The unlikley rise of Jeremy Corbyn: interview with The Candidate author Alex Nunns

January 30, 2017
Protesters hold up a placards in support of Leader of the opposition Labour Party Jeremy Corbyn outside parliament during a pro-Corbyn demonstration in London in June last year.
Protesters hold up a placards in support of Leader of the opposition Labour Party Jeremy Corbyn outside parliament during a pro-Corbyn demonstration in London in June last year.

Alex Nunns’ new book, The Candidate, charts the improbable rise of the socialist Jeremy Corbyn from a long-time backbencher to the leader of the Labour Party. In what is the most extensive and thoroughly researched account of this most unexpected of political turns, Nunns traces the multiple political processes that over the course of one summer combined to shake the Labour Party to its core. Red Pepper co-editor Andrew Dolan talks to Nunns about this phenomenon, the role of the left, the failure of the Blairites, and just why it was the media got it so wrong. 


How did Jeremy Corbyn become leader of the Labour Party?

This is what the book sets out to answer. There are three discernable processes going on and they all came together. There was one in the Labour Party, and that was members turning against New Labour as a result of the Iraq War, the financial crash in 2008 and also marketisation—all the things that New Labour did that were against the grain of Labour values and that by 2015 had reached a head.

Then there is a second process in the trade unions, which is a much longer process of them trying to regain their influence in the party after they were turfed out by New Labour. Previously they had been in alliance with the Labour leadership and they controlled the party from that position. But after Thatcher booted the unions out of their corporate role in the British economy, Blair and New Labour saw no real need for a close alliance with the unions. So the unions were in a weak position in the party and they ended up gradually forming alliances with the left, and shifted to the left as different people were elected to positions of influence within the unions.

By 2015 they had spent the previous five years consciously trying to reshape the Labour Party. They came to the 2015 leadership election and the other candidates were generally unsympathetic. Andy Burnham, who was supposed to be the union candidate, went out of his way to say he didn’t want union money. Combined with strong grassroots pressure from trade unionists, the result was that the bulk of the unions backed Corbyn. This represents a big historical shift. Ralph Miliband, for example, assumed that the traditional role of the unions in the party provided a block to Labour being led by a socialist. But the transformation we have seen in the trade union movement has thrown that out of the window—at least for now.

The third process concerns activists of the broad left—general progressives, networked people, movement people, anti-war and anti-austerity campaigners—who got behind Corbyn because first of all he was a candidate who had been with them on all of their protests for the previous decade and secondly because they could influence the Labour Party without having to join just by paying three pounds.

Those processes or energies were all there before Corbyn but they were diffuse, they were stratified, they didn’t have one thing to aim at so people felt lost, whichever part of the left you were in. Then all of a sudden there was this chance for Corbyn to achieve the ultimate prize for many people on the left, which was to lead the Labour Party. That gave everybody the same focus. These three things came together and the result was the Corbyn movement. It wasn’t even that strong or self-conscious in 2015 but it became so in 2016.

In your book you say that following the 2015 election the Labour left believed itself to be at the weakest point in its history. Do agree with their assessment?

They were much stronger than they realised. Lots of people on the left didn’t want to stand a candidate for the leadership because they thought they would be crushed. People like Owen Jones and John McDonnell, who said it was the darkest hour for socialists since 1951. These are people who have spent their life trying to advance the left within the Labour Party and they perceived that they were at a historical weak point. In some respects they were right, and we have seen that since Corbyn was elected. It’s one of the great historical ironies that the left has finally taken control of the Labour Party at the top level at a time when in society and in the economy it’s at a weak point. The strength of the labour movement is weak compared to what it has been. But they (the left) were unaware of this massive shift in sentiment that was coming from these three different directions. Even within Labour they were unaware of the mood within their own party. In the book I’ve made fun of journalists for missing what was happening and for writing Corbyn off, but in actual fact the left did the same thing.

Despite its title, your book isn’t really about Corbyn at all. Was it a conscious decision for you to report this story from a different angle, rather than repeat the media’s intense focus on Corbyn himself?

Yes. There is a slogan—‘a movement not a man’—that was taken up by Corbyn supporters in 2015 and I agree with that. I think Jeremy Corbyn’s personal characteristics and politics were important at certain moments in the campaign, but it’s not like a demagogic or charismatic leader has come along and everybody is just falling under their spell. It was a historical moment that brought it about. The book is not about Corbyn; it’s about why Corbyn happened.

