Just 18 months ago, Labour Party activists were despondent at losing the 2015 general election. “The Blairites, in particular,” writes Nunns, “saw the defeat as an opportunity to launch a counter-revolution and reclaim the party. But there was no appetite for a return to a political project scarred by the financial crash, privatisation and war.”
In fact, restiveness in the party had begun under Ed Miliband. The optimism around his election in 2010, when tens of thousands of new members joined, faded as his radical ideas were boxed in by the acceptance of austerity-lite by Ed Balls’ Shadow Treasury team, angering many union leaders who wanted a more hopeful message. But with the Blairites’ vice-like grip over the party’s organisation now weakening, the unions were able to push for more leftwing parliamentary candidates ahead of the 2015 election.
Ironically, it was a push back against this trend that gave the party its new method for selecting a leader. Under pressure from the rightwing Progress faction, Ed Miliband junked the electoral college - an “act of real leadership,” enthused Tony Blair. But the abolition of the MPs’ decisive one-third share of the vote in a leadership election would later operate to Jeremy Corbyn’s advantage. By then, impotent Blairites were disowning the reform they had championed, blaming it all on Ed Miliband.
The post-2015 Blairite narrative, that Labour had lost the election because it was too leftwing, quickly disintegrated. Labour canvassers felt instinctively it was wrong and subsequent academic research proved them right. Above all, it couldn’t explain Labour’s wipe-out in Scotland. A more telling reason for Labour’s defeat was that a majority of voters no longer knew what the party stood for.
Given the state of the organised left in the party in 2015, especially the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy and Labour Representation Committee, many felt pessimistic about the prospects of a leftwing leadership candidate. But there were weaknesses on the other side too. “The prizing of conformity over talent,” observes Nunns, “had produced a lesser quality of MP, reflected in the clutch of mediocre hopefuls initially vying to replace Miliband.” Ultimately the combination of new blood demanding an anti-austerity candidate and a burgeoning online campaign began to reshape the political landscape. When favourite Chuka Umunna pulled out and soft-left hopeful Andy Burnham lurched to the right, a yawning gap opened up for a real leftwing alternative. Step forward Jeremy Corbyn, a man of principle but with virtually no political enemies.
The story of how Corbyn got the necessary nominations just in time is grippingly told, culminating in John McDonnell going down on his knees to beg the last few reluctant MPs to sign up.
Corbyn’s campaign resonated from the outset, long before the big rallies. His increasing grassroots popularity forced key unions to nominate him. “If Unite’s nominatin was a shock, Unison’s decision to follow suit was an earthquake,” reports Nunns. It was driven not only by Corbyn’s growing popularity but also by the Labour frontbench’s calamitous decision to abstain on the government’s welfare bill, which Corbyn voted against.
Nunns is very good at exposing the shared perspective of the supposedly impartial broadcast media in their horror of a Corbyn win. The print media of course excelled itself. “Jeremy Corbyn’s plan to turn Britain into Zimbabwe,” said the Telegraph; a “slightly less feral version of Ken Livingstone,” opined The Guardian’s Suzanne Moore.
The greater the vilification, the more his support grew. Tony Blair’s hostile intervention was described as a “turning point” by Clive Lewis MP: support just mushroomed.
Corbyn addressed 50,000 people in rallies. Some 15,800 people volunteered in the campaign. As a Corbyn victory looked increasingly likely, the party apparatus came under pressure to use its machine against him, as many feel it did a year later. People were excluded from the ballot, often with no reason given, foreshadowing a tactic that would be used with far greater effect in 2016.
Corbyn won by a landslide of course. Nine months later he had to do it all again, after a coup was organised against him by his PLP colleagues, coordinated by Hilary Benn while still a member of Corbyn’s shadow cabinet.
The parliamentary plotting, the media smears and bias and the party bureaucracy’s involvement - attempting to keep Corbyn off the ballot, deterring supporters by hiking the fee from £3 to £25 and banning local parties from meeting - are dealt with in an Afterword, but they could easily be the subject of a sequel. Given the lack of understanding in the mainstream media of the phenomenon that saw Corbyn elected to the Labour leadership - twice - Alex Nunns has done a real service in explaining his path to power.