Alex Nunns, author of The Candidate: Jeremy Corbyn’s Improbable Path to Power, addressed a recent Labour Briefing Readers meeting. Here’s an extract of what he said.
We meet on a sad day for the Labour Party. Yesterday we lost someone very important to all of us: Tristram Hunt.
You might remember that after the last election the Blairites launched an attempt to recapture the party using the magic word aspiration. It created a backlash in the party that was one of the elements in Jeremy’s victory.
Tristram is the one we should thank for taking the aspiration onslaught to its ultimate expression, saying Labour should appeal to “John Lewis couples and people who aspire to shop in Waitrose.” A brave electoral strategy for Hunt because there isn’t a Waitrose in Stoke where he’s the MP.
We can also be thankful that after Jeremy’s victory, when some MPs on the right formed what they called “the resistance,” it was Tristram that they chose to lead it.
The title of this discussion is “Jeremy Corbyn - How we got here and where next.” How we got here takes some understanding because it was so unexpected. Some 250,000 people attended the People’s Assembly demonstration after the 2015 general election, a time that was supposed to be one of huge demoralisation for the left. Russell Brand was the star speaker at the centre of a huge melee, but nobody bother red Jeremy Corbyn much in his beige jacket. Three months later at the Refugees Welcome demonstration on 12th September, it was Corbyn, who had defied his team to be there, at the centre of the crush.
Something extraordinary happened in those three months in between.
How did a 200-1 outsider become leader of the Labour Party when no one expected that to happen, least of all himself? He was swept to power by fluid political movement with three tributaries: the party, the unions and the social movements.
The largest ran through the party itself, where the members had turned sharply against New Labour. This is important because of the myth that Labour was somehow done over by outsiders. In fact, it was thousands of long-standing members who were enthused by his candidacy.
The second flowed in from the trade unions, the product of a 15 year shift to the left. A combination of grassroots pressure and changes at the top allowed Corbyn to get the nomination.
The final stream had its source in the broad left, within which the strongest current was the anti-austerity movement, exemplified by groups such as UK Uncut.
When these three streams came together they cohered into a new political movement with a single focus. It was the end of spectator politics. It was participative.
What the three tributaries had in common is that they all sprang from resistance to the dominant economic ideology of the day: Thatcherism, or neoliberalism.
That ideology failed in the 2008 crash. That transformed the terrain of politics, like an earthquake. It was a precarious historical moment.
The buildings are still teetering, and that’s how it came to be that the Labour left, which in May 2015 believed itself to be at the weakest point in its history, found itself leading the Labour Party just a few months later. Only in the most extraordinary times could that happen.
That’s the context, the big picture. But the bulk of this book is about the detail of how it actually happened, based on interviews.
People make their own history, in circumstances not of their choosing. Agency and chance come into it. There were lots of key moments that could have gone either way.
For a start, there was the Collins Review rule change in 2014. It wouldn’t have been possible for Corbyn to win without it.
Then there was the choice of candidate. First there was a debate about whether to stand a candidate at all. Owen Jones thought it would be a catastrophe for the left, characteristically. John McDonnell thought the same, uncharacteristically. But pressure came from online activists, LRC people, Red Labour and others — the wisdom of crowds.
The big problem for those who wanted a candidate was there were no volunteers. It took a long time before people thought of Corbyn. Jon Lansman asked Angela Eagle to stand as the candidate of the left. That one still puzzles me.
Byron Taylor said: “It’s got to be Jeremy. He’s the nicest man in politics. He hasn’t got any enemies.”
This was proved correct, and was crucial for getting on the ballot. Another moment of agency and chance. It took an unprecedented social media lobbying operation.
Corbyn turned out to be the ideal casting for a leadership campaign, combining the left’s usual unbending adherence to principle with a warmth and generosity and sense of moral purpose.
This was exemplified in the Welfare Bill rebellion. It turned out to be too right wing for Iain Duncan Smith but it wasn’t too right wing for Harriet Harman.
Corbyn’s achievement was that he liberated the left from its ghetto. But it wasn’t just him, it was a movement not a man. And the movement had a powerful new tool: social media. It was vital in delivering a Corbyn victory. It transformed attacks from media or the Labour right into galvanization.
Another big factor that played in Corbyn’s favour was just how useless the Blairites were. They were the ideal villains. Ideologically they exhibited all the signs of rigor mortis. The deal underpinning New Labour was kaput.
But tactically too, they were woeful. It seemed every intervention had the opposite effect from that intended. That started with their candidate, Kendall, who had a unique electoral strategy, refusing to take any positions that were not deeply unpopular.
So those are some of the elements that led to Corbyn winning. The Labour right and most political commentators went out of their way not to understand any of this, to dismiss Corbyn’s win as a political nervous breakdown.
That’s why their coup last year failed. It was as if it was designed to reanimate the movement around Corbyn. And it took no account of what Corbyn’s sources of power actually were.
They might refuse to understand Corbyn’s rise but if we understand it we can draw lessons for our prospects. Some of those include the fact that the alliance that produced Corbyn is potentially unstable, in part because it’s so sudden and new. The discussion about Momentum comes in that context. Unions are a vulnerability.
But the fact Corbyn didn’t come from nowhere gives us hope. There is a need for a different approach. When the economic orthodoxy can no longer deliver, political turbulence follows. This doesn’t mean the left will win, but it means there is an opportunity to be seized.
So that’s my book. There’s a whole chapter in it that attacks the media, which I thought, after I’d finished, was probably not a good idea in terms of trying to get reviews. So spread the word.
This movement is improvised, it’s still being worked out, but it is tangible, it is real, it is necessary. We have to learn from our experiences and we also have to keep in mind those moments when we were winning and could do anything because that will encourage us to be brave. We had nothing to lose in 2015 and we need that spirit now.
If you order the book and enter the discount code Jez We Can at the checkout, you will get 20% off.