This is Only the Beginning: The Making of a New Left, From Anti-Austerity to the Fall of Corbyn takes a different approach to many of the books that have been published in the wake of Labour’s 2019 election defeat. Michael Chessum seeks to place Corbynism in a wider historical context, going back to the anti-austerity movement of 2010 to write a history of Corbynism from below. This is a tough ask on Chessum’s part: the left was at its lowest and most atomised ebb in 2010, and Corbynism’s approach to party democracy was ultimately little different to its predecessors.
The book is not a comprehensive history of the period. It primarily covers Chessum’s life experiences over a decade interspersed with interviews with a wide array of Chessum’s contemporaries and familiar faces from the British left. As a result it is reminiscent of autobiographies of those at the very start of their career (think Wayne Rooney’s My Story So Far). The book is an enjoyable read, but is limited by its inability to marry up its two subjects beyond the experiences of the author. I often found myself thinking it would be better condensed and told as part of a broader story – but of course said story is yet to occur.
If you followed the Labour party during the Brexit years, it’s likely you’ll have come across Michael Chessum’s work, even if not the man himself. As National Organiser for Another Europe Is Possible, Chessum represented the most significant “Hard-left, hard-remain” ginger group during Corbyn’s leadership. AEIP are still active today, last year calling for Keir Starmer to pursue a better Brexit deal. Before this Chessum co-founded the student group, National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts. The book’s first part, nominally about anti-austerity, mainly focuses on a view from the ground in the student protest movement of the early 2010s, before moving onto Corbynism.
One important oversight was made on the part of the author. Antisemitism is not mentioned once throughout the book. Speaking to Chessum about it directly, he told me that because he had nothing original to say on the subject he thought it best to say nothing rather than say something boring or obvious. Chessum was himself outspoken in his opposition to antisemitism and the actions of the leadership during the Corbyn years – but the book could’ve done with including the clarification Chessum gave to me as to why it isn’t mentioned. After all, not everyone will think to get in touch with the author for their view on the subject.
The book ultimately fails to bring its two stands together for the simple reason that the student protest movement of the early 2010s was not the driving force behind Corbynism. This isn’t to say no one involved in the student movement was involved in Corbynism, but they did not make up any of the senior roles in Corbyn’s office, and were not the driving force behind either the membership that supported him, or the coalition of voters which voted for him.
The biggest issue with the book is that many of the digressions are more interesting than the actual narrative. For example, Chessum recounts a fascinating history of what early left wing evangelists for social media thought it would do to activism and protest. In short, many thought they could stay one step ahead of police at protests and more broadly negate the need for institutions or leaders to organise themselves. As well as this, Chessum has a rich and sophisticated understanding of the British far left, specifically Trotskyism, though he’s never been a member of any Trotskyist organisation. Particularly enjoyable was his summary of how specific groups would respond to being questioned on what internal policy debate they were having:
A member of Workers’ Liberty would cheerily give you a list; a member of the SWP would remain silent out of party discipline; and a member of Socialist Action would generally deny their own group’s existence and hastily change the subject.
As for the book’s main narrative; on the student movement it’s mostly clouded by Chessum’s own nostalgia for the time, which is understandable. In some areas this is harmless and even beneficial for the book – the outsized historical importance Chessum assigns to the Millbank Tower protest is coloured by the fact he was there. In a way, hyping up the importance of this event is exactly what a book like this should be about.
In other areas, though, this goes a bit too far. This is especially evident in a puzzling section which compares the similarity between students occupying a building at a university to the university workers themselves going on strike, vastly overstating the importance of students in university disputes between bosses and staff. These grievances are minor compared to the issue with part two though.
The moment of Corbynism covered is Chessum’s time on Momentum’s Steering Committee (2015-16) and what he sees as the quashing of its flawed but blossoming democracy. Though this makes up a very short period of time relative to the entire Corbyn’s leadership, Chessum’s entire analysis and prescription for what should’ve and should be done next are gleaned from it. Chessum’s argument – that party democratisation would’ve and will solve all issues the Labour party faces – hasn’t really moved on from 2016. It’s hard to imagine now, but briefly the top order of the day within the party was a debate around the idea of Labour abandoning the immediate goal of winning elections to become a social movement.
Policy is only briefly touched on in this section but doesn’t really go beyond immigration and Brexit. Chessum’s focus on party democracy becomes severely myopic, arguing that it represented “Working class self-emancipation” while decrying Corbynism for “[coming] to be dominated by an orthodox perspective which saw the future entirely in terms of electing a Labour government, with the levers of power and policy resting in the hands of experts and fixers.” This myopia affects Chessum’s analysis, not mentioned is Corbyn’s own personal unpopularity going into the 2019 election – what party democracy would’ve done to remedy this given his popularity with the membership at the time is anyone’s guess.
The conclusion doesn’t so much wrap up the two main threads of the book as it does whizz through a list of what should be done next, in the form of short, disconnected essays. Included in these are a clarion call for the Labour party to split (after Proportional Representation has been implemented), a call for a “Bottom up transformation of the trade union movement”, and the New Left to wake up and realise its strength. Even its most frustrating sections were much more thought provoking than similar books of the post-Corbyn milieu, but Chessum’s engaging writing can’t paper over the cracks between the book’s disparate threads. The section on the student movement is interesting enough. However, what could’ve been a strong critique of actually existing Corbynism becomes instead a rage against a long extinguished and forgotten light.