Reading Owen Jones’s account of the Corbynite Labour movement, one image in particular stuck in my mind: it is of a young child in a classroom letting off a stink bomb.
As the first malodorous waves reach his nose, and the nostrils of those around him, the perpetrator suddenly panics. The stench is far more toxic and powerful than he had expected, and as the scale of the nasal assault becomes obvious the child attempts to transform himself from culprit to observer, even eyeing up the opportunity to move, in due course, to victim. So it is with Owen Jones’s This Land, a turgid and strangely dull account of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour party.
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You might have thought that Jones would be well placed to perform the task. Jones was an early cheerleader for Corbyn, campaigned for him, spoke at his rallies, advised him, served as his most prominent mainstream media defender and was otherwise central to the whole movement.
Sure, that move meant transgressing the boundaries of journalism and political activism, but this was a move already mastered by Jones’s comrade Russell Brand. When Brand was pinned down on any of his political pronouncements he would say “I’m just a comedian”. Yet his political pronouncements were only ever taken seriously (to the extent they were) because the stage was given to him as an entertainer.
Similarly, when Jones organises protests outside the offices of papers of which he disapproves and speaks at rallies for his preferred far-left candidates he clearly does so as a political activist. Yet whenever it gets too much for him he slips back into pretending (as he does here) that he is merely a writer, with a dispassionate eye and a judicious historian’s pen.
Perhaps it was inevitable that once the fumes of the Corbyn experiment surrounded him and then (thanks only to the British electorate) dissipated, Jones should try to get away with a book pretending that he was only really an observer of this movement. The desire to get away from the scene of the offence is understandable; what is unforgivable is that the results are so slyly dishonest.
For example, in the chapter on the anti-Semitism controversy Jones is conscious of the tightrope he must walk — trying not to condone the open anti-Semites in Corbyn’s movement, but at the same time trying to defend his hero from the most serious accusations. Jones can only do this by re-writing or editing out parts of the story, including his own.
So while he is willing to address and condemn some of the more minor cases of anti-Semitism in the party he at no stage contends with the most serious accusations against Corbyn. There is, for instance, simply no mention of Corbyn’s campaign for and support of Samar Alami and Jawad Botmeh, two people imprisoned for bombing the offices of a number of Jewish charities in London. To raise such a thing would mean having to excuse it, condemn it or contend with it. Jones can bring himself to do none of these things.
It is the same with the wreath-laying at the graves of the Munich Olympic terrorists. Jones writes that in 2014 “Corbyn had taken part in a ceremony commemorating the innocent victims of a 1985 Israeli air strike, during which wreaths had been laid for the Palestinians accused of taking part in the terror atrocity at the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich”. This is characteristically dishonest. First Jones drops in (and mis-portrays) an Israeli action; then he suggests that anybody might find themselves laying a wreath either at or near the graves of such terrorists; and finally there is that little sleight “accused of taking part”.
What Jones does not mention in his own role in this controversy. For in 2018, when the Tunisia wreath-laying photos broke, Jones was still the most prominent mainstream media defender of everything Corbyn did. While fighting to defend his hero Jones tried to minimise the incident, proclaiming on social media “No one has [presumably he meant ‘was’] killed by a wreath.”
Perhaps Jones the would-be historian is embarrassed by this statement — but in avoiding his own embarrassment he also avoids the job any honest writer would perform. For in precisely such moments lie the problem. In pursuit of their dream of getting a socialist into Downing Street people like Jones were consistently willing to degrade themselves, defame others and otherwise lose any moral sense they still possessed.
There is a rich seam of thought to explore here, but Jones is neither a good enough writer nor an honest enough thinker to perform the task. Perhaps he thinks that both he and the revolution have many more acts left in them — so we read pabulum like the idea that the anti-Semitism crisis could have been lessened if Corbyn had been more willing to “embrace people”.
Elsewhere you get the feeling that Jones wrote his book on social-justice auto-pilot. At the outset we read that his only desire as a writer is “to support struggles against injustice” and that as such it is his duty to provide “a clear-eyed assessment of the many failures and mistakes of the Corbyn era”. His book does no such thing. The introduction — in which Covid is uneasily squeezed in — concludes with an insistence that “We can build a world free of injustice, oppression, exploitation, bigotry, racism and violence”. But “if our time is to come, then we must learn from our past”. There is no evidence that Jones is able to rise to his own tract-like aspirations.
And if writing is indeed where this wounded revolutionary seeks to berth for a while then he should work harder at his art. Throughout his book no cliché goes undeployed. When any victory approaches Corbyn “hurtles” towards it. When Corbyn does well it is because “he came out swinging”. People who Jones likes are “a force of nature”. The Labour MP Andrew Gwynne is “an absolute hero” (for an appearance on the Today programme). By contrast a Liberal Democrat leader is “dropping clangers left, right and centre”. Under the Conservative Government youth services are “butchered”.
Best is when Jones has to mention someone he cannot stand and is briefly torn between his aspiration to be a chronicler and his urge to engage in the sort of drive-by that really motivates him. Every time the lower urge wins out: Chuka Umunna and other Labour moderates get a swipe every time they appear, but it is Boris Johnson who get the most characteristic, and repetitive, attacks.
On page 260 we can read that Boris Johnson is “untrustworthy, with a record of dishonesty and lies, and a history of racism, homophobia and bigotry”. Three pages later we get to read of Johnson again that “his record of overt homophobic, Islamophobic and generally racist behaviour was unparalleled for a modern British politician of his prominence”. Later still we can read that Johnson has “a history of whipping up bigotry against minorities ranging from Muslims to gay people”.
Meantime the party which Johnson leads is accused of having “carried out what seemed like a systematic programme of deportation from the UK” over the last decade. It is as though Jones cannot understand why his denunciatory incantations do not seem to have their desired effect. A serious thinker might come to one conclusion; Jones appears to believe that it is because he has not repeated himself enough.
As we go through unimportant policy debates between forgettable people in Corbyn’s office there are lacklustre attempts to turn all this into a thrilling narrative. Jones’s stabs at reportage are occasionally enlivened by colour such as this: one interviewee “stirs a cappuccino in a theatre café on London’s South Bank”. Someone else smokes an e-cigarette. We get exclusive interviews with figures as exciting as Andrew Murray and Len McLuskey.
Elsewhere Jones attempts to whip along his narrative (Corbyn runs for leader, Corbyn is challenged from within, Brexit, 2017, 2019 etc) with cliff-hanger chapter endings. So as each chapter closes we are alerted to things that have not happened yet but are about to happen despite the main characters not knowing that they are about to happen, because they have not happened yet. Jones deploys this same technique last used by James Mcintyre and Mehdi Hasan in their truly thrilling 2011 biography of Ed Miliband, Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour leader.
By the conclusion (more Covid shoehorned in) Jones is back to pamphleteer mode. He writes: “History will undoubtedly be far kinder to the reluctant Labour leader than the judgement that currently prevails.” Perhaps Jones is confident of this because he believes that he has written the history. He hasn’t. He has written a non-tell-all, designed to get himself away from the scene of a stench he was instrumental in unleashing. Perhaps he will get away with it — but we must hope not.