By James Moules
ASK anyone to name a journalist or commentator associated with the Corbyn movement. Few would neglect to mention Owen Jones.
It makes perfect sense, then, that Jones should be the one to offer the insider’s account of the veteran socialist’s unlikely rise to and catastrophic fall from the Labour leadership.
It would also be reasonable for a sceptic to pick up this book with trepidation, assuming that it will be too soft on Corbyn and make excuses for the failures of his corps.
But in ‘This Land: The Story of a Movement’, Jones sets off straight away by declaring his intention to challenge two narratives around Corbynism.
The first is that of liberals – the idea that Corbyn was doomed to fail from the get-go, that he enabled Brexit, was ideologically extreme and that he was unsuited to office. The other, that of Corbyn’s own side – that the man was simply the victim of relentless smears from all sides and that he himself did no wrong.
Where it all started
In the wake of the electoral battering Labour took in 2015, the leader Ed Miliband turned in his resignation and triggered the contest to find his successor.
Despite barely scraping enough MP nominations to make it onto the ballot, longtime left wing backbencher Jeremy Corbyn struck a chord with voters and soared to a landslide victory – much to the dismay of the party establishment.
Anyone active on the British left in 2015 will remember the tangible energy and optimism back then – and this is something Jones captures well in the earlier chapters of his book.
He was, of course, one of Corbyn’s key cheerleaders, and he brings 2015 to life so vividly one could almost be forgiven for thinking he wrote it in real time.
But it’s at that point too that Jones shows us the view behind the stage curtain.
The book’s third chapter – titled ‘It’s Gonna Be Brutal: The War Within’ – details the depths of hostility to the Corbyn project from inside his own party.
The most obvious example of this, of course, was the abortive leadership challenge from Owen Smith in 2016 following the Brexit referendum. But this is just on the surface level.
Jones also details the horrifying levels of vitriol from other Labour MPs and members of staff.
But he does not absolve his own side at all. The following chapter is titled ‘Dysfunction’ – and the pages deliver on the promise of the title. It is here that he introduces many of the key figures of Corbyn’s inner circle.
Throughout the book, he gives a damning account – with anecdote after anecdote – of how woefully unprepared many of the top team were for the task of running a party political leader’s office. Jones never resorts to nastiness in his analysis, but pulls no punches at the same time.
The ‘Interwar’ Period
Between the Remain camp’s loss in the Brexit referendum and the 2017 surge, Corbyn’s leadership was on life support. Jones himself is open about his increasing disillusionment with the leader during this time – a point that irked many hardliners on the left.
In February 2017, a by-election was held in the long-time Labour seat of Copeland (in England’s northwestern-most county of Cumbria). Devastation ensued – the Conservatives gained the seat in what was the first by-election gain by a governing party since 1982.
If Jones did a good job of capturing the left wing joy in late 2015, then he equally excelled at bringing back the despair of early 2017.
This was, of course, a despair that would turn back into jubilation with head-spinning speed with the shock result of the 2017 general election.
In an election hubristically called by Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May shortly before the start of Brexit negotiations, Labour looked certain to be annihilated. But against almost all respected forecasts, Corbyn led the Labour Party to its first net gain in seats since 1997, while May cost the Tories their parliamentary majority.
But Jones refuses to let himself get carried away with the triumph, noting: “Amid the jubilation, few noticed – or wanted to notice – some uncomfortable signs.”
He was, of course, referencing the inroads that the Tories were making in northern leave-voting Labour constituencies. And even a casual observer of UK politics will know what happened next.
Where it all went wrong
The twilight months of Corbyn’s leadership were ugly and bitter, no matter where you were sitting or watching it from.
The leader became beleaguered with crisis after crisis, with mounting hostility on all sides.
In the latter half of his book, Jones examines the factors that led to the catastrophe of the 2019 election, devoting individual chapters to two of the most notable – Brexit and anti-Semitism.
And then that dark December election rolled around – a campaign that was as bleak and grim in its atmosphere as its place in the calendar would suggest.
Weighed down by all the scandals and a severely lacklustre campaign, Labour endured its worst defeat since 1935.
Jones’ book offers an engaging first person account of what it was like to watch the Corbyn years unfold from inside the tent.
The immediacy of his narrative makes it all the more compelling, and anyone who was on board with the Corbyn project will be all too familiar with the emotional highs and lows he describes.
Ultimately it is a fair assessment of what went wrong. It successfully challenges the polarised narratives of both the pro and anti-Corbyn camps – while seldom making any excuses.
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