This book posits that the hard left plans to end democracy in Britain. Describing the aftermath of the 2015 Labour leadership election, Bower writes:
‘Commentators criticised Corbyn's ‘poverty of ambition’ for failing to win the political centre, but they misunderstood. As unwilling as ever to compromise, he planned to defeat the PLP, transform Labour into a genuinely Marxist party, and win sufficient electoral votes to become prime minister. Just the one victory would be enough. Thereafter, McDonnell boasted, their changes would be ‘irreversible’. [ … ] Just as Corbyn and McDonnell intended to revise the Labour Party's rules to permanently protect their coup from any challenge by social democrats, they would change the British constitution to cement their victory. The result of the second general election would be a foregone conclusion.’
This may seem like a paranoid conspiracy theory but, by telling Jeremy Corbyn's life story, Tom Bower tries to show that it isn't as paranoid as it sounds.
The book is a tabloid hatchet job, its nature given away by the large typeface. Throughout the book Bower regularly assumes the reader holds a number of conservative attitudes thereby potentially alienating readers who don't, probably the very ones he is most trying to convince, in whose minds those of the book's criticisms that are genuinely valid may be devalued. For example:
- People on benefits are described as ‘feckless’ and ‘work-shy’.
- The various Islamist terrorist atrocities that have occurred in Britain in recent years he blames on ‘Muslims’ rather than a tiny minority of fanatical islamists.
- Bower ridicules Islington council in the 1980s because it ‘outlawed use of the word ‘immigrant’ in its communications, banned Irish jokes and provided gym mats for lesbian self-defence courses.’
A particularly egregious example, which has been quoted in other reviews of the book, clearly associates immigrants with welfare scrounging and crime:
‘By 1998, new arrivals from Somalia, Pakistan and Bangladesh had packed into Islington North. Queues of migrants and asylum seekers at the Red Rose [a community centre containing Corbyn's constituency office] sought Corbyn’s help to obtain homes, welfare benefits, character references for bail, help to reduce their sentences after criminal convictions, and intercession to avoid deportation.’
Also somewhat repulsive is his frequent use of the word ‘loser’, as in:
- ‘Most of all he hated the rich and successful and identified with losers.’
- ‘Here was a cause that suited his ‘loser’ personality – he would fight for the downtrodden against their oppressors.’
- ‘As an enemy of aspiration, he championed losers.’
- ‘In front of him sat a broad coalition of public sector employees, minority groups, and then the victims – those dependent on welfare payments, protesters, Marxists in search of authentic socialism, and losers.’
Apart from that the book appears to be well researched and well argued, though I am not in a position to judge the factual accuracy of most of the stories it contains.
Bower's insights into Corbyn can be boiled down to the following statements:
- He's a bit dim.
- He's very scruffy.
- He's hopeless with money.
- He's a completely orthodox member of the hard left.
- Though not very good looking he's had a surprisingly large number of very attractive wives and girlfriends.
- He has always been polite even towards political enemies. Consequently he has alienated fewer people than have most others on the hard left.
The book describes the events of Corbyn's life in chronological order focussing particularly on episodes that Bower claims Corbyn has tried to hide.
The first interesting fact is that he didn't do very well at school and didn't go to university. Well there's nothing wrong with that. Another is that he has
‘ … a deep interest in Britain’s manhole covers, especially their dates of manufacture: ‘My mother always said there’s history in drain covers. So most people think I’m completely mad if they see me taking a picture of a drain cover, but there we are.’’
His parents were well off but left-wing so he probably acquired his political views during his upbringing. Corbyn said in a speech in 2016 that his mother was present at the famous ‘Battle of Cable Street’ in 1936 when protesters repelled a march through the East End of London by Mosley’s Blackshirts. Bower says:
‘Those who later met his parents have cast considerable doubt on this claim.’
After leaving school aged 18 he spent nearly two years in Jamaica working for VSO. Despite later claims that he worked in a deprived area in fact he taught (not very well, according to Bower) at an elite grammar school whose pupils came from the upper echelons of society.
According to Bower witnesses testify that in Jamaica Corbyn was clean shaven and therefore couldn't have acquired the nickname ‘Mr Beardman’ as he was later to claim.
Half way through the second year of his two-year VSO contract he bunked off and went travelling around the Caribbean and parts of South America, an action at least one of his colleagues thought was ‘unprofessional’. This may have been the root of his long-standing interest in South American liberation movements.
On his return to Britain he enrolled at the Polytechnic of North London to study trade unionism but ‘barely entered the building before he abandoned the course’.
He then got his first job as an assistant in the research department of the National Union of Tailors and Garment Workers. Bower says Corbyn later exaggerated his role at the union, claiming to have fought for members rights against unscrupulous employers, though he was only a research assistant and his boss at the time remembers no such heroics.
