Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn arrives with political aide Seumas Milne to record an interview for The Andrew Marr Show on September 22, 2019 (Photo by Leon Neal/Getty Images)

The anti-Corbyn plot that never was

John Ware looks at the hard facts behind Momentum’s claims of centrist betrayal

This article is taken from the September issue of The Critic. For the full article why not subscribe to the print magazine? Right now we’re offering 3 issues for just £5.

The moment it became clear that Jeremy Corbyn’s reign as leader of the Labour Party was going to end in political humiliation, the true believers of the Corbyn project began constructing a ticking time bomb designed to detonate under the party’s new leadership. Their dream of a truly socialist government had, they believed, been sabotaged by a centrist fifth column, who bought into what they believed to be the false claims of a number of traitorous “whistleblowers” — the party officials who told me on the BBC’s Panorama that under Corbyn, Labour had created a safe space for antisemitic views.

Furthermore, they claimed, some of these officials had actively conspired to stop Corbyn winning the 2017 election in a secret project funded with the party’s own money with the connivance of senior party staff. Indeed, so their analysis goes, just 2,227 more Labour votes in just seven marginal constituencies could have seen Jeremy Corbyn instead of Theresa May installed in Number Ten. Clear proof, they believe, that Corbyn had been stabbed in the back.

The report provides ammunition for those who cling to the belief that “Jeremy” was betrayed rather than defeated

And the evidence for all this? A leaked 851-page internal report titled “The work of the Labour Party’s Governance and Legal Unit in relation to antisemitism, 2014-2019”, which also has a section on the alleged 2017 election plot. Don’t be fooled by the portentous title. The report was written by some of Corbyn’s most loyal allies — by a faction for a faction. It claims to be the result of an “in-depth and extensive investigatory work” providing a “full and thorough account of the evolution of the Party’s disciplinary processes in relation to dealing with complaints of antisemitism”.

It’s nothing of the sort, though the report continues to provide ammunition for those who cling to the belief that “Jeremy” was betrayed rather than defeated in the same way that doomsday cult members blame the calendar when the world fails to end.

The leaked report puts one man at the heart of both the alleged 2017 election conspiracy and the alleged antisemitism smear conspiracy: Panorama’s main whistleblower, Sam Matthews. Matthews is an open, intelligent, easy-going 28-year-old who, as an official in the Governance and Legal Unit was responsible for investigating complaints, including those relating to antisemitism. With no fewer than 935 references to him in the leaked report, he has become a target of near-pathological hatred by Corbynites.

Centrist Svengali? Panorama whistleblower Sam Matthews

The former Party middle manager is portrayed as having Svengali-like powers. Although he wrote a series of emails to the Leader of the Opposition’s Office (LOTO) seeking their guidance on antisemitism disciplinary cases, the report suggests he didn’t want their guidance at all. It was all a fake, because what he was really doing was collecting LOTO’s replies so he could leak them to the press after he left his Labour job to show that LOTO had interfered in antisemitism cases contrary to Corbyn’s multiple denials.

So let me try and deal with the facts. Having spent many hours interrogating Matthews and other party officials ahead of the Panorama broadcast, I regard him as a man of integrity. I believe him when he (supported by others in a position to know) says the reason he sought LOTO’s guidance on antisemitism disciplinary cases was because 18 months of hostility from Corbynite NEC members and interference from LOTO itself in disciplinary cases (not just antisemitism) had left Matthews and colleagues at their wits end, fearful of enraging LOTO when what they needed was political cover for their decisions, not opposition. 

There are many such incidents that the leaked report omits. “We thought ‘You know what?” said one former official. “If you want to make these decisions, then just make them and you take responsibility. Let’s not pretend we’re making them and that you’re not interfering’.”

The alleged antisemitism “conspiracy” is just one of several the report sees as having been directed at undermining the entire Corbyn project. But the report’s central pillars crumble when subjected to forensic scrutiny, as may become clear with the publication of the Equalities Commission inquiry into antisemitism in the Labour Party this autumn.

Alas, this is a journalistic challenge that activists in the alt-left media such as Skwawkbox, The Canary, Novara Media, and even the UK-based political website Open Democracy have conspicuously ducked. Instead, they’ve taken the report’s findings at face value.

A recent tweet from Novara Media’s founder Aaron Bastani tells you all you need to know about the quality of today’s “activist” journalism. Responding to breaking news of the massive Beirut explosion, Bastani tweeted: “Thermobaric weapon. Only one Air Force uses them so liberally.” He then deleted it in an attempt to disguise his anti-Israel prejudice.

The scapegoating of dissenting voices by supporters of the failed Corbyn project has described as a “wrecking tactic” by former leadership candidate David Miliband. How the report came to be commissioned, its contents and its leaking are now the subject of an inquiry set up by Starmer, headed by Martin Forde QC and a team including the former Labour General Secretary Larry Whitty, Baroness Debbie Wilcox, head of the Welsh Local Government Association, and Professor Ruth Lister.

