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Labour’s Gang of Five

Andy Beckett's new book tracks the journey of Diane Abbott, Jeremy Corbyn, Ken Livingstone and John McDonnell — under the influence of Tony Benn — from Labour outcasts to their attempt to remake British capitalism.

Nobody noticed it, but the funniest thing happened when Hugo Chavez visited Britain in 2006. At the Camden Centre, a large art deco town hall in Central London near the British Library, the event hosted by then London Mayor Ken Livingstone was packed out with young people, suddenly more curious and more left-leaning thanks to the political mistakes of a now waning New Labour government. Was an alliance forming? Tony Benn watched Jeremy Corbyn and Diane Abbott greeting the Venezuelan premier. ‘It’s an extraordinary story really,’ wrote Benn in his diary that night — now the best-selling sounding board of a cosy national treasure — ‘he’s very imaginative, is old Ken.’

The kids were feeling it. The old guard were feeling it. Even Sir Ian Blair — the head of the Metropolitan Police — was feeling it, defying his namesake Prime Minister to provide a police escort for Chavez on Livingstone’s urging. Off the radar of most of the media, a new coalition was forming that would take a decade to reveal its huge implications. The Searchers, the fourth book by Guardian journalist Andy Beckett and first for nearly a decade, is a group biography of how ‘five heretics’ — that is Tony Benn, and then Diane Abbott, Jeremy Corbyn, Ken Livingstone and John McDonnell — came out of the politics of the 1970s to upend the politics of the 2010s. All four surviving heretics spoke to Beckett for the project.

Andy Beckett is interested in the what-if moments in modern British capitalism, even if its temporary vulnerabilities only ever reveal its strengths. The Searchers is in many ways the harmonising of tunes from Beckett’s previous works. Pinochet in Piccadilly, published in 2002, used the then-recent arrest of General Pinochet at the London Bridge hospital to measure British (and specifically Thatcherite) complicity in the dictatorship which followed Pinochet’s coup against Chile’s democratically elected Popular Unity government and the murder of President Allende.

Later, When the Lights Went Out was a timely revisionist history of the 1970s published just months into the 2008 global financial crisis. Suddenly, a popular history audience was ready to consider that the 1970s might have been an artful and exciting moment of working-class possibility, making mainstream an argument that had been rising across the blogosphere and implicit in the cultural criticism of writers including Mark Fisher and Simon Reynolds. Even better was 2015’s Promised You a Miracle: UK80-82, an illuminating history of early phase Thatcherism. During those years, The Jam sang of ‘some bonds severed and others made,’ and Beckett’s history catalogued exactly those shifting alliances, taking in the surprising accommodations that all sorts of people — early Channel 4 producers, London Docklands regenerators, Sheffield pop groups, the GLC — made with that strange moment.

As a frequent Guardian contributor — now a columnist — Beckett largely sat out the Corbyn years writing long reads which prodded the historical roots of that moment without necessarily advocating for it. Viewed from another angle, this allowed him an aloofness from a project which he clearly supported, and sidestepping the career or personal implications of too obvious an affiliation (and, as we shall see, does Beckett understand those implications.)

Work on The Searchers — with its bland, non-committal title pitched somewhere between a Merseybeat group and a John Wayne Western — began during that period. One can imagine that the proposal felt radically different at various points across, say, 2016 or 2018 or 2020. Regardless, this is the most sympathetic hearing that Beckett’s heretics are likely to receive in a mainstream publisher (The Searchers is published by Penguin imprint Allen Lane) for some time. As tetchy and defensive broadsheet and magazine reviews of the book can already attest, this is not territory that many are interested in conceding easily or in a hurry.