In late 1973 he resigned from the tailors' union, because it moved its headquarters out of London, and became a researcher at the AUEW.
In 1974 he got married and he and his wife were both elected as councillors in the London borough of Haringey.
This is where the story starts to trigger waves of (the opposite of) nostalgia. People who lived through the 1970s often look back on it fondly as a time of glamour and bright colours exemplified by Ziggy Stardust, George Best and the transition from black-and-white to colour television. But if they are honest they will admit that any such glamour was firstly rare and secondly a reaction against the general grimness of everything else, such as The Winter of Discontent, The British Disease, The Three-Day Week, 25% inflation, shortages, power cuts, the IMF bailout and the Irish Troubles, not to mention Bernard Manning, Slater-Walker, Love Thy Neighbour, the avocado bathroom suite and the Austin Allegro. Bower says:
‘No one much under sixty can recall the industrial anarchy orchestrated by communist conspirators in Britain during the 1960s and 1970s. Only the far left looks back on that era with any nostalgia.’
Left wing militancy was, however, only half of the cause of Britain's industrial decline in the 1970s. The bosses were crap too but that's another story.
Those too young to remember life before the fall of the Soviet Union tend not to realise that many people in the West, especially in what was then called ‘the chattering classes’ and is now called ‘the metropolitan liberal elite’, expected that a Marxist revolution was imminent and that a significant minority actively worked to bring it about. In the book's preface Bower describes how, in 1969, as a young student revolutionary nicknamed ‘Tommy the Red’, he participated in an occupation of the LSE which, to make sure we all know, he tells us was ‘the country’s best law faculty at the time’.
‘Throughout that first night of occupation, hundreds of LSE students crowded into the Old Theatre to debate the prospects of a Marxist revolution in Britain. Led by American graduates from Berkeley, where the student revolt against the Vietnam War had started five years before, and with speeches from French and German students, battle-scarred from 1968 street fights in Paris and Berlin, LSE's Marxists and Trotskyists (there were many) told us we were the vanguard of a worldwide revolution – which would begin with the students, and the workers would follow. We believed it.’
‘… more and more communists were elected as Labour MPs. Their object was to use the democratic machinery of Labour to undermine democracy. The result was toxic. ’
According to Bower, John McDonnell was a member of this group. The organisation Momentum, which was formed immediately after Corbyn was nominated as a candidate in the 2015 Labour leadership contest, has been described by some as a resurgence of Militant within the Labour Party—an example of history repeating itself, though whether it's the tragedy or the farce is not yet apparent.
During Corbyn's time at Haringey Council it became an exemplar of so-called ‘Loony Left’ excesses. The Council's ruling Labour group, of which Corbyn and his wife were a part, mismanaged council resources, increased the rates, delivered poor service and tolerated widespread corruption, though Bower does not suggest that either of the Corbyns were ever involved in corruption.
According to Bower, Corbyn also managed to fit in ‘occasional trips to the AUEW's office to justify his salary’. Unsurprisingly in 1975 the AUEW fired him because his research was judged unacceptable, though he would later claim to have been a victim of a ‘clearout of leftists’.
He then got a job at NUPE as an organiser representing low-paid ILEA workers in Barnet and Bromley. This was more suited to his strengths, which were in organising and campaigning, than was the role of a researcher. He turned out to be very good at it and was soon recognised as an outstanding recruiter of new members and organiser of strikes. He quickly won popularity with the union’s five hundred dinner ladies, but:
‘… he had nothing in common with the macho Cockney dustmen swearing over their pints down the local. In an attempt to win their acceptance he renamed himself ‘Jerry’ – no dustman would bond with a Jeremy’
Following the 1978 council elections Corbyn's wife was made Chair of Housing while he became the Chair of the Public Works Committee, despite also being an official of the union that represented the workers whose employer he now was. He
‘ … once again set about hiring more workers, doubling the size of the direct labour workforce and increasing their wages’.
‘Among the 4,500 additional employees were two ‘anti-nuclear officers’, charged with ‘promoting peace’ in the borough.’
Interestingly today the London Borough of Haringey Council, though still Labour run, appears to have gone to the opposite extreme and is accused of trying to sell off its social housing to property developers.
A surprising fact about this forgotten world is that some household names who are now regarded as sensible members of the moderate left, such as Margaret Hodge, were in fact part of that whole crazy scene:
‘Under Margaret Hodge, the council leader between 1982 and 1992, the People’s Republic of Islington boasted a red flag fluttering above the town hall, and a bust of Lenin proudly placed inside the building. Ideological battles took precedence over care for the residents.’
In 1980 Corbyn, along with Ken Livingstone, Ted Knight, Bernie Grant and Keith Veness, an activist who doesn't yet have his own Wikipedia article, set up an organisation called London Labour Briefing:
‘Their aim was to deselect moderate Labour councillors and take over constituency parties, which would vote for Tony Benn as Labour leader when Jim Callaghan, as was expected, resigned’
‘Across the capital, at least twenty moderates had been deselected, and 130 Labour councillors had stepped down rather than face humiliation.’
