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The Searchers by Andy Beckett review – the legacy of the radical left

The Searchers by Andy Beckett review – the legacy of the radical left

“Persistence,” writes Andy Beckett, “is one of the left’s qualities that its enemies like least.” These hair-shirted zealots spend countless hours meeting, rallying, consciousness-raising, drumming up meagre support for seemingly lost causes. While he was the Greater London Council leader, Ken Livingstone lived alone in a student bedsit, the centrepiece of his room a quarter-sized snooker table on which he would practise shots after a 14-hour working day. Such obsessiveness seems baffling to the unbeliever. Why, they wonder, doesn’t the left just give up?

This book offers an answer. “Leftwing politics,” Beckett claims, “is rarely the dead end its enemies would love it to be.” He begins in 1968, with Tony Benn’s conversion from an on-message cabinet minister into a standard-bearer for radicalism. Benn’s reawakening coincided roughly with the coming to political age of four much younger figures – Livingstone, Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell and Diane Abbott – who went on to forge a new left with him. Beckett has talked to all five, and is broadly a sympathiser, but his account of their project, while vividly detailed and often gripping, is as likely to reveal the left’s vanities and shortcomings.

A fair-minded assessment is vital because, as Beckett says, much of what we know about these politicians is filtered through the hostile vested interests, from hedge fund owners to landlords, of the vastly unequal country that Britain has become. From Benn’s billing as “the most dangerous man in Britain” in the 70s to the racism and misogyny meted out to Abbott, leftwing politicians are always judged by different standards. Abuse and death threats are the ambient noise of their lives. The new left these five built together drew on diverse influences: the radical sects that emerged from the English civil war, Salvador Allende’s Chilean socialist experiment, even the philosophy of Pope John XXIII. It valued democratic participation as much as equality, and it thrived in unwelcoming habitats: Thatcherite and New Labourite London and Britain in the years after the Brexit vote. Its success lay, Beckett argues, in “its attentiveness to social, economic and cultural trends, to how Britons were actually living”.

The Corbyn that emerges here – affable, a good listener, a diligent Islington MP – is hard to square with the stubborn, querulous persona he presented in interviews as Labour leader. Beckett addresses the case against his tenure – the chaotic party organisation, the lukewarm campaigning for remain, the failure to tackle antisemitism – thoroughly and fairly. In the end, the most damning impression this book leaves is that Corbyn didn’t especially want to be leader, and was unprepared to make even minor tonal adjustments to address the unconverted. Before the 2015 leadership election, Corbyn’s son Seb told McDonnell that his dad was “worried that he might win”.

The five politicians seem split between those prepared to build alliances and make compromises to gain power (Livingstone, McDonnell) and those playing a much longer game who see electoral victory almost as a side issue (Benn, Corbyn, Abbott). “Elections are a platform,” Benn said on Desert Island Discs in 1989. “People see elections much too much in terms of the outcome.” He told his supporters that his narrow loss to Denis Healey in Labour’s deputy leadership contest in 1981 was “an enormous victory”. Corbyn, similarly, spent months after the catastrophic 2019 general election defeat insisting that his arguments had been vindicated.

With caveats, Beckett subscribes to this Bennite view that politics is as much about changing ways of seeing and thinking as vote-counting. The left, he argues, has won many invisible, incremental battles, from investment in public transport in London to shifts in cultural attitudes. Today, pamphlets on diversity issued by Livingstone’s GLC “read like standard memos from human resources”. True enough, although how much this has to do with the GLC, or even the left, is debatable.

Benn’s final appearances in this book find him on a speaking tour. Wearing a cardigan and sipping from a flask of tea on stage, he offers his already converted audience the reassuring sense that they are on the side of the angels. Surveying Benn’s transformation into alternative national treasure, hero-worshipped into harmlessness, one is forced to conclude that the outcome of elections is, in fact, quite important.

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Source: theguardian.com