyn was the repository of their hopes and dreams. Antisemitism was one weapon in the arsenal to defend the leader against those who threatened the golden future that Corbyn embodied. Those Jewish MPs who took part in the coup (Luciana Berger being one of the most prominent) became a symbol of the treachery of the Labour right and centre. 

Love can make people do terrible things in defence of the loved object. Love led members of Corbyn’s staff to tear each other apart in their rival attempts to defend the leader. Love led people who had rarely thought about Jews, Israel and the Palestinians, to retweet memes about ‘The Rothschilds’. Love led Corbynite Jews to let themselves be chosen as the ideal Jew, to be a beautiful reflection of the leader himself, to abandon any kind of solidarity with other Jews. Love led Corbyn’s inner circle to fight amongst themselves over how best to protect the man, when it was really he himself who should have had the strength to protect them from their worst selves. And Corbyn’s own love for the people he could relate to, was accompanied by an inability to relate to those he could not love.

The Corbynite who comes across best in Left Out is John McDonnell. While he was, for many years, Corbyn’s only real friend in the House of Commons, the events of 2015-2019 show him to have been motivated by a love greater than love for one man. McDonnell loved the project to build socialism first and foremost. Sometimes that meant steadfast defence of Corbynism and all that it entailed (including, on occasions, colluding in dismissing antisemitism), but from 2017 to 2019 his greater desire for socialism began to win out as he pushed back against what he saw as the increasingly disastrous job that Corbyn’s acolytes were doing. In fact, the closer one got to the Corbynite inner circle, so it became easier to express frustration with the man himself and to voice (privately) the criticisms that would, if voiced publicly, have led to vicious abuse from the Corbynite grassroots. What is depressing is how far the movement’s ‘outriders’ and grassroots activists chose to make Corbyn untouchable. Paul Mason is one of the only prominent fellow travellers who refused to bet all their desires for social and political change on the political survival of one individual. 

It is only by understanding the warped effects that love can have that we can truly understand what happened to the Labour Party under Corbyn. There’s a lot of loose talk amongst critics of Corbyn that the party became a ‘cult’. To a degree, there’s something to this: It’s hard to view memes celebrating Corbyn’s ‘Nobel prize’ and crediting him for the Good Friday Agreement, without seeing something culty. But the problem with this perspective is that it assumes that Corbyn was not just fundamentally unlovable, he was positively and deviously malign. The point about a cult leaders like Jim Jones is that, while followers love them, they are actually evil charlatans.   

I don’t think Corbyn is an evil charlatan. In fact, the mistake that many anti-antisemitism campaigners often make is to see the hate that undoubtedly mushroomed under Corbyn as a reflection of the man himself. In other words, they accuse Corbynites of loving a man with nothing to love about him. 

One of the great strengths of Left Out is that, however devastating a picture the authors paint of Corbyn, they also detail his good qualities: He is clearly devoted to his constituency, is capable of great kindness to friends and strangers and has endless empathy for the poor and marginal. These are prosaic and relatable good qualities: not those of a hero but of an everyday decent person.

Corbyn’s worst qualities are similar: mundane and a bit pathetic rather than evil. He is peevish, has gigantic blindspots in his worldview, is not particularly bright, is often passive aggressive, is sometimes indolent, is largely incapable of dealing with people who don’t already agree with him, and is incapable of managing a team let alone a party.

Corbyn may have shared platforms with appalling haters, antisemites and friends of dictators, but he rarely joined in with and repeated their hatred; most of the time he simply stood by, deluding himself that the hate was a little bit of unfortunate excess. Even at one of the few times he explicitly repeated an antisemitic trope – the now-notorious comment that two particular Jews didn’t understand irony despite living here all their lives – seems to have been as much as anything, a way of honouring the urbanity of his Palestinian co-panelists, rather than a vicious attack. To accuse him of hating Jews (or, at least, Zionist Jews), as some have done, is to misunderstand how he works: I don’t think he hates anyone particularly, it’s just that he has no idea how to relate to those he cannot understand and that leaves the door open to tacitly colluding with those who have much more hateful feelings towards them.

It is extraordinary that a man of such regular and ’normal’ good and bad points should be the focus of such extreme love and hate. It is bizarre that this was the man over whom so many people fought, hurt and abused; the man who twisted so many decent people on both the left and right of the party, and on the inside and the outside of the Jewish community, into becoming obsessive haters. 