Unexpectedly in 1981 the sitting MP for Islington North switched his support from Labour to the SDP and most of the constituency’s moderates joined him in defecting, giving the left an advantage. In the contest to choose a new Labour candidate Corbyn beat Paul Boateng by four votes. In the 1983 general election, despite the Tories winning a landslide nationally, Corbyn won the Islington North seat with a majority of 5,607.
As an MP:
‘Corbyn never issued press releases about local issues. His frequent publicity flyers were about Palestine, Ireland, Western Sahara (occupied by Morocco since 1974) or Nicaragua.’
‘‘Smash the Tory state!’ he would yell into his megaphone on endless marches through Islington, blaming American imperialism for his constituents' ills and, with clenched fist, praising Fidel Castro and Daniel Ortega, the leader of the Nicaraguan Sandinistas, for showing the road to socialism.’
The chief executive of Islington Council said that
‘Jeremy [ … ] is not interested in improving local services or performance. He’s not even interested in the latest district auditor’s report about the lack of street cleaning. He never asks for the plans to sort out the mess. He’s only interested in South American liberation groups.’
Bower then adds:
‘There was one exception to this lack of interest. Whenever a council employee was threatened with dismissal for incompetence or dishonesty, Corbyn intervened to protect them.’
Corbyn spent the next 32 years as a member of a small isolated clique of hard left Labour MPs who were continually at odds with the mainstream of their party. Nothing interesting happened during this period. It might have stayed that way but for an unlikely combination of circumstances. These were:
- In the 2010 Labour leadership contest a number of moderate MPs, in the name of fairness and diversity, helped Diane Abbott secure enough nominations to get on the ballot. This set a precedent that ‘all wings of the party’ ought to be ‘represented’ in leadership elections.
- During his term as leader Ed Miliband introduced new rules to make the party more ‘democratic’. These included the introduction of one member one vote and allowing any member of the public to become a full member of the party for £3.
- Socio-economic and technological changes over the previous few decades had resulted in rising income inequality, job insecurity and the first generation of young people predicted to be worse off than their parents.
- In the post-war period the supply of housing had not kept up with accelerating demand so that by the end of the 20th Century even ‘average’ houses were becoming increasingly unaffordable for all but the most well off.
- The Conservative Lib-Dem coalition elected in 2010 increased university tuition fees by a factor of three, thereby creating a large group of angry young middle class voters resentful at being saddled with even more student debt in addition to the above mentioned job insecurity and unlikelihood of ever being able to afford their own home.
- Labour moderates had been tarnished by their association with Tony Blair, who had become a hate figure because of his decision in 2003 to take the UK into the Iraq war and whose government it was that in 1998 first brought in tuition fees.
To Ed Miliband's surprise Cameron won the 2015 general election. Miliband resigned and the hard left put forward Corbyn as their candidate. In accordance with the precedent set in 2010 several moderates helped him obtain enough signatures to get on the ballot. They later regretted doing so.
Corbyn and McDonnell often say in media interviews that they took it in turns to be the hard left candidate, and 2015 happened to be Corbyn's turn:
‘‘All right, all right, I’ll do it,’ he had supposedly told his colleague.’
But in reality McDonnell was a non-starter due to his many enemies and fearsome reputation. One union leader regarded him as ‘a duplicitous bastard’ who ‘would sacrifice any principles for power’, while a moderate Labour MP thought he would have ‘no problem signing death warrants for people he disliked’. Diane Abbott later said at a public meeting:
‘‘John McDonnell has done his best to transform himself into a friendly, bank manager-type figure, which, if you know John McDonnell as well as I do, is … interesting.’ She and the audience laughed knowingly.’
Following Corbyn's nomination, Jon Lansman, a ‘Cambridge-educated ally of Tony Benn’, formed an organisation called Momentum, which used social media to marshal thousands of youthful idealists, rightly dissatisfied with the hand they had been dealt, mainly middle class university students for whom the huge increase in tuition fees had been the last straw, to join Labour and vote for Corbyn. Bower describes Lansman as follows:
‘Steeped in Leninism, he presented himself as an agent provocateur in the vanguard of the class struggle to transform Labour into a revolutionary party.’
Six weeks before the election, bookies were making Corbyn the favourite to win. Once his victory had occurred the hard left acted quickly to gain control of the party by purging moderates.
‘Undisguised Marxists had already arrived in Brighton to distribute leaflets demanding the ‘intimidation’ of Blairites, the ‘reselection’ of MPs, and, targeting one individual, the expulsion of Peter Mandelson as a ‘traitor’.’
