BOOK REVIEW: Left for Dead: The Strange Death and Rebirth of the Labour Party, Lewis Goodall, Collins, 2018 £20
This is a book which if I had read its author’s potted biography on the back flap first I probably wouldn’t have bought when I was in Waterstone’s last. But I was very attracted by the sticker on the cover which said ‘half price’ and so at £10 I bought a book about the Labour Party written by a millennial aged journalist working for Sky News. It turned out to be the last book I will read this year and found it very absorbing, mostly very perceptive, challenging and thankfully well written. Goodall, despite now being (perhaps professionally) politically neutral nevertheless has Labour sympathies, inculcated by his working class background. As he demonstrates class background matters less now in partisan politics.
He analyses a wide range of issues which contribute to the present condition of the Party and its future trajectory. He finds that what I would describe as Corbynmania (he doesn’t use the word) may not have contributed nearly as much to Labour’s ‘success’ in the 2017 general election as many commentators would have us believe. Close psephological analysis points more probably to an alliance of remainers looking for their best hope of buggering up Brexit. This produced what may turn out to be a one-off coalition of voters which benefited Labour, but which wasn’t based on any expectation that Labour would win. Goodall’s case is convincing, and if it turns out that he has over-stretched his argument it should still be paid heed to, not least by Labour’s strategists. It shakes up the apparent complacency that Corbyn was central to Labour’s surprise elevation in the polls. It also addresses a question I have been asking myself about the 2017 result. Why was it that Labour confounded expectations on the back of a late surge? Why was it that Corbyn’s qualities took so long for the electorate to warm to? It’s not as if he had been out of the news, that he was a totally unknown quantity before then. Indeed, given the splits in the party, widened by the behaviour of the vast majority of Labour MPs, Corbyn was in the news for mainly the wrong reasons. Labour’s recovery in 2017 has a tactical taste about it, and by the time of the next general election many tactical voters may be looking at other objectives. It’s a convincing argument.
I have two criticisms of the book. The first is purely about Goodall’s consideration of internal party dynamics. Internal party mechanics may not be of much interest to the reader – just like it is not necessary these days to worry oneself too much about how a car engine works – but as we’ve seen recently, if it breaks down it can have consequences bigger than the original fault. In his consideration of right/left factionalism in the Labour Party, Goodall does not mention the role of regional full-time party staff. Perhaps I have to say this as a former full-time organiser, but there are so many ways that the party’s ‘civil service’ acts as a faction in its own right and it deserves more attention. It is a very significant control mechanism and the question always is: on whose behalf?
This is important in the context of the Party’s disciplinary procedures and how they are exercised – and that in turn has been important in the context of the alleged ‘endemic’ anti-semitism in the Party. The allegation has been used to ‘show’ how Corbyn does not have a grip on the Party, or is unwilling to get a grip on an issue on which he is supposedly indifferent. All I will say on the regional full-time staff dimension of this issue is that it takes quite a long time for a Leader of the Party to turn things around. In the circumstance of Corbyn’s election as Leader, I suspect that many staff would have been deeply suspicious of him and of course Momentum. Was sabotage through inaction possible? Certainly, especially if staff took their lead from the PLP, whose 170+ members will have close ties to regional offices?
I don’t think Goodall has been as cool in his analysis of the anti-semitism row as he might have been and is in other parts of the book. He might have asked why this stuff blew up so volcanically after the 2017 election. The obvious answer is that Corbyn was transformed from a harmless joke to potential Prime Minister. I bet in his researches Goodall will have seen or at least read about Al Jazzera’s reporting on Israeli government anti-Corbyn subterfuge. Perhaps as a Sky journalist he couldn’t tip his hat to anything that emerges from Al-Jazzera, but a more rounded view is called for than an over reliance on Corbyn’s ememies to fill in the gaps on this particular row. Nor does Goodall consider to any extent the role of social media junk – where still no real mainstream media attempt is made to disentangle the likely dirty tricks campaigns from genuine anti-semitism in the Party. For example how many death threats e.g. against Jewish Labour MPs were actually sent by Party members? How many anti—semitic entryists are there? These are pertinent questions, not least after we learned of even state sponsored smears against Corbyn through the agency of the laughingly named ‘Integrity Initiative? (News of which will have appeared after Goodall's book went to press I imagine.)
Lastly, Goodall asks some very pertinent questions based on the experience of the failed socialist programme of Mitterand in France. Could the same fate await a reforming Corbyn government? Goodall reckons John McDonnell is aware of the threat (posed by the City) and is preparing for it, which is reassuring up to a point. But I suspect many of Corbyn’s supporters will have a different government than Mitterand's in mind when they consider what even in a hostile environment Labour could achieve. I do hope they remember that Attlee’s rebuilding of Britain was accompanied by strict rationing. That wouldn’t go down so well today, judging by e.g. the lack of social solidarity expressed by a cohort of 'typical' young people Goodall interviewed.
Goodall’s book is well worth reading for anyone (like myself) who would like to see a Corbyn-led government elected – and succeed. But it’ll take more than the cult of personality for that to happen. Just look at what happened to Cleggmania. Hubris has assassinated more politicians than bullets.