Corbynite readers of Left Out will take comfort in the stories of shoddy behaviour of Tom Watson and the Labour right. Certainly, there is a culture of factionalism and mutual abusiveness that dates back to long before 2015. But whereas in previous eras, this tendency was held in check to the extent that it did not permeate across the party, in the Corbyn years people across the Labour spectrum into performing their worst selves. It is to Labour’s and Corbyn’s shame that so many people fell into the abyss. 

Perhaps the story of the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn is ultimately a cautionary tale of what happens when the image of a person becomes completely disconnected from the actual person. Corbyn could never square accusations of tolerance for antisemitism with his self-image as a lifelong anti-racism. He made the mistake in thinking that good intentions are enough; that if you understand yourself as working for good, if bad things follow then it is not your responsibility.

Pogrund and Maguire argue at the end of Left Out, that ‘on no subject was he more stubborn than his own sense of identity’. As they conclude:  

When it came to Labour’s relationship with the Jewish community, the failure was his. The empathy that defined him as a man and politician escaped him. In the face of accusations of racism, he too often empathised with himself. It might reasonably be argued that here was a leader whose preference was to split his own party, rather than apologise.

All of us have sometimes faced a situation when someone accuses us of being something other than who we feel we are. It’s disorienting, hurtful and even scary. Sometimes facing up to such accusations, when they are made in good faith, can allow us to grow as people, to incorporate new elements into one’s self-identity. Sometimes such accusations are purely malign gaslighting. But you can never know which is which without at least allowing for the possibility that who you think you are is not all that you are. 

Years ago, when he was a marginal MP, and in the right private circumstances, perhaps Jeremy Corbyn might have been able to open himself up to a serious dialogue about the blindspots in his identity. Or perhaps not. Perhaps he would always have been someone who would countenance no discussion of his self-identity, regardless of whom he had become in life. We will never know. But as head of the Labour Party, as someone the continual eye of the political storm, there was never any prospect that he could have seriously engaged with the limitations of his anti-racist identity and the unintended consequences of his good intentions. When there are people who have constructed you as a uniquely loveable figure, would any of us listen to those who say we are uniquely hateful? That’s not narcissism so much as simple human weakness – it’s nicer to be validated than challenged. 

So love was always the problem. Unloveable – but not unhateable – politicians may be healthiest for democracy. In Keir Starmer we have an unloveable Labour leader. While my politics are further to the left than Starmer’s, I am more content with a leader of the opposition that sparks only tepid emotion. When the book is written on the Labour Party under Starmer, I hope that it will be intensely dreary. That Left Out is a page-turner isn’t a good thing. 

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Dr Keith Kahn-Harris is a senior lecturer at Leo Baeck College, runs the European Jewish Research Archive at the IJPR and is an Honorary Fellow of the Pears Institute for the Study of Antisemitism at Birkbeck College. His most recent book is Strange Hate: Antisemitism, Racism and the Limits of Diversity (Repeater 2019).
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Joel Conn
Joel Conn
19 days ago

An excellent assessment, which I suspect is correct. It doesn’t, of course, stop it being a cult. There are cults with nebbishy or unremarkable leaders who are the subject of the veneration because they represent an ideal. Here, the puzzlement is that the ideal – socialism – isn’t a controversial one amongst Labour members. Even centrist ones tend to privately yearn for a more left leaning world but justify their centrism as realism and pragmatism.
There the question remains “why then and/or why Corbyn for the Labour Party?” A simplistic answer is that it is the season for cult adoration of unworthy politicians, but that just begs the question “why is it the season?”. I hope it is Keith Kahn-Harris who seeks to address these further in due course.

Simon Gilman
Simon Gilman
19 days ago

While there are still those exhibiting something of a fixation with Corbyn himself, I believe that there are many more whose engagement was with the ideas that came with him, or at least the optimism that those ideas brought. It doesn’t seem credible that a majority of the half-million new members under his leadership joined because of Corbyn the person.

However, as attacks on him increased from every direction, those optimists had no real choice but to join their wagons to the inner circle of Jeremy protectors, and that turned him into something of a totem, where distinctions between the ideas and the man became no longer meaningful; if, indeed, evident. Thus it became the easiest thing thereafter to dismiss anyone promoting anything like democratic socialism – it’s on the LP membership card – as a Corbynista.

I imagine that in a not terribly different universe right now, there are democratic socialists who are similarly dismissed as “Burnhamites”.

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