Popular histories—of the sort on display in bookshop windows—and historical revisionism have both tended, in Britain, to be the preserve of the right, especially in recent years. The dominant figure is Dominic Sandbrook, whose histories of 20th-century Britain, each with a title drawn from a cliché, are prone to cast Thatcherism as a desirable and inevitable development, and to insist on the implausibility of alternatives; even Sandbrook’s regular column in the New Statesman, in which he entertains various counterfactuals, always leads to the affirmation that what exists is all that was ever possible. In the last two decades the figure whose work has held out most consistently against this establishment complacency is Andy Beckett. He has avoided the clichés of popular left history—the ‘People’s History of X’ genre or the attempt to excavate resources from the Levellers to the Chartists—and his work has, quietly, been one of the underpinnings of an intellectual shift leftwards in Britain, especially among the young, upon whose shelves his books can often be found next to those by thinkers like David Graeber and Mark Fisher. The Searchers brings Beckett’s work on Britain since the seventies up to the present day, in a group portrait of the London Labour left; it plausibly marks a response to the influence of his own writing on some of those currents. In taking Diane Abbott, Tony Benn, Jeremy Corbyn, Ken Livingstone and John McDonnell as major figures worthy of a deep historical study, it has already achieved the negative virtue of alternately smug and scornful broadsheet reviews.

Perhaps there is a sense that a trust has been betrayed. As a Guardian columnist for several decades, Beckett is wholly within the media establishment. His journalistic interventions often try to convince the enormously hostile of the reasonableness of the left’s positions and activities, in a scrupulously even tone The Searchers also deploys. Beckett is an unlikely leftist, as a broadsheet journalist from an itinerant army family, though his work also shows the influence of having lived in northeast London for many years—as he points out early on in the book, his adult life has been spent in the constituencies of first Jeremy Corbyn, and then Diane Abbott. Most of his Guardian peers, of course, live in similar places, but they are prone to overcompensate and dissemble, as in the caricature of a ‘metropolitan elite’ that vaporizes London’s huge, multicultural working class—an operation that has been especially popular in the pages of the New Statesman. Beckett is unashamedly sympathetic to the metropolitan left, and genuinely interested in London and its complexities.

His background in a family that revolved around the forces is the source of another important interest—the army and the secret state. This was an underlying current in his first book, Pinochet in Piccadilly (2002), which traced the elective affinities between Chilean and British neoliberalism, and the resistance to it that ran from Santiago to East Kilbride. It also suffused the extraordinary When the Lights Went Out (2009), the book on which his reputation largely rests: a history of the radical 1970s both as it was lived at a local level (putting flesh on the oft-made claim that the seventies was when most people got to live the sixties), as it played out in high-level politics, and how the two intersected in flashpoints such as the Grunwick strike. Many of those born in the 1980s serving in the various think tanks and media enterprises that blossomed around Corbynism will have first learned of touchstones such as Upper Clyde Shipbuilders, the Lucas Plan, the neoliberal thought collective or the mi5 plots against the Labour government of 1974–76 from When the Lights Went Out; it was also the crucial influence on Mark Fisher’s unfinished late work, Acid Communism. Beckett’s subsequent book Promised You a Miracle (2015) homed in on the immediate aftermath, the 1980–82 period in which it was by no means clear Thatcherism would succeed amid the strange, politically ambiguous trends that emerged in the space it opened up, from Channel 4 to New Romanticism to the Greater London Council under Livingstone. Much of this material recurs in The Searchers, though this time in the service of a tale that stretches over many decades, with the biographies of the five protagonists interwoven in a chronological narrative charting the development of a post-1968 left within the Labour Party, its failed attempt at seizing power within the Party at the turn of the 1980s, its apparently fallow years in the 1990s and 2000s, and its successful seizure of the Party leadership in the 2010s, concluding with an apparently ignominious electoral rejection in 2019. It is remarkable that no such book, rooting Corbynism in fifty years of British history, was published during the Corbyn years—widely treated, including by supporters, as an accident and an aberration.

