Alex Nunns’, The Candidate; Jeremy Corbyn’s improbable path to power, second edition is reviewed here by Margot Lindsay.
In discussing the path to power, Nunns explains that the left victory didn’t come from nowhere. While cataloguing the history of Labour since its defeat in 2010, he details the almost imperceptible ways in which Blairism weakened within the party. This started with the shock defeat of the Blairite hero David Miliband by his younger brother, and developed through a closer relationship between the latter and left trade unions.
He highlights, of course, the (in retrospect) catastrophic decision of Ed Miliband to abandon the electoral college system of voting for the Labour leader in favour of giving members and supporters one vote each. This achieved the outcome of putting Labour MPs on the same footing as every other member, much to their chagrin. It also meant that the PLP could not dominate leadership elections in the way that they had done previously (go back less than forty years and the PLP alone decided the leader) and made the election of a left-wing leader possible if not probable. Because the dominant narrative from the politicians and the press was that Labour lost because it was too left-wing, and that there had to be a return to the policies which could once again allow Labour to form a government.
Two things turned the sentiment of left-wing gloom around: one was the series of spontaneous and young demonstrations in response to the return of a Tory government, a series which culminated in the mass People’s Assembly demonstration in June; the other was the decision of Labour’s left to stand a candidate in the leadership election. That candidate was Jeremy Corbyn. Nunns recognises that Jeremy Corbyn benefited extensively from the role of extra-parliamentary movements in paving the way for his leadership success. His central role in a wide range of movements including Stop the War, of which he was chair, and CND; the breadth and size of the movements themselves; plus, those around the students, Occupy and the Peoples’ Assembly, all contributed to activity and consciousness.
The role of the People’s Assembly demo in June 2015 was also key. This was the first major public appearance by Corbyn after his nomination and he was greeted with a rapturous welcome. It was clear that this movement, which included within it the anti-war and peace movements, anti-racist movements as well as anti-austerity campaigns, was the organising base for a key section of Corbyn’s support.
Attacks by the press
Ever since Corbyn became leader, there has been a systematic attempt to strip away Labour’s democratic legitimacy. The Labour leadership has been relentlessly portrayed as Britain-hating terrorist sympathisers, as potentially mortal threats to the nation and its security. When the election was called, the Sun front page demanded “Blue murder” to “kill off Labour”, while the Daily Mail demanded that May “Crush the saboteurs”. In the post-Brexit political landscape, of course, the mainstream press even labels judges as “Enemies of the people”. In their efforts to smear Labour, and delegitimise them as an acceptable political force, British Toryism is destroying democratic culture in this country.The rightwing press whipped up hysteria, calling Corbyn a “collaborator”. A ludicrous Telegraph splash said that: “Corbyn urged to reveal his Stasi file” while the Daily said it was “Time to be open, Comrade Corbyn”. On the one hand, this is quite a cute throwback to cold war smears against Labour leaders, nearly three decades after the Berlin Wall fell. In 1924, MI6 forged a letter from Soviet leader Grigori Zinoviev urging subversion on the part of pro-Communist forces in the Labour party: the scandal helped ensure a decisive Tory victory. Harold Wilson was continually smeared as a Soviet spy, and there were even murmurings of a rightwing military coup against him. “KGB: Michael Foot was our agent” was one Sunday Times splash (leading to the paper being forced to pay libel damages in 1995); Neil Kinnock was accused of colluding with the Soviets, and in 1992, a Sunday Times splash simply read: “Official: Kinnock’s Kremlin Connection”.
The dominant narrative from the politicians and the press was that Labour lost because it was too left-wing, and that there had to be a return to the policies which could once again allow Labour to form a government.
In 2015 when Jeremy Corbyn ran for Labour Leader there was an upswell of feeling. A movement appeared that had three distinct tributaries into it: first, there was a sense within the Labour Party itself among existing party members that New Labour was over; second, there was a longer term shift to the left in the trade unions, resulting in them backing a left candidate, which was very important; and third, there was the anti-austerity movement, the anger at the consequences of the 2008 crash. In Britain we saw it in various manifestations like Occupy and UK Uncut and the anti-austerity demonstrations. But it didn’t have an electoral focus before Jeremy Corbyn came along in 2015. That’s how he became leader of the Labour Party. During three years he was fantastic at going out on the road and talking to people, giving speeches, inspiring big rallies and creating energy. He prompted people into action, into going and knocking on doors. Plus there was the work that Momentum did in sending activists to the right places.
