The film “Oh Jeremy Corbyn – The Big Lie” is the latest contribution to the important discussion of what happened during the Corbyn leadership of the Labour Party, the mistakes it made and why it didn’t succeed.
It’s a useful exploration, and the makers are to be congratulated on their efforts, but I felt it left a lot unsaid and at times went down dead ends.
The film rightly emphasised how false allegations of antisemitism have been used to attack and intimidate the left. However it did seem to take for granted that everyone watching (or even those we would like to get to see it) knew why such allegations are false. Rather than repeat the assertion many times, it might have been useful to look at one case in more depth to show why it was false.
The film shows how those working against Corbyn tried several angles of attack (security risk, lack of patriotism etc) before alighting on the one which took off. But it never quite gets round to explaining why this one took off, beyond the fact that it – provenly – had the support of the Israeli government and its propaganda machine, long-practised in attacking supporters of the Palestinians as antisemites.
The `attraction’ of calling lefties antisemites is that people who believe themselves to be anti-racists immediately become defensive when accused of racism. While the film is right to say it was wrong to repeatedly apologise when there was nothing to apologise for, it provides no real explanation as to why that was done.
Nor does it really get around to explaining why many (especially the media) who regularly use racism against refugees and others, trumpeted the accusation of antisemitism against Corbyn and his supporters. They rarely go after Trump, Johnson and their like for their explicit racism, and its not just because they are supporters of Israel. Rather whole sections of the media and establishment were opposed to Corbyn because they saw his politics (and his supporters) as a threat to the status quo. Concerned at the push to end austerity and neo-liberalism, they rarely explicitly attacked such policies as bringing back services into public ownership which they knew to be popular, but instead were happy to latch on to the accusation of racism.
Mostly the film sticks to the claim that Corbyn was a threat to established foreign policy (NATO, military interventions, war, Israel/Palestine etc). The nearest the film gets to addressing the wider issue is when it talks of the threat to `the establishment’ posed by Corbyn. The problem here is that the term establishment is equally used by populist `outsiders’ such as Trump when he talks of “draining the swamp”. The left needs to be clearer in focusing on the ruling class, the capitalists.
More problematic is in the central part of the film where it strongly implies that Starmer was somehow inserted into the Labour Party as some kind of establishment plant to undermine Corbyn. While, at least since his days in the Crown Prosecution Service, Starmer has been a respected member of the establishment (a fact ignored by those on the left who supported him in the 2020 leadership election campaign), he is hardly unique in the history of the labour movement Unfortunately, the movement (and not just the Party) has produced many `Starmers’ throughout its history without the need for the ruling class to specifically train them.
This view of Starmer in the film morphs into a view of Brexit which sees it (and Starmer’s role) as primarily a tool to bring down Corbyn. While it doesn’t repeat the silly claim of some sections of the leave-supporting left that remain was a plot against the working class, it comes close. While it is right to see the leadership of the People’s Vote campaign using the issue as a stick to beat Corbyn, the same is not true of many of those who supported that campaign. Nor can we ignore the fact that the majority of Party members were in favour of the Labour Party being a `Remain Party’, a term used pejoratively in the film.
From this reviewers point of view, Labour’s mistake around Brexit was made in 2016, when the party’s campaign was handed over to Alan Johnson and Hilary Benn. They campaigned in a way that was indistinguishable from the Lib Dems and Remain Tories, rather than along the lines of Corbyn’s remain and reform postion. Having lost the referendum there were no easy answers as to how to proceed in the subsequent debates, though the film rightly criticises the fact that the leadership got bogged down in parliamentary games to the detriment of mobilising support. No-one can say with any degree of certainty, that any particular policy would have brought victory in 2019,
The film looks briefly at the role of Momentum in the Corbyn years and mistakes that were made, but in my view extremely superficially. If you are going to tackle this issue then you have to spend more than a couple of minutes on it and say more than Corbyn wasn’t ruthless enough (i.e. Corbyn shouldn’t have been Corbyn) and Momentum failed. The failure wasn’t just of the Momentum leadership, as the film implies, but of much of the left to give a lead to provide an alternative. How the Party machine and right of the Parliamentary Labour Party undermined Corbyn is spelt out clearly. Less clear is an indication of how the left should have dealt with this. Similarly, the film briefly touches on what would have happened if the Labour Party had won a general election under Corbyn (army opposition etc), but beyond informing people of this threat, there is little on what could be done to resist this.
Understandably, given it would take as much time again as the current film, it does not go into `what now’, beyond `building a movement’ and encouraging the strike wave. All the more worrying then is that the comments by Rebecca Massey, one of the main interviewees in the film, that Starmer is as bad as Johnson is left hanging. What does that mean? That the left should abstain in an election when millions of working class people will vote Labour to boot out the Tories? As so often, it seems to be forgotten that the Labour Party is not just the party of the Starmers and the Streetings, but of the organised working class. How they and the unions react to Starmer is the key, not how we individual lefties feel.
Finally, I felt the people interviewed in the film were mainly drawn from a small circle of co-thinkers, it would have been better – if possible – to involve others. Dave Ward (General Secretary of the CWU) was a good example of how this could have been done to show these weren’t just the views of the `usual suspects’.
Despite my criticisms, I would urge people to show the film as widely as possible. And make sure you have plenty of scope for discussion afterwards. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org to discuss details of getting the film.
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