Beckett has tried to set out a stall that is, to borrow a term from one of this Labour left’s cult books, ‘In and Against the Guardian’; his five ‘searchers’ have taken a similar approach to Labourism. As defined by nlr and Socialist Register in the 1960s, Labourism is a distinct political formation combining, as Tom Nairn put it, a Fabian head, a low-church heart and trade-union brawn; or, in Tony Benn’s elegant phrase, it is an institution that ‘has never been a socialist party, but has always had socialists in it’. Broadly understandable as a parochial, anti-intellectual, nostalgic and pro-imperialist current of the centre-left, Labourism has united a certain form of trade-union workerism with a mawkishness about British history, its unwritten constitution and the grandeur of the Mother of Parliaments. Its left-wing forces have tended, like Aneurin Bevan, the old Tribune magazine and the ‘Bevanites’ of the 1950s, to be rather sentimental and compromised, summed up in the ineffectual, antiquated figure of Michael Foot, who led the Party between 1980 and 1983 (and who is given welcome short shrift in The Searchers). This picture of Labourism may need nuancing today—especially given that the apparently more sophisticated mass forces of the 1960s elsewhere, most obviously the pci’s successors, have by now ended up in much the same moribund place intellectually and politically. Nonetheless, the original critique has obvious explanatory force, particularly given the sometimes grudging but basically acquiescent position of the Labour membership and the unions during the startlingly right-wing governments of Blair and Brown as they proceeded to serve in various American imperial wars and at home privatize anything left intact by Thatcher (except, of course, Bevan’s National Health Service, which they instead adulterated through the corrupt Private Finance Initiative).

With the partial exceptions of Benn and McDonnell, none of the five ‘searchers’ are obvious bearers of Labourism. Benn (1925–2014), the group’s elder and mentor, came from a Labour dynasty, with his grandfather one of the founders of the London County Council, but Corbyn (b. 1949) and Abbott (b. 1953) came to politics through anti-imperialism (particularly concerning the Caribbean) and anti-racism, as cause for the former and lived experience for the latter; they would bring their politics into a party which had always committed itself to the British Empire and had passed pieces of racist legislation. Livingstone (b. 1945) was a South Londoner from a Tory family whose political awakening came in 1968, watching the uprising in Paris on television. McDonnell (b. 1951) grew up in an Irish family in Liverpool and Great Yarmouth, worked in factories there and in outer suburban West London, and rose out of his class through education and the unions, developing a passionate interest in Gramsci (not the Marxism Today pop culture Gramsci, but the revolutionary strategist Gramsci of the ‘war of position’). Though three of the five (Abbott, Livingstone and McDonnell) are from unambiguously working-class backgrounds, only McDonnell had much grounding in the labour movement, and his intellectual interests, not to mention his firmly held Irish republican positions—as a supporter of the Troops Out Movement—were hardly typical Labourist fare. These three were also decidedly upwardly mobile, and ostentatiously uninterested in the brass-bands-and-banners traditions of the English labour movement. All five—except perhaps Benn in his last two decades—were modernists, whose socialism was based on an analysis of and interest in the present rather than the achievements or defeats of a glorious past.

Neil Kinnock once made a distinction between the ‘illegitimate left’ in Labour—Trotskyists like Militant, worthy only of exclusion if not expulsion—and the tolerable ‘legitimate left’, consisting of the followers of Lansbury, Maxton or Bevan, the tradition from which Kinnock himself emerged before making the customary shift rightwards. Beckett’s five mostly fit into neither category, which, until the mass purges under Keir Starmer in the 2020s, had tended to protect them. Their politics has seldom been well understood, including by a media which assumes that, in the immortal words of one Labour staffer, revealed by a leaked report compiled in 2020 by Corbyn ally, Labour General Secretary and one-time Militant member Jennie Formby, ‘everyone to the left of Gordon [Brown] is a Trot’.

Yet none of the five were revolutionaries. Aside from McDonnell—the only one of the group to identify explicitly as a Marxist, and who did a short stint in Militant (leaving because of its position on Ireland)—none were tempted by Stalinism or Trotskyism; or, for that matter, by Anarchism, though the influence of libertarian currents on the five has usually been greater than that of official Communism. This raises the question of why the group was tempted by the Labour Party in the first place. Benn was born into Labourism, but the four younger politicians would surely have been partisans of something like the Swedish, Portuguese or German Left Parties, or perhaps La France Insoumise. The obvious answer lies in the British electoral system. First Past The Post makes it notoriously difficult for anti-systemic parties to receive any representation in parliament, a problem that has beset Maxton’s Independent Labour Party, the cpgb, the Greens, and, on the right, ukip and the Brexit Party (now Reform uk), all of which have boasted at their respective peaks hundreds of thousands, sometimes millions, of votes and a handful of mps at most. They have been most successful, as the cpgb was in the 1950s and 1960s, the Socialist Workers Party in the 1970s and 2000s, or ukip and the Brexit Party in the 2000s and 2010s, when they have concentrated on extra-parliamentary action: infiltrating and leading the unions, single-issue campaigns or the media (or, as Militant did in the 1980s, the Labour Party itself). Parliament is structurally inaccessible to forces to Labour’s left.