The issue of tax avoidance by big corporations became a major policy focus for Labour’s campaign. From 2010 to 2015, there were lots of local Save Our Services campaigns, anti-cuts campaigns, there was the People’s Assembly and there were big anti-austerity demonstrations organised by the trade unions – one of them had over 400,000 people on it which was the biggest demonstration since the Iraq War. The anti-austerity movement went in fits and starts.
Whenever Jeremy Corbyn has been threatened or when he got to the general election, the movements have mobilised effectively, either to defend Corbyn or to get people to vote Labour. Labour dominated the news. And that seemed to happen throughout the election. Jeremy Corbyn himself was a huge asset to the campaign. He is fantastic at going out on the road and talking to people, giving speeches, inspiring big rallies and creating energy. He prompted people into action, into going and knocking on doors. Plus there was the work that Momentum did in sending activists to the right places. A lot of that was spontaneous but direction was provided by Corbyn’s personal accounts, by prominent Corbyn-supporting social media figures, by Momentum and others. Between 2008 and 2015 when Jeremy Corbyn was elected Labour Leader the social movements expressed opposition. Tax avoidance by big corporations became a major policy focus for Labour’s campaign. It was pushed onto the agenda by UK Uncut and Occupy in 2011. But it ensured the issue couldn’t be forgotten because discontent kept bubbling up.
Mark Perryman argues that now more than ever is the time to transform Labour into a social movement. Meanwhile on the all-important ideological level it is hard to dispute, despite the naysaying commentariat and backbiting from the Labour hard right, Labour has been setting the agenda almost from the moment the June 8 votes were counted. Exposing the Tories getting into bed with the DUP as not so much a coalition of chaos but the coalition from hell. Responding to the causes and consequences of the Grenfell disaster. Standing up for an NHS facing the impossible task of coping with a winter crisis as resources and morale wither away. Locating the Carillion collapse in the rottenness of privatisation at any cost. And now most recently outlining a way to navigate Brexit in a manner that puts the haplessness of Johnson, Davis and Fox to utter shame. All the doorstep activity is a building block towards a mass, members-led party rooted in our communities rather than the entrenched deference of the parliamentary party.
Why Corbyn Won
There were three major strands which came together in Corbyn’s first leadership campaign, and which continue to form the basis of the movement around him. These were existing Labour Party members, the trade unions, and a range of people on the Left without party affiliation, many of whom were active in various social movements. These people became the £3 members. What all three stands had in common was that they all sprang from resistance to the Thatcherite economic model, or neoliberalism, which suffered such a catastrophic collapse in 2008 and hasn’t recovered.
In parallel to this, the unions began to respond to the end of their long-standing alliance with the Labour right. Eroded by several decades of neoliberal restructuring, this influence was further reduced under Tony Blair. Why bother with the unions? They were seen as an old-fashioned, declining force. As far as Blair was concerned, they were simply an impediment, and he was aggressive towards the unions during his time in charge. Most of Thatcher’s anti-union laws remained in force; Blairites talked of severing the party’s link with the unions; leading trade unionists were briefed against in the press.
The result was the switch to a one-member-one-vote system (OMOV) and the opening up to the public of the £3 voting fee. Ironically, this was driven by the right in the belief that it would finally smash the influence of the unions and the left – the result, of course, was very different. That Ed Miliband, the supposedly pro-union Labour leader, sided with the right during this episode, meant that union leaders were more open to something they would have never considered before: backing a figure from the radical left, more out of desperation than any expectation of actually winning.
Part of this also involves participating in struggles not directly connected to the Labour Party or electoral politics, and that’s one of the great benefits of having Corbyn as leader. He’s campaigned with social movements for decades, and he’s never demanded to see people’s membership cards before building common causes. It’s important that these struggles continue, as arguments around foreign policy, health care, austerity and so on have to be won in society, rather than the purely legislative solutions being sought in Parliament.
There is a polarisation in British politics where the left has to fight hard for the kind of people’s Brexit for which Jeremy Corbyn has been arguing. That fight cannot be simply won internally within Labour, but requires the kind of mass mobilisations and activism which can help shift opinion to the left and raise working-class confidence to fight.
The left has to adopt a new kind of politics which can speak to those disaffected social-democratic supporters and win them from a right-wing alternative. Jeremy Corbyn is in the unique position of being representative of those new politics but within an old social-democratic party, and one where something will have to give at some point. It is highly recommended.
Alex Nunns tells the story of the Corbyn campaign, its prelude and its aftermath, in an immensely readable and well researched book explaining Jeremy Corbyn’s improbable power in 2016 and provides an optimistic spirit for the future of our country.
The Candidate; Jeremy Corbyn’s Improbable path to power by Alex Nunns, OR Books, 2018. ISBN 978-168219-104-0