‘There is a kind of culture clash between “old Labour”…and the new, slightly younger, “horizontally networked” people’

You say that the second leadership contest revealed the strength of the movement behind Corbyn. How difficult do you think it will be for the movement to get out of the position whereby its premier energies are focused on defending Corbyn? Or can it reorient towards the types of local organising that are probably essential for Labour to win in 2020?

That’s the big problem, because it’s much more difficult to do that local organising if you’re defending Jeremy Corbyn’s position in the party, which is in many ways a much easier task and one they’ve proved extremely effective at doing. Whereas building outwards is more patient, painstaking work. I think it’s a dilemma, because if you spend all your time building outwards you can’t leave Jeremy Corbyn undefended because he is completely vulnerable at the moment. If he were toppled then it would be a crushing defeat for the movement. Both things are necessary and you can’t do one and not the other.

And you can see the tension within Momentum, between these two things: should it be a Progress-style organisation of the left, battling away inside the Labour Party, or should it be a social movement, building broad alliances? At the moment it’s trying to be both and we’ll have to see how well it does that.

Why is it so important that Jeremy Corbyn retains his position as leader when what we are really talking about is a movement? What’s the relationship between the two?

First of all you can see by the number of people joining the Labour Party just how much of a shot of adrenaline to the left having the leader of the party is. If Corbyn hadn’t run there would have been no left interest in the Labour Party and the movement would have remained diffuse. So the kind of focus that having a left candidate gave galvanised and brought people in, made people fight, get involved and go to meetings—all that kind of stuff. So it was obviously essential to getting to where we are now.

Were Corbyn for whatever reason unable to continue, with the rules the way they are Labour MPs would not nominate a candidate of the left to replace him. So the left would have lost that access and it would have lost its position, its visibility, and it would cause massive demoralisation. The two are linked—I said earlier that it’s about a movement not a man, but at the same time just by the mechanics of politics it’s not possible to pretend that you can have a diffuse movement without that kind of focus.

And do you think ‘Corbynism’ is built on a stable foundation or is it a temporary alliance?

I don’t think it’s stable at all, but I’m not sure that much in politics is ever stable. Politics is always a network of shifting alliances. There is a kind of culture clash between ‘old Labour,’ or the people who have stayed in the labour movement since the 1980s, and the new, slightly younger, ‘horizontally networked’ people, and they have different politics. You can see that in the debate around the progressive alliance. The latter group, for example, tend to be keen on the idea; they don’t think that there is any point fighting the Greens where the Greens have a chance of winning. But people who are more firmly established in the labour movement are more wedded to first-past-the-post and see the route to social change in Britain being a Labour majority government. Both sides can argue their case strongly but there is definitely a culture clash. While there is a specific aim—such as defending Corbyn and trying to win in 2020—then those two things can just about get along. If Corbyn were to be removed the instability of that movement would be quite quickly revealed.

One could argue that the two defining features of the opposition to Corbyn within Labour are incompetence and a complete lack of ideas, best exemplified by the so-called ‘Chicken coup.’ How do you account for this in your book?

The absence of ideas is a longer-term problem. I think it stretches back to New Labour. New Labour had some ideas and a particular conception of the position the party should occupy in society and the way it should operate. But it is often overestimated. It didn’t have any particularly profound ideas. I think it was basically a kind of advanced form of ‘electoralism,’ which worked on its own terms for a time. But its rationale was to accommodate to Thatcherism. It didn’t have a route by which it was going to really transform society, which is why it didn’t. All the dynamism was to do with the economy at that time and the way in which finance dominated. The idea was in effect to do a bargain with the city whereby the city can take ever-greater risks as long as it cuts the state in on the rewards. And then New Labour can then use those taxes to do a little bit of redistribution.

So I don’t think they had a worked out vision but they at least had some ideas. The trouble is that those ideas, while they were successful on their own terms in 1997 they’re not now and they can’t really be revived because the conditions don’t exist for it. The people who proposed those ideas, the Blairites, have developed rigor mortis. All you can hear them doing is defending their shibboleths. They are not producing new thoughts. Though you have to cut them some slack because nobody else in the world is coming up with a new programme for social democracy, which is why social democracy is in trouble all over.