A Fully Self-governing Society

In Beckett’s telling, the story begins with the global student revolts of 1968, the rise of ideas around industrial democracy in the 1970s, and the radicalising Petri dish of life in the UK’s inner cities. All three of these are factors in Tony Benn’s journey from twinkling, media-savvy star of the Wilson government to an increasingly singular evangelist for what Benn begins to term ‘a fully self-governing society.’ Beckett’s Benn, who goes incognito to join a student sit-in called the Free University of Bristol, is a prophetic and countercultural figure. Perhaps laying it on a bit thick, Beckett compares him to the US hippie entrepreneur Stewart Brand. Convincingly, though, The Searchers identifies a complex identity politics burgeoning in Benn’s writing about the demands of the Black is Beautiful movement from the US. This is a premier account of the most interesting part of Tony Benn’s biography, and is a useful corrective to a politician who remains more cutely mythologised — or, worse, memed — than understood in context.

In Robert Penn Warren’s sour 1940s political novel All the King’s Men, its troubled governor antihero Willie Stark tells his junior staffer Jack Burden about their mutual attraction to the hard and lonely slog of the political life. ‘Boy,’ says Stark, ‘you work for me because I’m the way I am and you’re the way you are. It’s an arrangement founded on the state of things.’ Andy Beckett is interested in the way that Abbott, Corbyn, Livingstone and McDonnell are, and why they all come to the space opened up by their senior Benn with very different varieties of socialism and personal motivations. Abbott is a precocious first-generation immigrant kid who would have risen fast in anything she decided to do, pouring her immense gifts into the media and left politics. Corbyn has a personal bent towards forming alliances and a sincere interest in people that would become the motor of his politics (it is later, at informal 1980s seminars at Benn’s home with Tariq Ali, Hilary Wainwright and Ralph Miliband, that Corbyn would term ‘my university education.’) Livingstone talked up preferring science fiction to Marx and cultivated an eccentric and ambiguous personality that would later disarm Britain’s media and London voters. John McDonnell, meanwhile — working-class and intense — read the first English translation of Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks. It was here that he learnt about the war of manoeuvre, which is the revolution to overthrow the state, and the war of position, which is the incremental takeover of the institutions.

By Violent Means

‘Persistence is one of the left’s qualities that its enemies like least,’ writes Beckett, ‘…people on the right, as well as impatient journalists, and voters who expect politics to move quickly and have clear endings and beginnings, have long wondered: why doesn’t the left just give up?’ There are many moments when different people would have given up. During the Miners’ Strike, Benn writes: ‘I never understood until now…the true nature of class legislation, class law, class judges, class magistrates, class use of the police, class use of the media. It has completely shaken me. I knew it in theory, but I know in practice now what is happening.’

This touches on a darker theme of The Searchers. ‘They have been threatened with violence or physically attacked,’ writes Beckett of his heretics in the book’s introduction, ‘the strength of these reactions, repeated for over half a century, tells us much about Britain beyond the left.’ When Caroline Benn is taken out of a school governor’s meeting with news of her husband’s ministerial demotion, she is convinced that the father of her children has been assassinated. In 1977, the New Statesman publishes a false rumour associating Benn with bestiality and ‘the violent death of a rabbit.’ Shortly before his own assassination by the IRA in 1979, Thatcher’s favourite minister Airey Neave tells MI6 agent and businessman Lee Tracey that ‘violent means’ might be used against the rising Benn. Tony Benn always publicly made light of contracting Guillain-Barré syndrome during the 1981 leadership campaign, the implication is that Beckett isn’t so sure. The virus affected the politician for the rest of his life, causing him to walk with a slight shuffle and write with simple, jagged strokes. There’s a prophetic moment in 1999 when Corbyn is harassed by a dirty tricks poster campaign threatening his life over his Pinochet extradition campaigning. (Don’t look for references to this theme in reviews by The Observer or New Statesman, they’re not there.) In the 2010s and today, these dark threats passed through mainstream newspapers to Facebook Uncles who are encouraged to think of Abbott, Corbyn, Livingstone and McDonnell as fair game in a wider and bloody culture war.

Across The Searchers, there is a sense that Beckett is more comfortable writing about politics when it is on the margins: a band of outsiders operating against the odds, unlikely and under the radar. A good example is Beckett’s research into Socialist Economic Bulletin. Livingstone poured funds from naff TV advertisements for cheese (‘my favourite cheese has always been Red Leicester, I can’t think why’) into an eccentric small-circulation publication evidencing how the cream of booming economies could be distributed to millions as quickly as possible. These ideas, soundly, looked to China rather than to the US, and would eventually shape his second London mayoralty in the 2000s.

