Entering Parliament in September 2015, Jeremy Corbyn’s new leadership team literally crashed through the doors.
In normal circumstances, a handover process from the outgoing team would be expected, but Corbyn’s predecessor as Labour leader, Ed Miliband, had resigned in the immediate aftermath of the party’s clobbering at the polls four months earlier. To the frustration of Corbyn’s advisers, desperate to get going, there was no one from his operation to give the newcomers a guided tour of the office: here are the computer passwords, here are the printers, there’s where important files are kept. Worse still, they couldn’t even get into the opposition leader’s office.
“The parliamentary keys are set in such a way that if you attempted to open a door that the key isn’t registered to, it’ll block the whole key and you have to go to security and get it sorted,” says Angie Williams. She and Simon Fletcher were the only two Miliband staffers to take up a post in Corbyn’s new team; no other staff member even had a parliamentary pass.
Williams had learned a trick in the Miliband years: one of the doors could be opened without a key if it was bumped hard enough. This time, it didn’t work. The parliamentary authorities had clearly done a security check and fixed the quirk. Not wanting to lose face in front of Corbyn’s campaign staff, Williams threw herself against the door until it broke open, splinters and metal everywhere. In they walked.
No leader of any major British political party has assumed office with odds so stacked against them while simultaneously being so unprepared as Jeremy Corbyn in September 2015. In normal times, here’s what happens. An aspiring leader is someone who has spent years, decades even, casting their sights on the top job. They have long prepared for this moment – some, since their early teens, pacing in front of bathroom mirrors practising future conference speeches. They enjoy the backing of a significant portion of their parliamentary party, and can count on the loyalty and support of its officials.
Corbyn had none of this. Not only had he never harboured any ambitions of leadership, he had never held even the most junior ministerial role, nor had he stood at a parliamentary dispatch box, making speeches in front of a rowdy and often aggressive Parliament. Then there was the media. Anybody who knows anything about the British press knows that it is almost unique in the Western world for its level of commitment to aggressively defending and furthering right-wing partisan politics. Some sections of the press, moreover, behave as overtly partisan extensions of the Conservative media operation. Unsurprisingly, then, attacking Labour leaders is a blood sport for the British press, the one striking exception, of course, being Tony Blair, whose Faustian pact with the Murdoch empire was founded on a commitment not to challenge the social order or undo the new Thatcherite consensus. “I always thought my job was to build on some of the things she had done rather than reverse them,” as Blair put it when Thatcher died. Corbyn was about as far from Blair as it was possible to get – and the media onslaught that greeted his leadership win in 2015 was as predictable as it was unrelentingly hostile.
With most voters switching on to politics for only brief moments in their lives, there are three key windows for an opposition leader to make an impression: when they assume the leadership, at their annual party conferences and at general elections. The first impression is likely to be lasting, or at least difficult to dislodge, so the early weeks are crucial. Accordingly, in Corbyn’s first few weeks, the right-wing press machine systematically attempted to shape his image in the public imagination: crudely, negatively and often deceitfully.
“CORBYN: ABOLISH THE ARMY”, was the Sun’s front page splash two days after his leadership victory – a piece based on a comment Corbyn had made three years previously about wishing that one day every country on earth would abolish their own army. On Remembrance Day 2015, the same newspaper accused Jeremy Corbyn of failing to bow his head in memory of Britain’s fallen at the Cenotaph.
“SNUB ON POPPY DAY”, screamed the paper, along with “Pacifist Corbyn refuses to bow” and “NOD IN MY NAME”. Again, this was blatantly untrue: video footage showed Corbyn quite clearly bowing his head. Dishonestly trashing Corbyn over Remembrance Day etiquette became an annual tradition. The following year, the Sun and Mail Online were forced to take down stories which falsely suggested that Corbyn had danced his way down Downing Street on the way to the commemorations. The actual disrespect to Britain’s fallen, surely, lay in right-wing newspapers hijacking a day dedicated to mourning their deaths, in order to deceitfully hound the Leader of the Opposition.
In 2016, a group of academics at the London School of Economics compiled a report examining a period of media coverage that spanned Corbyn’s first few weeks as leader. Their findings, they wrote, illustrated “the ways in which the British press systematically delegitimised Jeremy Corbyn as a political leader” through a “process of vilification that went beyond the normal limits of fair debate and disagreement in a democracy”. They found that 57 percent of news articles – which are supposed to be objective – had a critical or antagonistic tone: “scathing, disingenuous, insulting or mocking”.