If anything, the Corbynites sabotaged Labour’s electoral chances in 2019 by focusing on Jeremy Corbyn

Last month, a submission to Forde from Corbyn and eight of his closest political allies and advisers was leaked to the Guardian. It claimed overwhelming evidence of sabotage in the 2017 general election. A submission from Unite also alludes to “electoral sabotage” by officials whom McCluskey has described as “politically crooked”.

As with all the alt-left media reports on this subject, Unite relies on the leaked report’s finding that a secret project was run by anti-Corbyn party officials, diverting “at least £175,000” from the 2017 election budget to fund a “parallel general election campaign . . . to support sitting MPs, some of whom enjoyed comfortable parliamentary majorities”.

Unite suspects possible “fraud . . . and false accounting” and want Forde to find out if the money was “diverted to particular Labour candidates because they were personal friends or factional allies”. Unite stopped short of alleging sabotage, but Corbynite cheerleader in chief Dr Justin Schlosberg — a former rock singer turned departmental head of media studies at Birkbeck University, London has no such hesitation. He postulates that the mainstream media have not picked up on this story “not so much (because) there is insufficient evidence of sabotage, but overwhelming evidence”.

It is troubling that a media academic doesn’t seem to know how the mainstream media works. Were there any compelling evidence of sabotage in the 2017 election, journalists would have been all over it like a pack of wolves. There isn’t. 

The leaked report, however, is correct to say there was a project, which it calls the “Ergon House project”, so named because it operated out of Ergon House, the party’s London regional office. The report is also correct in saying that the project was run by Matthews, although it was inspired by more senior officials who, like Matthews, had witnessed levels of ineptitude not experienced with any previous Labour leader and their private office. The project was also secret in as much as it was not disclosed to Corbyn or his office.

But beyond reporting these facts accurately, the authors provide no evidence from scouring (they claim) 100,000 emails that the motivation was to sabotage Corbyn’s chances of becoming prime minister. The report’s authors “are trying to build a mythical ‘stab in the back’ conspiracy theory to absolve themselves of the consequences of their incompetence,” one former official told the Guardian.

The project was actually called the “Bespoke Materials Service”. Unite’s submission to Forde even misreports the amount the BMS spent which was £135,014, just 1.2 per cent of Labour’s reported £11 million election spend.

Even if they had won the extra seats, this would still only have brought a “Rainbow coalition” level-pegging with the Tories

In fact, the rationale behind the BMS was this: with the Tories 19 points ahead when Theresa May called the 2017 election, officials in Labour’s senior management team (SMT) feared for the very survival of the party as a viable opposition. Based on information about where voter sentiment was moving away from Labour, all the party’s 231 seats were graded according to whether they were “key”, “should be OK”, or “not winnable”.

From this breakdown, 75 “key” seats were selected as qualifying for additional campaign support — should the local candidate or their campaign teams request it. In practice, only about half did. Fifty-one of the 75 “key” seats were in the Midlands and the North, including some that formed Labour’s so-called Red Wall.

In contrast to the SMT’s defensive “belt and braces” strategy, Team Corbyn’s strategy was to put the leader in front of large crowds. “Ergon House . . . failed to understand the momentum that was gathering behind the Labour campaign led by Jeremy Corbyn,” says the leaked report and that, at least, seems fair comment. With nightly pictures of Corbyn playing to the crowd in stark contrast to May’s public awkwardness, the polls began to narrow.

Even so, Labour’s seasoned election strategists assessed that a more sophisticated localised campaign was required in parts of the party’s traditional heartlands where “Corbyn rallies, leaflets and direct mail” were proving to be counterproductive. “The last face many Labour voters wanted to see was Jeremy Corbyn,” said one BMS official. “That was the clear message coming back to us from the doorstep. To be honest, many of them couldn’t stand him.”

So, much of the £135,000 spent on BMS went towards a Project Fear PR campaign, the focus not on Corbyn but on what Margaret Thatcher did in the 1980s. “The Tories have wrecked the north-east before — and they’ll do it again,” was Labour’s message to places like Sunderland There was just a nod to the Corbyn manifesto “For the many not the few.”

Unite claims that had the BMS budget been allocated to LOTO’s Corbyn-based campaign, “it is entirely possible that Labour would have won sufficient seats to deprive the Conservatives of a majority.” Another 2,227 votes in seven marginals, maintains Unite, would have given Corbyn a chance to form a minority “Rainbow” government with the SNP, Lib Dems, Greens and Plaid Cymru.

For the true believers convinced the leaked report provides irrefutable proof of the plotting and sabotage committed against Corbyn, this is where they reach a pitch of fantasy beyond even the report itself. Had Labour won the extra 2,227, they would need to have been perfectly distributed so as to give each marginal a majority of just one. Moreover, without BMS, at least three seats it targeted would probably have fallen. Officials say it was only thanks to BMS that Labour scraped in at Newcastle-under-Lyme, Dudley North and Ashfield with the slimmest of majorities: 30, 22 and 441, respectively.

Corbyn’s inner circle regarded the 2017 result— where they lost by 55 seats  — as a triumph

Even if Labour had won the extra seats, this would still only have brought a Corbyn-led “Rainbow coalition” level-pegging with the Conservatives and the Democratic Unionist Party at 321 seats each. For Corbyn to actually get into Downing Street assumes he and his prospective partners could all have agreed a Queen’s Speech they could all live with — including a demand from the SNP for a second Scottish referendum. Brexit would also have been an issue. How long would this “Rainbow” have lasted before there was another election, which the Conservatives would have won?