In terms of incompetence and a lack of identity, the selections for parliamentary candidates were tightly controlled throughout the New Labour years to make sure the leadership got people who conformed. If you have people who you are sure are going to conform they’re not necessarily going to be robust, interesting politicians in their own right. So you end up with what Luke Akehurst, who’s on the right of the party, called ‘tram-lined politicians.’

Many of the current generation of Labour politicians are this cliché of a politician who have gone to university, become a special advisor to an MP, been put into a safe seat and then been drafted into the cabinet. They may be completely on top of the technical detail of a particular brief but they haven’t necessarily got a political perspective that shapes their views on everything—a total vision of what society should be like. That’s bound to produce less interesting, less committed and less robust people.

A key theme of your book is how utterly wrong the media got all of this, even when it was clear to most people that Corbyn was going to win. How do you explain this in the book?

I think political journalism is a bit like showbiz journalism in that there is no rational basis for anything they (the journalists) go on about. There is no professional, collective pride that requires people to go and find out and see if what they are saying is actually true. With the Corbyn movement it was outside of their domain because it was something that wasn’t happening in Westminster; it wasn’t to do with political positioning, it wasn’t to do with media messaging, which is what most political journalists spend their jobs commenting on. This thing was happening outside their realm of understanding. So instead of going out and taking an interest in it and finding out what was going on, many just launched attacks on this phenomenon and derided it.

They did several things: they denied that it was happening; they thought it was all ‘summer madness’ as Polly Toynbee put it. But then there were also strange theories about how it was all virtue signalling. Generally, the reason why the press is against Corbyn is because he’s on the left; it’s not all the stuff about competence and these other things that come up. At the root of it, he is of the left.

What’s fascinating is that with publications like the Guardian, for example, their readers had assumed that those publications shared their values, and with good reason because if you read the Guardian over a period of years, people do pop up writing positive comment pieces about everything Corbyn now stands for. But when somebody came along and said ‘I’m going to do something about all of these things,’ it was too radical—they couldn’t handle it.

As someone who’s written about the Labour Party for a considerable time, were any of your assumptions about Labour challenged in the writing of this book?

Yes, this is quite specific but one of them was that I had imagined that the social movement activists from outside the Labour Party that had voted with £3 were the key to winning. That was from my experience from the actual living of the thing before I started researching it. I thought they had emboldened Labour Party members but the thing that surprised me was when you actually look into it you realise it actually happened within the Labour Party first. It was the other way round.

According to the internal canvasing data that the Corbyn campaign had from phoning up Labour members he was ahead almost immediately among them, and then in terms of CLP nominations he moved into first place a month into the race. This happened really quickly and before the general public knew who he was and before the surge of support for Corbyn had happened, before all the social media stuff had really taken off. So it was the other way around. I think people joined for £3 when it became the thing-to-do, and hundreds of thousands of people did it. That was because Labour Party members had put him in the lead and made him a plausible candidate, as did trade union nominations. So people thought they could actually achieve something by paying £3. Whereas if he had been a hopeless case, I don’t think people would have done that.

What do you think will be the lasting legacy of Corbynism or Corbyn’s leadership?

I’m not sure. When Owen Smith ran for the leadership he did so on a program that was miles to the left of anything anybody other than Corbyn would have contemplated nine months earlier in the first race. Cooper, Kendall and Burnham couldn’t advocate borrowing to invest, even though it would have helped them retain control of their party. But by the time of Smith’s campaign he could talk about borrowing £200 billion. This shone a light on the extent to which Corbyn had changed the debate. But having said that, if Owen Smith had won, I don’t think there is any chance in hell that he would have done anything that he had stood on. They would have tried to get back to a position where it was as if nothing had ever happened.

You can also see it in the context of the Conservative’s welfare bill, which included cutting child tax credits and on which the Labour Party, under Harriet Harman’s leadership, famously abstained. When Iain Duncan Smith resigned from government a year later his explanation almost echoed Corbyn’s slogan of ‘this is a political choice not an economic necessity.’ I think that was because of the change of emphasis brought on by Corbyn. I think you see it in some of Teresa May’s rhetoric. There is an awareness on the right that, though they like to ridicule Corbyn, there’s something happening which they have to respond to. They’re probably more alert to that than people on the right of the Labour Party, which is interesting.

‘[Reposted from Red Pepper. The Candidate is available via OR Books.

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