The decline and fall of Jeremy Corbyn is one of the more riveting stories in modern British political history. Half a century ago, Corbyn went into politics to protest against the injustices of the world, in between tending to his vegetable allotment. He became leader of the Labour party in 2015 almost by accident, surfing a wave of anti-austerity politics from young left-wingers and older radicals marginalised since the 1980s.
The account in Left Out of what happened next is told with panache and pace by journalists Gabriel Pogrund and Patrick Maguire. The narrative begins with the hubris of the general election of 2017 — when Labour made surprise gains — and ends with the collapse of the Corbyn era in last December’s epic election defeat. To mangle the words of Corbyn’s hero Karl Marx, it is a history replete with tragedy and farce, giving an inside-the-room feeling of the final months of “The Project”.
It also reads as the latest proof that Corbyn — always happiest shouting passionately from a podium — was out of his depth in the impenetrable hall of mirrors that was Brexit. Take one anecdote involving a meeting in Madrid with António Costa, the socialist Portuguese prime minister. Corbyn lavishes praise on a baffled Costa — having confused him with Alberto Costa, a Tory MP who had just written a Commons amendment supporting EU citizens’ rights.
Some Corbynistas have complained about certain stories in the book — look up the social media row over “oatcakegate” — but their concerns are misplaced. Far from being a hatchet job, Left Out is arguably the most generous insight yet written into “LOTO” — the leader of the opposition’s office — during the Corbyn years. (Ironic, perhaps, that Pogrund and Maguire work for the Sunday Times and The Times, respectively, both owned by that bogeyman of the hard left, Rupert Murdoch.)
Figures such as Karie Murphy — Corbyn’s chief of staff who was feared and loathed by many MPs and some staff — are finally heard on the record. And in this version of events, we are told that Murphy fought hard for a much tougher response to anti-Semitism in the Labour party from its leader.
Tensions in Corbyn’s top team are relayed via bitchy fragments of exchanges, rows and a fly-on-the-wall sense of place and time. There is a detailed account, for example, of the summer of 2018 when Corbyn fell out with John McDonnell — shadow chancellor and his political soulmate — over the anti-Semitism row. The pair barely spoke for months. Weirder stories include that of Laura Alvarez, Corbyn’s wife, presenting a book of 17th-century Mexican poetry to Meghan Markle.
Gossip aside, Left Out delivers a piercing analysis of the pressures on Labour’s leadership as the party broke on the rocks of Brexit. Under pressure from Europhile members, Labour lurched from acceptance of the 2016 EU referendum result to pushing for a re-run of the vote — a decision which crucified the party in its former strongholds in northern England. By this point Corbyn seems exhausted, crabby, rudderless.
In the Corbyn era, the Labour party swelled to more than half a million members. The key protagonists in this story had hoped to be running Britain by now. Instead almost all are Westminster outcasts. Keir Starmer, the new leader, has boasted that Labour is “under new management”.
Starmer is something of a fringe figure in Left Out, with the then shadow Brexit secretary dangling one foot in the Corbyn project and one firmly out of it. There are only a few clues in its pages as to what the new leader will do next.
Senior shadow cabinet members such as Diane Abbott, shadow home secretary, are dismissed almost as peripheral figures. One minute McDonnell is cast as politically powerless, the next he is defenestrating the seemingly all-powerful Murphy. Meanwhile critical MPs such as Tom Watson and Chris Leslie are given an unsympathetic treatment.
Some enemies of The Project might argue that the authors should have been more critical of Corbyn himself. They portray him as a dithering, impotent and reluctant leader rather than a dangerous radical. Perhaps. But there is no shortage elsewhere of hostile coverage of Corbyn’s doomed adventure. As a deeply reported account of recent history when the hard left had control of the largest political party in western Europe, Left Out is a fine contribution.
Left Out: The Inside Story of Labour Under Corbyn, by Gabriel Pogrund and Patrick Maguire, Bodley Head, RRP£18.99, 376 pages
Join our online book group on Facebook at FT Books Café