According to their analysis, 30 percent of “news stories, editorials, commentaries, features or letters to the editor mock the leader of the opposition or scoff at his ideas, policies, history, his personal life – and, alarmingly, even his looks”. Over half of all articles failed to include Corbyn’s own views; another 22 percent stripped them of context or distorted them. He was depicted by turns as a comic caricature, referred to repeatedly as the “Jezster” or as “Mr Corbean”, a reference to the slapstick sitcom character Mr Bean; the Grinch (Jeremy Corbyn “cancels Christmas” and “refuses to issue festive message”, declared the Daily Telegraph, four days after Corbyn had written a Christmas message for the Daily Mirror); Chairman Mao (on the grounds that his fairly bog-standard bike looked – according to The Times’s news section, no less – like something the Great Leader might ride) and a terrorist sympathizer. He had “suspicious ties to terror groups”, announced the Daily Express, while the Sun called him a supporter of the IRA and “any heavily bearded jihadi mentals who long for the destruction of the West”. And so it went on.
Corbyn was also met with profound hostility from within the publicly funded, professedly impartial BBC, perhaps unsurprisingly for a public broadcaster described to me by one of its own senior presenters as broadly “Blairite”, and a number of whose senior staff – including the then-head of the corporation’s political programming output, Robbie Gibb – went on to work for the Conservative Party (Theresa May, David Cameron, George Osborne and Boris Johnson all recruited their spin doctors from the BBC).
Six months later, after Corbyn’s election as leader, Sir Michael Lyons – former chair of the BBC Trust – declared there had been “some quite extraordinary attacks on the elected leader of the Labour Party. I can understand why people are worried about whether some of the most senior editorial voices in the BBC have lost their impartiality on this. All I’m voicing is the anxiety that has been expressed publicly by others.”
But Corbyn’s Labour was not just under assault from the outside. There was also an enemy within. The vast majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party not only did not support Corbyn, they regarded his elevation to the leadership with horror, as a dystopian nightmare which must be brought to an abrupt end; many believed it would all be over by Christmas. Even before Corbyn’s team had broken the Westminster door down, political opponents inside the Labour Party were at work on a scorched earth assault on the leadership. It would never let up.
For most of this period – except for a brief spell at the red-brick Brewers’ Green offices near St James’s Park – the party’s officials responsible for its day-to-day operation were based in an unlovely generic glass office building called Southside on Victoria Street, a 12-minute walk from the Houses of Parliament. These officials were Labour’s equivalent of the civil service; they were expected to serve whoever the membership had elected with strict, rigorous impartiality. Instead, they acted as a hostile political faction, conspiring and plotting not only to bring down their leadership, but even wishing ill on the party’s own electoral prospects.
It is impossible to overstate the political hostility of these bureaucrats. Staff at the Labour Party HQ reportedly used a messaging service, conversations on which allegedly expose systematic efforts by a number of figures to undermine the Corbyn leadership. These messages suggest a dysfunctional and toxic culture within the party’s headquarters. (I put these quotes from the leaked report to Labour HQ for comment, but at the time, the party had commissioned an inquiry, headed by a barrister, Martin Forde QC, and therefore chose not to comment until it was finalized. A statement from the current Labour leader, Keir Starmer, and his deputy, Angela Rayner, asked “everyone concerned to refrain from drawing conclusions before the investigation is complete”. The inquiry itself had three mandates: to examine “the background and circumstances in which the report was commissioned”, to look at “the contents and wider culture and practices referred to in the report”, and to look at “the circumstances in which the report was put in the public domain”.)
To be fair, this cabal didn’t just shower invective on the left; prominent members of their own political factions – broadly speaking, Blairites and Brownites – were not spared. A week after Labour lost the 2015 general election, the leadership contest to replace Ed Miliband was under way (though it would be some three weeks before Corbyn entered the race).
Staffers shared their despair at the candidates. “[Chuka] Umunna must be stopped,” declared one. “And [Yvette] Cooper and [Andy] Burnham.” “They are all dreadful,” concurred another. “Liz Kendall is nuts as well,” they added in a swipe against the Blairite candidate. “Seriously is there nobody? And Tom Watson for deputy would be the end of the party. I’ve never felt so bleak about the future of the party.” “We are fucked,” the first staffer shot back.
They gossiped about refuted and defamatory accusations, including suggesting that Chuka dropped out of the leadership race “as [the] Mail were sniffing around gay stories…” “Yes, apparently they had an ex-male lover willing to testify re gay and cocaine,” chipped in another staffer breathlessly. “Wonder why they didn’t run it? Maybe saving it for his next leadership bid.”
When it was suggested that Burnham would win the leadership contest “by a mile”, yet another staffer worried “that he will get found out as the stupid person that he is and if that is the case I can only hope we finally get the courage to gut a leader before the full term and put someone new in”.
This was how they saw their own. How they dealt with Corbyn would prove to be on an entirely new level.
‘This Land: the Story of a Movement’, by Owen Jones, is published by Allen Lane on the 24th of September.