ALEX NUNNS’ NEW BOOK BEGINS IMMEDIATELY after Labour’s special conference on 12th September 2015. A victorious Jeremy Corbyn tells supporters: “We’ve just been through 100 days of the most amazing experience many of us have had in our lives.” It’s perhaps an obvious thing to say - but over a year later we can see that amazing events and experiences did not simply come to a halt on that day.
Nunns provides an afterword covering the failed coup and what followed, but it seems clear that his main purpose was always to write about the events of those 100 days and to locate them within a broader political history. How is it that a backbench MP who “had been doing his own thing for 32 years” not only came to be on the ballot paper but, against all odds, ended up “at the helm of the Labour Party”? For this, there are several different interlocking explanations. Although the traditional right of the Party still has significant traction - witness Tom Watson’s election as deputy leader - by the time the 2015 leadership election came to pass, outside of the PLP, the New Labour project was dead. Never ones to be daunted, Blairite MPs believed that the 2013 Collins Review’s introduction of Registered Supporters would allow control of the Party to be restored to them. The hope was that leadership elections would become more like primaries in the USA; that ‘moderate’ Labour supporters would emerge to engage but would disappear once again after their usefulness as voters had come to an end.
The cliché that no election can ever be won from the left is repeated ad nauseam but rather than explicitly positioning himself as left wing, Corbyn has advocated a “new kind of politics”. His call for an end to austerity has resonated within the wider left but also among many who would not necessarily identify as being part of it. Ironically it was people from these groups who signed up as Registered Supporters, not the fabled moderates. Others among them have come on board as full members.
Two other important factors were instrumental in the first Corbyn campaign. The first was the backing of the majority of the trade unions. Much of this came about through grassroots activists pushing for endorsement. Also of significance was that in Unison, the second largest of the unions, some candidates in the forthcoming election for the post of General Secretary did not want to come across as being unsympathetic to the left. The GMB chose to make no nomination and as such could not formally harm Corbyn’s candidacy.
It too seemed however to be influenced by the fact that with many future candidates potentially vying for the position, its General Secretary, Paul Kenny, had announced he would not be standing again. The final factor - but by no means the least important one - is the role played by social media: the fact that grassroots activists had licence to use this spontaneously and reactively as a campaigning tool and without the need to seek clearance through a hierarchy. This contrasted very starkly with a significantly lighter social media presence across the campaigns of the other leadership candidates. Also while the Corbyn campaign was participatory, the others were heavily top-down.
Nunns deals also with the sometimes bizarre attacks on Corbyn and his campaign which came both from within the Labour Party and from the mainstream media. He asks why the Guardian and the Observer - papers which seemed to be read by a large number of Corbyn’s supporters - were so relentlessly given to attacking him through opinion pieces and editorials. The answer is perhaps that several journalists feared that a Corbyn victory threatened their livelihood. No longer would they necessarily have the same privileged access to those politicians who up until now had provided them with the raw material for their work.
Meticulously researched, much of it based on interviews with key players, the book provides valuable analysis but also tells the story of the campaign in an engaging manner. Even if you know what happens in the end, you will carry on reading.
» The Candidate: Jeremy Corbyn’s Improbable Path to Power is published by OR Books.
is a member of Islington South Constituency Labour Party