Owen Jones argued in a Guardian article that the forcing out of moderates from the Labour Party is ‘what’s known as democracy’. To say that, however, is to mangle logic. A political party is a group of people who share a common political philosophy. If people with a different philosophy join in large enough numbers to form a majority, call the adherents of the old philosophy ‘traitors’ to the new philosophy and expel them, then that is not what most people would call democracy. Most people would say they should set up their own party. That way everyone would know exactly who they were and what they stood for. By taking over an established party they are passing one thing off as another.
I'm not an expert on the history of the Labour Party but I don't think it was ever Marxist.
Once Corbyn had become leader, few people thought he would be there long. The Tories were delighted at the thought that Labour was now unelectable. Labour moderates tried to organise a coup.
Bower has a low opinion of most of the politicians who have opposed Corbyn. The first MP to challenge him after he became leader, Angela Eagle, has an ‘unengaging personality and modest intellect’. The contenders in the 2015 Labour leadership election; Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall, are described as ‘lacklustre performers, unable to escape their pedestrian pasts’ and as ‘lacking imagination’. Burnham is described as having a ‘monosyllabic style and colourless timidity’ and Cooper as ‘incapable of making a decision’.
Another section that may alienate the very readers Bower most wants to persuade is his discussion of the Grenfell Tower disaster. In attempting to counter the left's weaponisation of the disaster he goes too far the other way. He seems to be trying to compensate for the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea Council's failure to defend itself in the court of public opinion by defending it himself. Some of what he writes could be interpreted as disparaging the victims, if not actually blaming them, for example where he says: ‘ … the flames had taken hold because of a delay in calling the fire brigade’.
It is possible, though unlikely, that when the public inquiry is finished RBK&CC may emerge less vilified than it currently is. Who knows? But it would have been better to have avoided the blame game altogether and concentrated on how the left has cynically exploited the disaster, which it certainly has.
What is certain is that Theresa May handled the disaster very badly. While Corbyn was filmed hugging people outside the burning building, her awkward socially inept behaviour gave the impression that she didn't care, even though it is quite possible to believe that she actually cared more about the victims than he did. Bower describes her as someone ‘without noticeable intellect, emotional intelligence or charisma’ who ‘clearly lacked the imagination and character required of a successful leader’.
This brings the story up to almost the present. There's no point in describing what happened next because I'm sure you all know.
The book ends with a quote from The Ballad of Reading Gaol, which, apparently, is Corbyn's favourite poem. Bower doubts that he has ever read it, and then adds: ‘Wilde himself was no believer in socialism’. Anyone who has read ‘The Soul of Man under Socialism’ will know that he did at least claim to believe in it, though I don’t think he understood what it is.
In the book's preface Bower describes meeting up with his old Marxist friends from 1969:
‘After fifty years they had changed a good deal physically, but not in their core beliefs. Pertinently, they all genuinely sensed that their Marxist dream would finally come true, delivered by Jeremy Corbyn.’
The question is not what a hard left government would do when in power, it is whether they would ever voluntarily give it up. To cement their permanency in office they would not need to do anything explicitly undemocratic, such as abolishing elections. There are plenty of examples from around the world of autocratic regimes staying in power indefinitely while displaying a veneer of apparent democracy, not least that of Corbyn's hero Hugo Chávez and his successor. The usual method is to appoint loyal placemen to positions of power in the media, the judiciary, the civil service and the military, and then rig elections. The fact that Corbyn & Co are still there after a general election defeat, which they have portrayed as a victory, shows they have not yet deviated from the Chávez playbook.
It is well known that in his youth John McDonnell briefly trained to be a Catholic priest but no one seems to have remarked on the similarities between Marxism and Catholicism: Both have the concepts of orthodoxy and heresy, a bearded founder who inspires devotion among his followers, a Holy Book and a leadership that claims infallibility.
The trouble is, Labour seems to be the only party with any ideas. If their nationalisation programme were limited to just water and railways then I don't think anyone would mind. Even Roger Scruton ‘confessed that he was ‘tempted by the idea of renationalising the railways – they seem to run quite well in places that they’re nationalised’’, and even the Financial Times (article paywalled) takes a dim view of the behaviour of Britain's water industry. Similarly with Labour's ideas on industrial democracy. Bower claims that this amounts to the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’, but having a few workers on boards is more like the way they do things in Germany, and their industrial performance is a lot better than ours.
Ultimately, the idea that a Labour victory would lead to the end of democracy is a conspiracy theory. To believe it you need to discount their public pronouncements and assume they are planning something different behind the scenes, the only evidence for which consists of selectively chosen anecdotes that can be interpreted in multiple ways. Anyway, a Chávez-style revolution would (hopefully) be much harder to pull off in the UK than it was in Venezuela.
In the interests of fairness, I suggest Bower should do a similar hatchet job on Boris Johnson.
© Copyright 2019 Howard J. Rudd all rights reserved.