Tom Harris, Ten Years in the Death of the Labour Party, Biteback Publishing, £12.99 paperback
Breaking off from writing this review, my gaze alighted on a tweet from Paul Popper, who is aware of the desperate political straits in which Britain now finds itself:
‘I got on a packed train. I couldn’t find a seat’ ‘I joined a secret Facebook group. I didn’t see any anti-Semitism’ Yeah, that’s right @jeremycorbyn There were no seats on the train There was no anti-Semitism in your group There is no end to your dishonesty. @formerleft
Many citizens prefer to close their eyes to the state of the leadership of the Labour Party, the terrorist links, the conspiracy theories used to explain the world, the bullying culture inside the party, and the types whom Jeremy Corbyn has promoted. A climate of indifference seems to prevail. It harks back to the ignoble Vichy era of France, and not just because of the moral abdications involved. Marshal Petain was an elderly, feeble-minded character who was nevertheless embraced as a national redeemer. He usually spoke in cliches just as the ageing Corbyn did when he was hailed by thousands at the Glastonbury music festival after Labour’s big electoral breakthrough
On the same day an opinion poll put Labour seven percentage points ahead of the Conservatives. Laconic in style, Tom Harris has written a dry but authoritative account of how Labour turned into ‘an unrecognisable, extreme version of itself’ in a very short period. I believe it will stand the test of time as an insightful appraisal of how Labour fell victim to a hostile takeover by a charlatan, a proud and quite unabashed political extremist. It is the view of an insider, 18 years a Labour parliamentarian with an exemplary record as a constituency MP.
The book is slow to build up but the bulk of it, dealing with Corbyn’s emergence and its consequences, is gripping reading. Initially, Labour’s misfortunes are put down to bad luck or bad judgement, such as Gordon Brown losing his nerve over holding an election in 2007 or the party falling prey to rivalry between brothers Ed and David Miliband, products of a wealthy, upper middle-class upbringing. Harris is convinced that ‘none of the calamities which befell [Labour] in the ten years since 2007 needed to happen; they occurred because of conscious political decisions that were avoidable’.
There is considerable focus on the Westminster bubble and London politics. Ed Miliband’s alleged treachery towards his older brother is used as a metaphor to suggest a cynicism of middle-class metropolitans at variance with working-class communities where familial bonds remained of the highest value.
The impression is conveyed that there is still a stately and unruffled Britain out there, a place of underlying stability. The Iraq war and demographic and economic pressures flowing from globalisation (more ardently embraced by Britain than any other major country) are not discussed. Nor are the changes in youth culture, especially the growing radicalisation at universities where Marxism is being absorbed and rebooted by post-modernism which privileges feelings over facts.
The academic revolution begot Corbyn, whose brush with higher education resulted in his dropping out of a course on trade union studies. The army of new functionaries in the boards and quangos set up to regulate private and state behaviour were often zealots, not the new bourgeoisie eager to enjoy a piece of Blair or Brown’s socialist pie.
Largely silent about Blair, at the end of the book Harris turns on Brown who ‘with a staggering level of self-regard, chose to embark upon a decade-long feud with Tony Blair’. This civil war among the moderates could have been contained if new heavyweights had emerged with the talent and vision to be proper custodians of the party. But even the able people who are discussed used the Labour Party as a halting place before moving on to better things. Only Alan Johnson showed any of the devotion of a Denis Healey to his party, and he preferred to busy himself with writing his memoirs rather than squaring up to the far Left.
The key decision which placed Labour in their clutches was probably the creation of a set of electoral rules favouring organised minorities. With this move Ed Miliband opened the way for the party to be hijacked by the relatively few. As long as they parted with £3, new members who might have spent years campaigning against Labour could elect its leader after 2015. Perhaps the MP Chris Bryant was thinking of this when he said before a television audience: ‘I might go and punch him [Miliband] because he’s a tosspot and he left the party in the state it’s in.’
Both before and after Corbyn’s election to the top position in 2016, the appetite for resistance of the moderates, still dominant in the parliamentary party, was limited. They were mostly cosmopolitan leaders who saw the European Union as their lodestar. They failed to articulate and champion a British identity which was shockingly exposed during the unruly 2014 referendum on whether Scotland should become independent.
Corbyn’s events in the leadership campaign became quasi-religious rallies as a sea of youthful supporters turned out for him. Their numbers were far higher than in the post-1979 Militant era and they were far more middle-class.
Corbyn found himself the beneficiary of cultural shifts in Britain which have hardly begun to be analysed. There had been a collapse in social and personal coherence as the foundations which had provided some kind of conservative underpinning for British life were ripped up. The longstanding ties of Corbyn and his shadow chancellor John McDonnell with Irish and Middle East extremists, dispassionately collated by Harris, made no impact, and may even have added to their lustre.
Corbyn was extremely lukewarm about EU membership. It was the shock, in mid-2016, of Britain being on course to quit the EU under a seemingly compliant Labour leader which stirred the parliamentary moderates from their deep lethargy. Less than ten days after the 23 June referendum, there was a leadership challenge. There were mass resignations from the shadow cabinet, 47 in all, and Hilary Benn urged Corbyn to quit.
Some 172 of 216 Labour MPs supported the motion at Labour’s decision-making forum, the NEC, that ‘this PLP has no confidence in Jeremy Corbyn as leader’, but they were isolated from the membership and had no backing from the main unions. Soon Corbyn emerged stronger than ever.
The sheer extent of Corbyn’s extremist proclivities made no difference to his rise. After 130 people were massacred in Paris by Islamist terrorists on 13 November 2016, Corbyn brushed aside the need to have any shoot-to-kill policy to forestall more acts of this kind.
The bomb at the Manchester Arena which killed 22 mainly young concertgoers in May 2017 was cleverly spun by Corbyn’s media chief Seumas Milne as being due to Tory police cuts, not a failure to take a firm line against Islamist extremism. Britain was then facing a general election campaign after an unprepared Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May had unwisely called one. Corbyn was far more energetic than she was on the campaign trail. An ‘avalanche of propaganda on social media, much of it fabricated’, promoted a range of false and reassuring narratives about the leader’s past.
Labour strongly recovered in southern England and without a Tory comeback in Scotland earning the party 13 seats, Corbyn would have been on course to be Prime Minister. He was now secure as leader. The moderates bent the knee. Owen Smith, Chuka Umunna and Tom Watson paid homage to a leader whom they were on record as despising.
Harris’s account of the triumph of extremism in the Labour party may not be bettered for some time. He possesses the moral judgment and social compass to see how bad this is for Britain and perhaps the West in general. But few of those who could have made it much harder for Corbyn to prevail seem to possess these attributes.