Very Hard to Dislodge

It is the 2000s when Beckett’s Searchers are at their weakest, but most prescient. Shortly before Blair became Prime Minister, Diane Abbott warned him that he was ‘losing sight of those who traditionally voted for us’, meaning working-class and left-leaning Britons of all backgrounds. Invited to Number 10 after the landslide 1997 victory, Tony Blair asked Ken Livingstone how he thought the government was doing. Livingstone’s answer — a long list of critiques from failure to raise taxes to the independence of the Bank of England — so appalled Blair that they did not meet again one-to-one for a further seven years. The lure of mainstream recognition for Livingstone and, differently, McDonnell is raised in the book. The environmental campaigner John Stewart, who worked with the latter on Heathrow campaigning in the 2000s, tells Beckett what centrist Labourites and business lobbyists told him about the Gramscian backbencher: ‘John McDonnell is a wasted resource. If only he would modify his politics.’

In the 2020s, there are no shortages of insider-heavy accounts of the Corbyn years. It is unclear how useful it is for anyone on the left to read another — short of scab picking, nostalgia, or the curious intersection of both. There is little new from Beckett on the Corbyn period beyond what has already been covered in those books, and it is far too soon for a When the Lights Went Out style reappraisal of those years. Beckett is funny on the own goals and gaffes of a wide spectrum of the British media during years that they did not understand: ‘In March 2017, a long article about (Theresa May) for the London Review of Books by the revered Cambridge professor of politics David Runciman concluded that ‘her domestic advantages remain formidable. She has qualities that will make her very hard to dislodge as Prime Minister’.’ Ouch. That fortnight’s LRB would still be poking out of the recycling bin by the time that May’s political career was in smoke. It’s a shame, then, that Beckett does not apply the fluency and absorption in left media of the Corbyn moment that he does to the 1970s and 80s. There is only a fleeting mention of, say, Novara Media — grouped in with OpenDemocracy. If the point of this is that new left communications were not important — or indeed that the Corbyn project became over reliant on communications at the expense of organising — he does not make it. Given its proximity to his well-identified 2006 Chavez moment, the alliances of the 2010 student protests are also underexplored (save for a delicious quote from McDonnell approving of students ‘kicking the shit out of Millbank.’)

The result is a useful but uneven work. An account of a Bernie Sanders book event at London’s South Bank Centre is a boring place for Beckett to end his book, but books — unlike political projects — really do have to finish somewhere. There is an even-handed and fair summary of the heretics and their various post-2019 fates. But what about ours?

Today, the Starmer leadership has junked any link to its Searchers — as things stand, only McDonnell is on the Labour ticket for this year’s General Election. The Starmer leadership will praise Thatcher for effecting ‘meaningful change’, and embrace Tory right-winger Natalie Elphicke MP into the party — who succeeded her husband, jailed for sexual assault by two women, who she defended as victim of a ‘terrible miscarriage of justice’ — whilst refusing to restore the whip to Diane Abbott.

If the Left likes to look at 2017 a little too much, reading The Searchers is a reminder to think again about 2014 and 2015. Benn dead. Livingstone retired. McDonnell in convalescence at his Norfolk Broads holiday home. Abbott on This Week and Come Dine With Me. Corbyn being Corbyn. ‘On the surface, which is the part of politics to which the media pays most attention,’ writes Beckett, the decade between 2005 and 2015 was a fallow one for the Left. In reality, it was the prelude for a revival.

There is no shortage of bleak lessons for the Left whilst reading The Searchers, but some causes for hope. Namely, some of the book’s antagonists are making the same mistakes once again. When the British media is at its least curious, and when the Labour mainstream is acting at its most invulnerable, it has consequences. Options begin to exist. Nobody notices it, but funny things begin to happen.