We know they would have won because there was another election in 2019, when Corbyn had complete control of the party and all the anti-Corbyn officials had left. What happened? Those Red Wall seats which BMS officials had presciently targeted collapsed in a heap of rubble, the worst Labour election defeat since 1935. If anything, the Corbynites sabotaged Labour’s electoral chances in 2019 by focusing on Jeremy Corbyn who by then had become Labour’s most unpopular leader on record.

“It was categorically never my understanding of BMS that its purpose was to prevent Jeremy Corbyn from winning,” says Matthews, who supervised BMS’s PR and poster campaign in the project’s 75 seats. “Quite the reverse: its principal purpose was to try to ensure that the Labour Party remained a viable opposition even if we lost the 2017 election. Every penny was properly accounted for in election spending returns, and there are emails which show this.”

Meanwhile, Corbyn’s inner circle regarded the 2017 result —they lost by 55 seats against the worst Conservative campaign in living memory — as a triumph against expectations and, I am told, celebrated with champagne.

But, bizarre as it may seem, winning the 2017 election was apparently not the be-all and end-all. “Jeremy and his people didn’t actually think they could win,” said one insider. “They couldn’t have cared less about losing seats like Ashfield — seats that were saved by BMS — because they didn’t regard the likes of Gloria de Piero [then Ashfield’s MP] as legitimate Labour MPs. They wanted to fill the house with the Richard Burgons, the Barry Gardiners, the Chris Williamsons and the Rebecca Long Baileys. So all this talk about ‘sabotage’ is a load of sanctimonious bollocks.”

A former official explained: “They always talked about ‘The Project, The Project, The Project.’ It was almost like electoral success is selling yourself out.” The exception was John McDonnell who set his heart on winning and always sounded as if he meant it. I am told that officials occasionally witnessed Karie Murphy saying that winning “isn’t necessarily a priority for us”. That was reserved for transforming Labour into a post-Marxist party so that “we can change our communities for the better”.

However, the leaked report does contain enough private messaging to prove that many in Labour’s senior management team were praying for a humiliating Corbyn defeat (although no such messages have been published from Matthews). But that’s very different from saying they actively sought to bring it about. What is clear is that under Corbyn’s leadership, they felt the party was doomed and hoped a defeat would trigger a leadership campaign with Labour resuming its role as a credible opposition under a credible leader — as it has begun to do today.

I am told the BMS Project was not disclosed to LOTO because Team Corbyn “would have wanted to spend all of the party’s money on Jeremy rallies. They were obsessive about this. We were trying to ensure the survival of the party.” Nevertheless, as a twice elected leader with a large mandate, Corbyn clearly had a right to know, though the secrecy seems more of a political and moral issue than anything resembling McCluskey’s suggestion of fraud.

And anyway, shouldn’t a competent leader’s office have noticed that something was afoot, not least because 30 staffers had disappeared from Labour Party HQ? “The primary reason why they didn’t know about it was because they were too thick to ask the right questions,” said another ex-official. “They weren’t capable of being in control of this thing. It’s their own ineptitude that created this.”

Ineptitude is also blamed for other plots the conspiracy-minded Corbynites allege. John McDonell’s former adviser Joe Ryle seems convinced that the party machine sought to undermine Corbyn from the start. “I saw from the inside how Labour staff worked to prevent a Labour government,” he writes. “When Corbyn and McDonnell walked in on Day One, many of the computers had gone missing and the offices weren’t properly set up.”

When I inquired about this, I was told that because LOTO’s offices are part of the parliamentary estate, responsibility for supplying computers lay with the Parliamentary Information and Communication Service — not the Labour party. “There weren’t computers because Corbyn’s campaign hadn’t bothered to appoint a competent office manager to liaise with PICS,” a former official told me.

Martin Forde’s inquiry into the credibility of the report is not due to report for several months, but the Corbynites are already getting their retaliation in by dismissing Forde as a likely whitewash. Likewise, Corbyn has accused the Equalities Commission of no longer being independent but “part of the government machine”.

All political careers end in failure, but every previous Labour or Conservative leader has taken their punishment with dignity and left the stage. Can Corbyn and his supporters really be so oblivious to their growing reputation as the sorest losers in British political history? Do they even care? Perhaps not.

The report was leaked within hours of its formal submission to Keir Starmer by the outgoing Corbynite secretary-general Jennie Formby, presumably to embarrass Starmer. Whichever geniuses decided to do this have heaped catastrophe on ignominy. The leak has triggered several dozen legal claims for defamation and privacy. Damages and costs against Labour could run to several millions, which is why Starmer may seek to hold the leakers vicariously liable for this mess. The leaker(s) should worry. Forde is said to have already identified them.

“We’re not going to trash the last four years,” Kier Starmer said when he was running for the leadership. But now the Corbynites are full of vengeance and victimhood, he might have to. There’s a war on, more visceral than anything Labour has ever seen before.

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