Selective History

Between the UK parliamentary elections of June 2017 and December 2019, the Labour Party’s position on Brexit faltered, leading to a catastrophic result at the polls. Having initially supported the outcome of the EU plebiscite, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership came under immense pressure from pro-Remain factions within the party to rally behind the call for a second referendum, a so-called People’s Vote, which, its proponents hoped, would reverse the 2016 result. Key to the disastrous volte face was a network of campaigners, activists and politicians, the left-wing flank of which was largely clustered around the group Another Europe Is Possible. AEIP’s national organizer, Michael Chessum, has now produced a personal account – titled This Is Only the Beginning: The Making of a New Left, From Anti-Austerity to The Fall of Corbyn – of these decisive years in the electoral fortunes of the Labour Party, placing them in a wider narrative of the development of the British left since 2010.

Born in 1989, Chessum has, over the past decade, established himself as one of Britain’s foremost professional activists. As a paid student union officer at University College London during the nationwide protests against the Cameron government’s plans to triple university fees and scrap education bursaries for teenagers, he played a leading role in the UCL student occupation and co-founded the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts (NCAFC). But while other figures in that occupation – Ash Sarkar, Owen Jones and Aaron Bastani among them – began to devote their energies to building left-wing media organizations, Chessum continued to concentrate his efforts on activism. Having joined Labour in 2012, he was elected to the first steering committee of Momentum. The following year he became a full-time organizer for AEIP. During his student years, Chessum developed a working relationship with the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty (AWL), a tiny Trotskyist party best known for its defence of Israel against the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, to whom he has remained close ever since. It is a revealing connection, but one he plays down the book, stressing that ‘of all the national-level spokespeople for the student movement of 2010’ he was ‘in a minority, and maybe a minority of one, in at no point joining a Trotskyist organization’.

In This Is Only the Beginning, Chessum recounts the changing orientation of left-wing youth politics in Britain, from horizontalist social movements organized to fight Cameron-era public sector cuts to the electoral machine of Momentum, a left-wing campaign group intended to bolster and organize Corbyn’s support base within and beyond the Labour Party. Chessum splits the previous decade into two dominant forms of political activity: 2010–15 was the heyday of the social movements, led mostly by student activists who later took up positions as journalists, paid university sabbatical officers and campaigners; during 2015–19, however, the youth wing of the autonomous British left joined the Labour Party and its affiliated institutions (notably, Young Labour) and began to professionalize.

While avowedly a partial account, the book relies heavily on interviews as well as personal recollection. These are most productive when Chessum has the courage to listen to those with different perspectives, such as Momentum founder Jon Lansman and former Unite chief of staff Andrew Murray. More often, though, he quotes personal friends who are often operators in the AWL and other sects – sometimes declaring their factional allegiance, sometimes not.

The book is premised on two interdependent theses: first, that ‘Corbynism’ was the product of social-movement politics outside the Labour Party; second, that its decline was set in motion by its drift away from those same social movements. It is this latter argument that its account of the 2015–19 period is principally constructed to support. ‘The new Labour left’, Chessum argues, ‘seemed curiously allergic to devolving power to their own activists and failed to democratize the party during their time in office.’ Through the centralization of Momentum and the control-freakery of a parliamentary office dominated by Corbyn’s key adviser Len McCluskey, Chessum argues that the party under Corbyn became ‘a left-wing version of New Labour.’

Chessum thus makes little attempt to tell the story of the significant events of the early years of Corbyn’s leadership – for instance, the discrediting of the anti-war movement as Britain prepared to bomb Syria in 2015, the ‘chicken coup’ and the retreat of party democracy just after the 2016 conference, and the anti-union laws and seminal trade disputes of the same year (which hampered the capacity of supportive unions, other than Unite, to engage with the project). The 2017 election is described as ‘a moment of intoxication from which the leadership never really came down’, but there is little attempt to analyse the lessons – good or bad – of that extraordinary result.

Instead, his is a tale focused solely on the organizational evolution of Momentum and the fallout of the Brexit referendum. On the former, Chessum offers a valid assessment of the leadership’s failure to support mandatory re-selection of MPs. On the latter, he clings to his interpretation of the People’s Vote campaign as an expression of the social-movement politics that brought Corbyn to power and were, in his view, subsequently undermined by the combined bureaucracies of the party and trade-union movement. After a detailed and rather self-pitying account of the Brexit motions at the 2018 Labour conference – which resulted in a position he accurately describes as a ‘fudge’ – Chessum’s only regret is that he compromised too much with the leadership. Ceding any terrain to elements of the party that advocated respecting the referendum result was, he says, ‘probably the greatest political mistake I have ever made’. Here, he fails to perceive even in hindsight what others saw clearly at the time: that opposition to Brexit had been hijacked by the Labour right, who were cynically using it claw their way back to power.

