Is Socialism Possible in Britain? enters a now crowded field of post-Corbyn literature. With competition from the likes of Gabriel Pogrund & Patrick Maguire’s standout post-2017 contribution Left Out, visions of what the Labour left should do next in books like James Schneider’s Our Bloc, and even books that attempt to analyse the leadership and character of Keir Starmer. Before even putting pen to paper, Andrew Murray’s work was cut out in delivering something genuinely fresh. You might feel a pang of sympathy for Murray here, but you shouldn’t. This book is absolutely dire.
An unrepentant member of the Communist Party of Britain, and having recently rejoined according to reports, Murray only joined the Labour Party at the behest of his union but served as special advisor to Jeremy Corbyn from 2018-2020. The book’s stated aim, with his intimate knowledge of Corbyn’s Office, is to “explore how the problems that beset Corbyn can be more effectively addressed in the future.”
It fails in its entirety to do this.
The reason it fails is quite simple. Murray cannot accurately reflect on the Corbyn years and what the left should do next because it doesn’t seem like he knows the answer. Instead of being up front about that – a perfectly reasonable position given the sheer scale of the 2019 defeat and Murray’s position as Special Advisor to Jeremy Corbyn – he has written what is probably the most self-regarding and boring book on the Labour party I have ever read (which is no mean feat).
In Murray’s words his book “Attempts to synthesise memoir, history, and analysis”. The book is found wanting in all three of these areas. From start to finish it’s an incredibly dull read. Murray has written a book for a very niche audience, like other books published which reflect on the Corbyn years, his take is entirely intended for the converted.
With this in mind though, it is a baffling decision to include a potted history of socialism that went all the way back to 1848 for a book that stands at a lean 256 pages including footnotes and appendices. Murray states that the purpose of this was to contextualise how Corbyn and his allies found themselves, as radicals, “At the helm of one of the most historically conservative products of the international working class movement”. However this choice felt less a product of wanting to place Corbynism in a wider historical context and more due to a lack of self-confidence on Murray’s part that he had anything meaningful to actually say.
The actual context missing at the start of the book is Murray’s own background. Born into an aristocratic Scottish family, it’s no surprise Murray wouldn’t mention the prestigious boarding school he attended, the Picasso his family recently sold for a cool £50 million, or the fact his father appears on wikipedia dressed in a medieval tabard.
Murray does mention that he spent much of his political life in the Communist Party of Britain, but omits that this time was spent in the Straight Left faction (which published a paper of the same name), known for their opposition to Eurocommunism and uncritical attitude towards the Soviet Union. An attitude that would’ve stood him in good stead when he was the UK Correspondent for Novosti, the Soviet news agency in the late 1980s. At one point Murray’s omissions do become a bit glaring, such as recounting when he asked his street artist son what he made of Keir Starmer, to which his son replied “Dad he’s a cop…he’s got police face[sic]”. Far be it from me to defend Starmer from this particular charge, but it certainly carries differently when it’s coming via the great-great-grandson of the imperial governor of Madras.
Regardless of what you think of Murray’s background, it’s fair to say that his is very much not the norm for Labour politics, Seumas Milne and Steve Howell, both Corbyn advisors, were also in the CPGB and Straight Left, though neither are also descendents of the landed gentry, for example. For interested readers who are aware of Murray’s statements on the invasion of Ukraine (Murray wrote just before the war’s outbreak for Stop The War Coalition that the idea the anti-war movement should confront Russia was a myth), Murray does mention his ban from entering Ukraine, first reported in 2018. He places it alongside the delay in him attaining a parliamentary pass as part of a campaign on behalf of the British media to discredit him and by extension Corbyn, with no apparent curiosity as to why the ban remains in place to this day.
His omissions go beyond facts about his background though. For much of the book Murray merely recounts the history of the Corbyn leadership, and the recent history of the British left, as if he were a complete outsider. Not mentioning why he was chosen by Jeremy Corbyn to be his advisor to begin with, or his time as Chief of Staff at Unite the union. Perhaps Murray assumes that if the reader is buying this book will already know, but it’s a strange literary choice. The few personal anecdotes in the book follow a similar structure: a problem rears its head, Murray – and usually Jon Trickett – write a report of what should be done, said report is then ignored to which Murray reflects that “Sadly, I was right” about how the problem should’ve been handled.
The three main subjects the book tackles in the most detail are antisemitism, Brexit, and Corbyn. On Brexit he makes a compelling case for why he was ignored by the Labour leadership. Murray’s analysis is logical, he says that Labour lost in 2019 after moving from being an “Insurgent agent of radical change” in 2017 to being “Perceived as part of a stonewalling Establishment, besotted with constitutional arcana and parliamentary process.” His prescription to this however – for Labour to have done a deal with Theresa May in autumn of 2017 and passed her Brexit deal – hardly seems plausible if what was most important was maintaining Labour’s anti-establishment status. In his reflections Murray seems to believe Labour were the protagonists of Brexit and not the European Research Group of Tory MPs. His musings come across like a man hopelessly lost in a maze while confidently giving directions to its exit.
Murray’s view of Labour’s antisemitism crisis is equally riddled with contradictions. On the presence of antisemites at solidarity marches, Murray says “Anti-Semites[sic] are a small part of the movement, desperately sought out by hostile media to be highlighted on every solidarity protest the better to besmirch the cause”. The fact that Murray believes they have a presence on every solidarity protest but doesn’t seem to think this is a problem which should be confronted by the movement itself is troubling. Equally troubling is his view of the EHRC report of its investigation into antisemitism in the Labour party:
The EHRC investigation actually turned out not to be the damning indictment that had been anticipated. Labour was found to have unlawfully discriminated against Jewish members through the acts of its agents in two instances, one of them the 2016 remarks on Hitler’s alleged Zionism by Ken Livingstone (an NEC member at the time), the other online remarks by a councillor in the North-West.
That he doesn’t view the fact the party was found to have unlawfully discriminated against Jewish members as damning seems absurd, but Murray is more interested in defending Jeremy Corbyn against the charge of antisemitism personally. In doing so he perhaps inadvertently reveals the blind spot of the Labour leadership to the issue of antisemitism was as such that “Speeches were not made, initiatives not taken, outreach was limited, proactive political strategy was absent and concerned staff were marginalised.”
Murray’s arguments seem to unintentionally make the case that the Labour leadership thought the problem of antisemitism would be better if the media paid less attention to it, but that Jeremy Corbyn, in Murray’s words, “Succumed to a passivity on a question that was doing us moral damage.” Murray put these statements across with the intention of defending Jeremy Corbyn, they of course do anything but.
There is no Corbynism, only socialism.
This is repeated a few times throughout the book. Though apart from the aforementioned potted history of socialism, he barely mentions socialism at all. It may be a safe assumption that the target audience of this book is those who share his Herbert Morrisonish view that socialism is whatever Jeremy Corbyn does. But by the end of the book I’m no clearer as to whether or not Murray thinks socialism is possible in Britain. I’m clearer to the fact that his reflections on the Corbyn leadership begin and end with the grievance that he wasn’t listened to. But the overwhelming feeling by the end of the book is still one of utter boredom.
Murray, not one for melodrama, ends the book by comparing the defeat of Corbynism to both the Peterloo and the Amritsar massacres saying, “This defeat – a bloodless one – will be overcome as well.” Upon his appointment as Corbyn’s special advisor, Kevin Maguire described Murray as “Sharp, strategic, and steely”, I can think of another word beginning with S that I would use to describe this book.