X Close

How Labour became the party of dreamers — not doers Corbynism is a fusion of two very distinct types: the fools and the knaves

What are they thinking? Two books give some clues. Photo by Anthony Devlin/Getty Images

What are they thinking? Two books give some clues. Photo by Anthony Devlin/Getty Images

December 9, 2019   5 mins

To understand Corbynism, you have to understand Andrew Murray. Like so many in the Labour leader’s circle, Murray is an upper-class working-class hero. His extended family are not just socialist aristocracy but the real thing — indeed he was born Drummond-Murray — and were able to ease their cost of living pressures by selling the family Picasso to the Qataris for £50 million.

But like so many in the Labour leader’s circle, Murray is not actually Labour at all. Despite being a senior adviser to the party, and long-serving chief of staff to its union patron Len McCluskey, he actually spent 40 years as a Communist, only joining Labour when Corbyn became leader.

As Daniel Finkelstein recently pointed out in the Times, Murray is a man who views the collapse of the Soviet Union as “a historic setback for human progress”. Oliver Kamm has highlighted (among many other sins) his birthday tributes to Joseph Stalin. Under Murray’s leadership, the Stop the War Coalition championed North Korea as a put-upon victim of America’s “criminal” embargo. Murray, of course, took over as Stop the War’s chairman from his good friend Jeremy Corbyn.

The key to understanding Corbynism, in other words, is to realise that it is a fusion of two very different types. On the one hand, the fresh-faced young idealists, dreaming of a better world. On the other, the hard-boiled hatchet men of the hard Left, still fighting their dreary rearguard action against economic reality. If you were being unkind, you might call them the fools and the knaves.

It is a tension perfectly encapsulated by two newish books. The first is Economics for the Many, edited and introduced by John McDonnell. This collection of essays, published last year and updated for the election, is designed to show the bold new thinking being generated by the Corbynite movement, setting out blueprints for the radical transformation of finance, business, monetary policy and ultimately society.

The second, The Fall and Rise of the British Left, is by Murray himself. It tells the story of how Thatcher, and then Blair, drove the Left out of British politics — only for the twin disasters of the Iraq War and the financial crisis to bring it roaring back. The key, Murray argues, was not just Corbyn’s personal dedication to the cause, but a gradual shift from prioritising the demands of the white male working class to embracing the passions and grievances of a host of ethnicities and identities.

Despite my fears, this was actually an extremely pleasant book to read. Murray is a clever, engaging writer, with a nice turn of phrase — if a little too obsessed with the impact of this or that now-obscure pamphlet. He is also clearly aware that his book will be studied by hostile eyes, and takes great care not to give the Tories any sticks to beat Jeremy with.

As a result, what is utterly fascinating in this book is not what it contains, but what it omits. It is structured as, essentially, a history of the Labour Party, arguing that it is the only realistic vehicle for socialist advance. Yet it fails to mention that its author spent the greater part of his working life trying to supplant that party.

It explains that Stop the War decided to oppose imperialist oppression without taking a view on the merits of the oppressed. But it glosses over the fact that this devil’s bargain led the modern Left to support dictators, gay-killers and genocidaires in Iraq, Iran, Syria and beyond.

It dwells on the depredations of the Chicago School of economists in Chile, on the violent repression of the miners by Thatcher, on the suffering in Eastern Europe as those economies liberated from Soviet rule painfully adjusted to capitalism.

Yet nowhere — anywhere — does it mention what happened next in any of those countries: sustained economic growth and extraordinary human betterment. The embrace of the market by China, for example, is lamented for its impact on working-class incomes in Britain — not celebrated for lifting a billion people out of poverty, and putting more money in the pockets of China’s new customers all around the world.

The same blind spot afflicts Economics for the Many, though its authors are not quite so morally deficient.

One of the book’s strengths is that its contributors are, in the main, pretty good at diagnosing the economy’s flaws. As a result, while their solutions may be misguided, they are at least grappling with the right problems.

There are also several chapters here — though it would shock the authors — which contain much that free-marketeers could agree with. Grace Blakeley and Luke Raikes are good on the need to decentralise power and money from Whitehall, as is Nick Srnicek on the challenge to the market posed by digital platforms and their tendency towards monopoly.

Barry Gardiner’s chapter on Labour trade policy, similarly, not only admits that free trade is a good thing, but boasts that it was the Attlee Government that convinced the US to establish the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade. Indeed, it is some irony that both the WTO and Nato — so often reviled by those on the Left — can trace their parentage back to Saint Clem.

Yet two problems reoccur throughout the book. The first is that its authors consistently refuse to acknowledge any good that the market-based system has done, or to accept that socialism has ever had any flaws — with the signal exception of McDonnell’s (accurate) denunciation of the old top-down, centralised approach, which he contrasts with the new embrace of “radical localism”.

Like Murray, these writers are convinced that out of the crooked timber of capitalism, no straight thing can ever be made. The gurus they name-check are G.D.H. Cole and Eric Hobsbawm, not Adam Smith and David Ricardo.

The second problem is that so many of the proposed solutions take no account of market incentives, or even human nature. For example, they gloss over the way in which their programme of “democracy and decentralisation” would hand power to a thousand little commissars — the activists and union members who can actually bother to sit through the meetings.

Rather than trying out these ideas on a small scale and seeing whether they work — competition, you might almost call it — the economy, and those who contribute to it, must be wrenched into the appropriate shape.

Yet in reading this book, I ended up actually feeling rather encouraged.

When Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell captured the Labour leadership, I spent a painful few days trawling through the archive of their writings in the British Library. Compared to that sub-Marxist piffle, this new generation of Leftists are actually much more reality-based, erring in their well-meaning impracticality rather than a conviction of imminent class revolution.

It is also comforting that while Labour will likely remain a staunchly Corbynite party, it is the fools rather than the knaves who look like the surer bet for the future.

Murray’s political analysis is rooted in the thought of Marx and Lenin — like Corbyn, he is obsessed with “class unity” and “the imperial world order”. The ultimate irony is that thanks to both of their work, this week’s election may well mark the final point of severance between the British working class and its self-appointed tribunes — and cement Labour’s transformation into the party of the dreamers, not the doers.

Robert Colvile is Director of the Centre for Policy Studies think tank




Join the discussion

Join like minded readers that support our journalism by becoming a paid subscriber

To join the discussion in the comments, become a paid subscriber.

Join like minded readers that support our journalism, read unlimited articles and enjoy other subscriber-only benefits.

Notify of

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments