wed 21/10/2020

Gabriel Pogrund & Patrick Maguire: Left Out review - story of Corbynism from 'Glastonbury to catastrophe' | reviews, news & interviews

Gabriel Pogrund & Patrick Maguire: Left Out review - story of Corbynism from 'Glastonbury to catastrophe'

Gabriel Pogrund & Patrick Maguire: Left Out review - story of Corbynism from 'Glastonbury to catastrophe'

Far from a definitive text on the Corbyn experiment, but a decent first draft

Gabriel Pogrund, Whitehall Correspondent at The Sunday TimesBodley Head

Readers of Left Out may be surprised to find out how much of party politics is conducted over WhatsApp. The Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn had an encrypted chat for every occasion – whether it was to smear a colleague, to slime the “scumbag” press, or (as was the case with two rogue party staffers) to plot the demise of the “Project” from the inside.

Readers of Left Out may be surprised to find out how much of party politics is conducted over WhatsApp. The Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn had an encrypted chat for every occasion – whether it was to smear a colleague, to slime the “scumbag” press, or (as was the case with two rogue party staffers) to plot the demise of the “Project” from the inside. In their new book, The Times’ Patrick Maguire and Sunday Times’ Gabriel Pogrund exploit their access to dozens of party insiders and a myriad of leaks in order to tell the story of the Labour Party from “Glastonbury to catastrophe.”

An 860-page internal report into Labour’s handling of anti-Semitism complaints, leaked in April 2020, blew the lid on the “hyper-factional atmosphere” that prevailed within Party HQ. The language used in email exchanges and WhatsApp chats was genuinely shocking. Labour staffers savaged fellow travellers with insults and slurs typically reserved for the most hated of enemies. Pogrund and Maguire’s Left Out confirms the fact that the party all but collapsed over infighting in the years that followed Corbyn’s near-miss election in 2017.

For a book like this, scrutiny is par for the course. In the weeks before its publication, as excerpts were serialised in the Sunday Times, Twitter erupted over a story about Corbyn’s wife upbraiding Labour aides over an oatcake. Users poured over ITN footage in order to test the claim.

The oatcake row, petty as it is, underscores a bigger issue. Many of Pogrund and Maguire’s sources remain anonymous. Their book has neither footnotes nor endnotes. Clearly, they have used many materials extracted at the thick of it, amidst the fiercest of Labour’s infighting. With the exchange of so much personal and political venom, one can only flinch at the thousand tiny (or not-so-tiny) betrayals that give the book its content. Many scores are settled in its pages – but none for the benefit of the reader.

Left Out is not a book for policy wonks. Pogrund and Maguire eschew sober analysis for pacey narrative. The authors skirt around technical details, except when they serve to illustrate a colossal mishap or meltdown within party structures. This gossip-as-politics approach lends itself well to clarifying key episodes as they unfolded, day-by-day, but is incapable of explaining the twists-and-turns of Labour’s evolving position on Brexit. It quickly becomes apparent that something so unwieldy cannot be explained by internal party disputes. The result is several chaotic, hard-to-follow chapters.

On Labour’s woeful response to the Skripal affair, new light is shed. The party’s top-brass were slow to point the finger at the Kremlin, much to the fury of the PLP. “The Salisbury attack is something we got wrong”, admits a senior Corbyn advisor. Pogrund and Maguire provide a fascinating, line-by-line account of how an important Commons speech by Corbyn was doctored by two of his closest advisors, Seamus Milne and Andrew Fisher, who expunged passages that expressed solidarity with Ukraine against Russian aggression and affirmed a commitment to NATO. It’s a startlingly rare example of how Corbynite foreign policy trained the party’s impulses – with devastating effect.

New, lurid details about Labour’s anti-Semitism row, uncovered by Pogrund and Maguire, lay bare many of the party’s missed opportunities. Why did Corbyn confuse the opinion of his ex-Trotskyite, Jewish constituency friends for the opinion of the Jewish community at large? Why did he not agree to any of the simple gestures of reconciliation to Britain’s Jews suggested to him by his aides?

When veteran MP Margaret Hodge collared Corbyn, calling him a “racist and anti-Semite”, the leader dug in his heels. Hodge was referred to the party’s disciplinary process. This episode, we are told, caused an almost irreparable breach between two old comrades, Corbyn and his Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell (though McDonnell has already taken to Twitter to hit out at the “Murdoch gutter press” over the claim). McDonnell, whose “biblical temper” is hard to square with his mild-mannered public persona, is handed credit—if only for being a savvier operator than his friend. Single-minded in the pursuit of power, he compensated for Corbyn’s intransigence: on anti-Semitism, foreign policy, and Europe. The authors’ sound study of character constitutes the book’s profoundest explanatory force.

Pogrund and Maguire are remarkably charitable when it comes to personalities. They even maintain a grudging respect and restrained affection for Corbyn himself. In times of triumph, he is described as “positively tiggerish” and overflowing with “almost childish glee.” We are mostly treated to trivia, some of which is mildly titillating, like Corbyn’s refusal to read the daily papers (he instead chose to scroll WhatsApp for daily poems and inspirational quotes sent to him by a mysterious friend named “Raj”). His blind-spot – “loyalty, and a pathological hatred of confrontation.” At times of immense stress, he withdrew, leaving the party directionless.

The scale of the betrayal laid out in Left Out is breath-taking. It starts with the usual suspects: disgruntled staffers holed up in Labour’s Southside HQ and renegade Blairite MPs plotting in remote farmhouses. But as the book progresses, disloyalty begins to infect Corbyn’s inner circle. One painful section recounts a clandestine meeting in a Costa Coffee between a senior Labour official and Tim Shipman, the political editor of the Sunday Times, just months before the December 2019 general election. The anonymous official handed over the resignation note of Andrew Fisher “to a hostile newspaper” in order to “exact maximum damage” on another colleague, Seamus Milne, for whom Fisher had reserved special criticism. Pogrund and Maguire gleefully detail Labour’s frantic scramble to identify the leaker, while all the while guarding the identity of their own source. It’s all a bit smug.

Elsewhere, we are reminded that journalists like Pogrund and Maguire played a less than passive role in Labour’s voyage into the political wilderness. Pogrund’s editor, Shipman, was handed a “well-briefed scoop” by the security services against Corbyn’s Labour. Colleagues at The Times published allegations by unnamed civil servants that the man himself was too frail to become prime minister, a seemingly baseless rumour that is reproduced in this book (albeit with a health warning attached). The authors’ readiness to seize upon tittle-tattle, however dubious, lets their book down. Left Out is far from a definitive text on the Corbyn experiment. But it is a decent first draft.

@mmcosmoi

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