In Depth

Five things we learned from new tell-all book on Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour leadership

From disastrous election polling to splits between old ‘comrades’ over anti-Semitism

Just five months after Jeremy Corbyn officially stepped down as Labour leader, a new book has revealed the conflicts - and chaos - within the party during his tenure at the top.

Written by The Times’ journalists Gabriel Pogrund and Patrick Maguire, Left Out: The Inside Story of Labour Under Corbyn describes the behind-the-scenes dramas of the Islington North MP’s four-year rule, which culminated in Labour’s worst election performance since 1935.

So what have we learned so far from extracts from the tell-all book, to be published next week?

Labour was warned of 2019 election disaster

On 22 September 2019, during Labour’s annual conference, shadow chancellor and close Corbyn ally John McDonnell attended a private meeting at which the party’s campaign strategists revealed disastrous polling results for the then upcoming December election.  

According to extracts from Left Out published in The Sunday Times, the YouGov survey findings “turned the optimism of Jeremy Corbyn’s inner circle on its head” and were “difficult to stomach”. Despite the shock success of the party’s performance in 2017, Corbyn’s inner election team were hit with predicted wins for just 138 of their MPs, which would equate to Labour’s worst result since 1918.

Ian Lavery, then-chair of the party, was also at the meeting and was reportedly “in no mood to listen”, shouting that “people in the North just won’t vote Tory” and accusing YouGov of being a “Tory firm”.

But despite Lavery’s scepticism, YouGov pollster Marcus Roberts would prove to be correct in his assessment of Corbyn’s chances, telling the BBC’s Today programme shortly before campaigning began that “the souffle never rises twice”. 

Corbyn ‘could not trust’ his closest allies

Despite the damning polling results, “many in the room still believed” Labour could triumph, arguing that “the election of 2017 had shattered the old certainties, and Corbyn was determined to do so again”, the book says.

But to do so would “require Corbyn to summon every drop of the energy” that months of Brexit drama and anti-Semitism scandals has “drained from him”, write Pogrund and Maguire.  And “those closest to him suspected he was in no state to do so”.

These fears grew during the campaign, as Corbyn began falling out with his “closest lieutenants”, whom he came to “barely trust”. 

“His detractors at Westminster often contended that he had no idea what he was doing,” the book says. “For once, the jibe was accurate - though not for want of trying on Corbyn’s part.

“Strategy for the campaign he was supposed to be leading had largely been decided - or, more accurately, disagreed on - in his absence.”

Deputy considered defecting

Under Corbyn’s leadership, the role of his deputy, Tom Watson, became increasingly untenable. 

As McDonnell was receiving the devastating poll results at the Labour conference in Brighton last September, hard-left members of the party were pushing a vote that almost abolished Watson’s position. The attempt to remove the veteran MP was “the end of the road”, according to the book, which claims that a “process of conscious uncoupling from Westminster was under way”. 

Liberal Democrat leader Jo Swinson, sniffing the opportunity to hit Labour hard, offered Watson the chance to defect and stand as her party’s candidate in the East Sussex constituency of Lewes. 

But after considering the proposal “for five minutes”, Watson decided instead that “politics was no longer fun. It was time to go.”

Corbyn did not attempt to hang on to his deputy, who stepped down as MP for West Bromwich East in November after more than 18 years in the seat. Instead, the Labour leader sent Watson a horseradish plant as a “peace offering”.

Split with McDonnell over anti-Semitism

Extracts from the new book in today’s The Times reveal that Corbyn and his shadow chancellor, McDonnell, were split over the handling of anti-Semitism allegations. 

In July 2018, long-standing Jewish Labour MP Margret Hodge was placed under investigation by the party after accusing Corbyn in the Commons of being “an anti-Semite and a racist” who was “making Labour a hostile environment for Jews to belong to”. 

The angry outburst followed the party’s decision not to adopt the full definition of anti-Semitism given by the International Holocaust Remembrance Association, an intergovernmental body of which the UK is a member.

Corbyn and McDonnell, “comrades” in politics for almost 40 years, found themselves at odds over the decision to investigate Hodges, write Pogrund and Maguire. Indeed, the rift was “the most profound breach” between Corbyn and his deputy “that they would ever experience”.

“At its heart, the dispute was political,” says the book. “Would Labour discipline a septuagenarian Jewish MP who had vented about racism, albeit aggressively, as it would any other member?” 

Corbyn backed the investigation. But McDonnell did not, fearing the optics of “jeopardising Labour’s standing for the sake of winning an argument with an elderly Jewish MP on a point of principle that was to most voters beyond arcane”.

Republican Corbyn bonded with the Sussexes

In an unlikely meeting of the minds, Corbyn and his wife, Mexican businesswoman Laura Alvarez, bonded with Prince Harry and Meghan Markle over the royal couple’s “treatment at the hands of the tabloid press”, says Left Out.

While attending the annual Commonwealth Day service at Westminster Abbey, Alvarez “slipped them” a collection of writings by 17th-century Mexican poet Juana Ines de la Cruz.

Alvarez “hoped Meghan might find a kindred spirit” in De la Cruz, a nun whose “willingness to attack the hypocrisies of the colonial classes had made her a target for Establishment hate”.

The following day, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex sent a personally signed note of “great thanks” to “Jeremy and Laura”, who had “privately offered sympathy” over their media battles.

“Such was Corbyn’s dislike of the press that it had even convinced him to moderate his lifelong republicanism,” claim Pogrund and Maguire.

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