If Chessum’s strategic prescriptions facilitated the campaign against Corbynism, is his analytical account of the past decade any more convincing? He differentiates his book from other ‘court histories’ of the Corbyn project, stressing that ‘the new British left was not built by professionals, politicians and bureaucrats’. Yet his assessment – that it was built by mass social movements alone – is wildly off the mark. For Chessum, organized elements of the Labour left were completely irrelevant until Corbyn was catapulted to the leadership by extra-parliamentary forces. But Corbyn would never have reached the ballot were it not for organizations such as the Socialist Campaign Group, an assemblage of left-wing Labour MPs, who persistently put forward left leadership candidates in the face of certain defeat during the New Labour period. In fact, the ‘court histories’ Chessum dismisses – including personal memoirs such as Len McCluskey’s Always Red (2022) – demonstrate a far better understanding of the circumstances which allowed Corbyn to scale the heights of the party. Chessum is keen to emphasize the role that student-movement activists went on to play in the Labour left, but his own examples show that few of them were instrumental in Corbyn’s election, and mostly joined after the success of his leadership bid. The bureaucrats he castigates for seizing control of a people-powered movement were not singularly responsible for bringing Corbyn to the helm, but the leader would have failed at the first hurdle were it not for their work.

As the book progresses, it becomes increasingly clear that the author experienced the trajectory of the Corbyn project as a series of personal affronts and not simply political setbacks. When, in 2017, he lost a fight within Momentum, he did so having ‘built friendships with its staff and volunteers who had, apparently, engineered the abolition of my role and of the organization’s democracy behind my back’. By 2019, he had ‘stopped attending my local Labour left group because the atmosphere had become so toxic, and my position on Brexit made me a figure of genuine hate’.

Who can blame him? Yet, more than three years on, readers might reasonably expect a little more reflection from the author on his own part in the disaster. Chessum’s account of the 2015–2020 period is hopelessly distorted by both his vanity and his stubborn refusal to engage with the real reasons for the defeat: among them, the Labour leadership’s capitulation to a disingenuous lobby of Europhilic Blairites, who – abetted by Chessum himself – helped to anathematize the party in dozens of electorally crucial constituencies. His telling of the five years prior to Corbynism reads like a sentimental – if not uncritical – tribute to an era in which he was, briefly, the media spokesman for a radical yet unsuccessful extra-parliamentary left movement among British students. Conversely, the work of the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy and affiliated unions over the same period, which secured the selection of left MPs and rebuilt the left’s base in Young Labour, is airbrushed from history.

What, finally, are we to make of the claim lodged within the title? This is Only the Beginning has been marketed as a manifesto for the future as well as a reckoning with the past, but Chessum’s resentful tone and self-exculpatory motivations prevent it from being either. Chessum argues for a ‘regrouping of a left which is up to the task of transforming politics’, but his subsequent suggestions are as self-serving as his history is self-aggrandizing. ‘What is needed now is a campaign against amnesia, not just with an attempt to teach and share history – essential though this is – but by rebuilding a space for ideological traditions and collective memory in a practical sense’, he argues. Further still, Labour must split, with proportional representation providing the potential of left electoral success unhampered by establishment centrism. Yet, much as he repeatedly calls for movements to be ‘outward facing’, Chessum’s focus is fixed firmly to what existing activists must do: an insularity that is not altogether surprising, since Chessum’s broader political outlook has been shaped by navel-gazing grouplets with equally inflated perceptions of their own significance. There is precious little about building a programme that can resonate across the politically dispossessed working class, many of whom voted for Brexit and will now be failed once again by both its right-wing champions and a left that has branded them bigots.

Throughout This Is Only the Beginning, Chessum constructs a strange antimony between movement politics and bureaucratism. This dichotomy grossly disfigures the reality of the 2015–20 period, in which a core group of veteran socialist MPs and activists, accustomed to a position of toothless protest, was thrust suddenly into leadership of the national opposition and forced to harness what remained of a demoralized network of social movements to rapidly build an electoral base. This recasting of history, and his own role within it, allows the author to misrepresent his single-minded pursuit of an anti-Brexit Labour position as an assertion of movement-power against party-power.

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that this distortion is intended to burnish Chessum’s own image, especially given the self-regarding tone with which he describes key moments in the decade (in Spring of 2015, he watched Corbyn’s leadership take shape from Athens ‘in between covering the Greek left’s ill-fated confrontation with the Eurogroup for the New Statesman and being teargassed in Syntagma Square’; in September, despite only recently wondering whether ‘remaining in Labour is a good use of anyone’s time’, he returned to Britain graciously having decided he would ‘climb [Momentum’s] structures and build for it a democratic youth organization’). Selective deployment of the truth unfortunately colours Chessum’s general approach to his subject. The result is a book that at best reads as a litany of CV points from a mediocre career in politics, and at worst whitewashes its author’s full-throated participation in one of the most significant causes of the Corbyn movement’s downfall.

Read on: Daniel Finn, ‘Crosscurrents’, NLR 118.