Left Out by Gabriel Pogrund and Patrick Maguire benefited from there being no shortage of odd, dull-witted and downright shitty behaviour from Labour officials and elected representatives over the last few years. Covering such a leak-prone period of the party could have been a challenging endeavour, and you might think there can’t possibly be more to reveal. But the time between Labour’s 2017 better-than-expected general election performance and Keir Starmer taking the helm provides plenty of material.
As editor of LabourList, following the minutiae of Labour politics since February 2018, much of the book is simply a reminder of many frustrating decisions made and reported in agony. But some of the details are new. According to staffer sources, Iain McNicol as general secretary “was averse to using his computer” and the karate black belt “regularly used his training to turn light switches on and off with his feet”. Ian Lavery, the party’s chair, apparently believed that YouGov polling could not be trusted when predicting the ‘Red Wall’ collapse because it was a “Tory firm” (founded by Tory MP Nadhim Zahawi and a Conservative pollster).
Ian Murray – now a shadow cabinet member – was originally one of the ‘Independent Group’ quitters, and pulled out so close to their departure that he had a speech ready. A similar irony is to be found in policy head Andrew Fisher reportedly having pushed for Nick Thomas-Symonds, Anneliese Dodds, David Lammy, Rachel Reeves, Ed Miliband and Alison McGovern to join the frontbench. The advice was not taken up under Corbyn, but those promotions were made by Starmer earlier this year.
Everyone familiar with the Labour rumour mill has heard the story of David Prescott, son of John and a LOTO (leader’s office) staffer, allegedly pooing on the kitchen floor of a woman who refused to have sex with him in the ’90s – a disputed claim. They’ll also know that a Labour MP, who has never wanted to be named publicly, raised a complaint with Corbyn alleging that Prescott had made unwanted sexual advances towards her in 2014. (He denies that this took place and LabourList understands that no witness could corroborate the accusations against him.) His selection bid in Mansfield was backed by LOTO anyway. To have this chain of events set out before you is quite something, even when you’re aware of all the components. And then there are phrases like “they’re saying the Jews have got to you”, reportedly said by one LOTO aide to Emily Thornberry, which are gut-wrenching.
The approach taken to writing this book should be noted because it has a great impact on the story told. The style is dissimilar to, for example, David Kogan’s 2019 Protest and Power, which reads like a TV documentary in that it builds a narrative by deftly stitching together on-the-record interviews. Left Out’s authors don’t allow interviewees to take responsibility for recounting events accurately but prefer to tell the story themselves. This means we can’t judge as readers whether we trust their sources. The choice has already led to some controversies.
There was the ‘oatcake’ saga, which portrayed Corbyn’s wife Laura Alvarez negatively and had Labour Twitter scrutinising footage from the campaign day. A tweet from ITV – denying that they edited out the scene described in the book from their footage, as claimed – led to the Times online extract being amended. A later passage alleges that Corbyn met Antonio Costa and assumed that the Portuguese Prime Minister had tabled an EU citizens’ rights amendment in Westminster that was in fact put forward by Tory MP Alberto Costa. I didn’t find this anecdote credible when I read it, and shortly afterwards Corbyn spokesperson James Schneider said it was the Portuguese who were confused rather than the Labour leader.
For these reasons, the book is being given short shrift by some on the Labour left. But its central theme is a truthful one: ‘the Project’ had been in pain for years before it lost in December 2019, and some key players behaved as if they wanted to be relieved of their duties. There was lots of passion but LOTO was a mess, as evident in the extraordinary handling of a parliamentary security problem and in the indecision over the bid to abolish Tom Watson’s deputy post, both imparted in detail.
The book also explores the extent to which John McDonnell was pushing from the other side – not talking to Corbyn for some time over their disagreements on antisemitism, and lobbying hard for a fresh EU referendum, even regularly talking to People’s Vote campaigner Alastair Campbell. The former Shadow Chancellor recently praised Starmer’s Covid response, which has attracted much criticism from others on the party’s left, as “exactly right”. Those comments are even less surprising in light of Left Out.
Every story, especially in politics and especially in Corbyn’s Labour, has more than a couple of sides to it. This book sometimes appears to overlook that. It is also very much a Westminster lobby take on the events, not covering the developments at the grassroots but focusing instead on the views of MPs, LOTO staff and party grandees. Left Out is a must-read, however, for any Labour supporter who wants to know more about what went on behind the scenes. I warn you: it’s a depressing study, whatever your factional allegiance.
Left Out: The Inside Story of Labour Under Corbyn is published by Bodley Head (£18.99).