The Revival of Labour:

Comrade Corbyn by Rosa Prince &

Being Red: A Politics for the Future by Ken Livingstone

Review by Tim Barton

Lit - BB pic - ken and jeremy

Rosa Prince’s timely biography of Jeremy Corbyn says in its blurb that it is neither hagiography nor hatchet job. Whilst it is a good primer on some aspects of his career, and so well worth a read, to my way of seeing things the author has hidden little digs all over the book. In essence it is indeed a (subtle) hatchet job. Prince’s career includes ‘being a part of the team that broke the expenses scandal’ – you’ll remember that, it was the one made possible by Blair’s bowing to pressure to make it all more transparent. The one that resulted in much better behaviour overall, so a scandal such as the Westland helicopter contracts (putting millions into Heseltine’s pocket in the 80s) would now be both illegal and exposed immediately. The one where the right-wing press pilloried Labour MPs virulently over minor infractions: the same right-wing press that Prince writes for.

A weirdly oversized chunk near the beginning of the book makes ones wonder if Prince would be better suited to the lifestyle section of the Mail on Sunday than to the political sections of the Daily Telegraph. She goes on and on about the ‘comfortable middle-class life-style’ of Corbyn’s ‘cocooned childhood’ with ‘bizarrely’ leftist parents – bizarre, apparently, because they were not poor. A bizarre twisted logic in my opinion. But, clearly, this is a tactic to subtly slur Jeremy’s right to not suck up to his own class, especially the better off ones. She is somewhat snide about his lack of university education, whilst also snide about his having been sent to private schools by his parents (he hated it and didn’t fit in, good for him).

Nevertheless, she demonstrates how privileged, in the positive sense, he felt to ‘get his education via’ Tony Benn’s Labour Reform Group think-tank. To an extent, this too is made part of her subtle dissing of our new Labour Party leader – ‘look’, she implies, ‘his ideas all come from extremist radicals and class traitors!’ She then attacks him with a long critique of the new leadership election rules. Implying no such lefty could get elected before, with the PLP itself so against him, as if the grass roots support of thousands of members should be given less kudos than the minority Oxbridge millionaire elites that are entrenched in the Commons.

Ironically, it is this very quasi-hidden antipathy to Corbyn that makes the book worthwhile for the critical reader – it certainly is not a biography that treats its subject with undue reverence!

Meanwhile, Ken’s book is much more appealing. Part transcribed interviews (with author and journalist – writing for bodies such as the New Economics Foundation – Anna Minton, and with left-green journalist and activist Angharad Penryhn Jones) and part subject-specific essays by Ken himself, it could be seen as either stylistically ‘bitty’ or appealingly heterogeneous. I feel it to be the latter, and rather enjoyed it.

Overall, I found the book insightful and very useful for seeing ‘Red Ken’ in a setting that contextualises his skills, influence and varied alliances more positively than the general media hate-fest ever would. The best chapters, though, are the two penned directly by Ken himself. The chapter entitled ‘Rebuilding the Party, Rebuilding Britain’ is excellent, illustrating the degree to which supposedly ideologically extreme leftists like Ken (and Jeremy) are in fact great pragmatists with an eye on results as much as process, engaging all sorts of corporate business interests as positively as they do the minorities they are often castigated for helping. He also takes a stance on ‘quantitative easing’ (printing new money) as a method of addressing Tory-created ‘austerity’ that even a non-economist such as myself can see is a bit out of the mainstream, yet quite convincingly argued. The chapter on the mayoral campaign against Boris is great, showing not only how toxically narcissistic Johnson is, but also mirroring quite scarily the media assaults on a left candidate that we saw only last week against Sadiq Khan.

As a somewhat concerning bit of topicality – since these books went to press, aspects of both Ken and Jeremy’s political stand on minorities, touched on in both books, have exploded all over the media. London is a multicultural city – under Livingstone, one where inter-group tensions in many ways were pacified, but under Boris have exploded. Islington, Jeremy’s seat as MP for over 30 years, is a microcosm of the city as a whole. He has a large Muslim and a large Irish community there. Thus, they both are used to addressing the concerns of a heterogeneous community. They both have been conciliatory toward those communities’ concerns (including Jewish communities). Both have taken much flak for ‘talking to the enemy’ or even being ‘enemy sympathisers’ just for opening positive dialogue with, for example, Sinn Féin / the IRA, and the Palestinian government (i.e. Hamas). Both, especially Jeremy, have been quite open about this and see dialogue as an absolute necessity to seeking a peace. The reader can make his own decision as to whether this represents no more than pragmatism or instead represents treasonous activity, but prima facie, it seems to me obvious that the polarised hatreds peddled by the media merely throw fuel on the fire, and dialogue is of course required to defuse that. Yet, as we’ve seen recently, it is all too easy to over-simplify a politician’s position to reduce it to an easily castigated cartoon.

Both these books shed a bit of light on these dark media battles. Battles clearly designed to undermine public confidence in non-mainstream candidates for office. Indeed, since Jeremy and Ken have worked together and been allies for years, the recent assault upon Livingstone seems rather obviously a test-run for an all-out war upon Corbyn. These books, Ken’s by design, and Prince’s by reading between the lines, go some way to arming us with a fairer perspective on both these major players for the new ‘old’ Left in Britain than the elite-controlled media ever will.

In stock at Bookbuster:

 Comrade Corbyn by Rosa Prince (Blake), RRP £20, Bookbuster price £15

Being Red: A Politics for the Future by Ken Livingstone (Pluto), RRP £12.99, Bookbuster price £10.99