A Temporary Phenomenon?

Alex Nunns, The Candidate: Jeremy Corbyn’s Improbable Path to Power

O/R Books, 404pp, £15.00, ISBN 9781682190647

reviewed by Daniel Whittall

Where did Jeremy Corbyn come from? For decades he had been in the minority as a left Labour MP, his columns appearing in the comparatively obscure Morning Star rather than the more mainstream newspapers. He had stuck firmly to his socialist principles, defying the Labour whip consistently, especially during the years of New Labour. Alex Nunns’ The Candidate superbly brings into clarity the three key processes that facilitated Corbyn’s rise.

First, and often unappreciated by other writers on the recent history of Labour, was the role of the Trade Union and Labour Party Liaison Organisation (TULO) in bringing together the trades unions affiliated to Labour with the intention of promoting candidates for selection in Labour constituency parties. In the Blair years, as Nunns puts it, ‘Number 10 and Labour Party head office were obsessively concerned with every Parliamentary selection’, and they used their internal faction Progress to train and select candidates comfortable with the New Labour ideology. ‘The present parliamentary party’, Nunns writes, ‘is a testament to the success of this operation.’ From at least 2012 onwards, though, unions like Unite and the GMB came to recognise the importance of getting candidates sympathetic to the Union movement into Labour seats. In such a short time relatively few MPs have so far come through from this process, but it is unsurprising that some of Corbyn’s strongest supporters, MPs like Richard Burgon, Angela Rayner and Rebecca Long-Bailey, are the fruits of this process. Without their presence in the PLP there would have been no hope of Corbyn getting the required nominations even to be on the ballot in 2015.

The second significant factor behind Corbyn’s rise emerged out of a fundamental strategic error by the Labour Party’s gatekeepers. The most entertaining of Nunns’ 400-plus pages is undoubtedly page 44, headed ‘Critical praise for the Collins Review’. The title words are Nunns’ only contribution to the page. The rest is given over to Tony Blair, John McTernan, John Rentoul and Tristram Hunt, familiar names to anyone with a working knowledge of the Labour right and its media advocates, to fawn over Ed Miliband’s decision to implement the recommendations of the Collins Review which radically revised the way that leaders of the Party were elected, scrapping the previous Electoral College system. Blair calls the reforms ‘long overdue’ and wishes he had implemented it himself, and Rentoul writes that ‘it means the next Labour leader will be a Blairite.’ In one of the great examples of the law of unintended consequences, it was the Collins Review recommendations, opposed by the Labour left (though supported by most unions) but implemented by Miliband, that gave more weight to the votes of the membership, and lessened the weight of the PLP vote. Without these reforms Corbyn would have stood no chance.

The third and final element of the jigsaw was the polarisation of British politics, and the increasing number of people open to arguments from the left in the wake of the 2008 economic crisis. Under Miliband’s soft-left leadership Labour’s membership increased, and a significant proportion of these new members opposed the austerity agenda of the Tory-Liberal Democrat coalition government. An anti-austerity movement stirred in Britain, turning out large numbers for protests in London especially. The Unions were supportive, though Nunns at times over-emphasises the extent of their anti-austerity commitments. There was also a vigorous student protest movement, especially enraged by the Liberal Democrat reversal over increasing tuition fees. Both of these were supported by an emergent social media network, embedded amongst the activists in the anti-austerity movement and with direct links to the Labour Party through figures like Ben Sellers, a key interviewee in Nunns’ book and a founder of the Red Labour social media accounts whose sizeable number of followers prior to Corbyn’s leadership campaign would be used to give his public statements a broader public reach.

Nunns is sensitive to each of these developments, and uses interviews with key figures in the Corbyn team and elsewhere in the Labour Party to great effect, though it is surprising that there is so little discussion of Momentum, the social movement set up by Corbyn supporters. Nunns has a keen grasp of the relationship between the Labour Party and the various social, political and economic shifts occurring in post-Crisis Britain, and his book patiently develops a superb narrative account of Corbyn’s rise. The chapters on the Union movement and the media are particularly excellent. There are certainly too few oppositional voices in the book – Luke Akehurst is the one interviewee from the right of the Party – though it is unsurprising that Corbyn’s PLP opponents would avoid being interviewed for a book of this sort. Instead, Nunns mines their public pronouncements effectively.

Corbyn himself emerges from this account as a reluctant yet effective leadership candidate – ‘it’s your turn’, his close friend and now shadow chancellor John McDonnell tells him when the left of the PLP meet to discuss whether they even have the strength to field a candidate for the leadership. Although it is now much strengthened amongst the Party membership, the left remains weak amongst the PLP. In Corbyn: The Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics (2015) Richard Seymour concluded that ‘in all likelihood, Corbynism is a temporary phenomenon.’ In the wake of the Brexit referendum, the Labour right thought it saw its chance. Mass resignations by MPs forced a new leadership election, but Corbyn ultimately won an increased majority. For all their talk of electability, the Party right have not been doing well on this front (the Blairite candidate in the 2015 leadeship election, Liz Kendall, failed to muster even 5% of the vote). Nunns’ afterword focuses on the latest leadership election, and reflects on how Corbyn’s opponents religiously avoid discussing his politics. ‘Everything’, Nunns writes, ‘is focusing on his person’, particularly during a poisonous meeting of the PLP where MP after MP lines up to personally insult Corbyn to his face. That many of these same MPs would then spend much of their time bleating to the press about abuse within the Labour Party is yet another of the ironies of Corbyn’s leadership.

Nunns is far less pessimistic than Seymour. Power, he argues, now resides with the Party membership. He is only too aware of the challenges, many of which he has catalogued in The Candidate. In particular, ‘the speed of Corbyn’s rise left no time to build any kind of stable base,’ and this is now an essential project. Nevertheless, Nunns’ faith remains in the ‘distinguishing power of the movement’ behind Corbyn and its’ ‘ability to exert collective power to quickly change the course of events.’ With such support Corbyn should remain secure as leader.

However, the outside chance that Theresa May could yet gamble on an early election throws further doubt on Corbyn’s hopes. Pronouncements from the PLP that Corbyn is unelectable have had their effect, and where Labour was drawing level with the Tories in polls prior to their leadership challenge it is now consistently around 10% behind. It will take time for Corbyn’s team to recover from the self-inflicted damage caused by the actions of many in the PLP. Were Corbyn to lose a general election it is not clear that he could hold back the tide of outrage that would flow from his PLP colleagues, and nor is it yet clear that the left of the Party is strong enough to win any future leadership election without him, especially when MPs will be much more wary about giving their nominations to left-leaning MPs.

So, Nunns perhaps over-estimates the extent to which power now resides with the membership. In his book, Seymour suggested that ‘even if the radical Left was admitted to government, the evidence is that its real problems would begin at that point.’ It is a measure of the difficulties that have already faced the Corbyn leadership that Nunns is comparatively reticent to reflect on what a Corbyn government might look like. Yet he is right to point out that Labour’s members have now moved significantly to the left, emboldening the left of the PLP in turn with a confidence and public profile that they have never before had. Perhaps Nunns is right not to make too many predications about what the future might hold. For sure, he is already correct in asserting that Corbyn’s rise to the Labour leadership is a ‘remarkable historical event’. How long such an event will endure, where it will lead and what its legacy will be is yet to be determined. Those who hope that the leadership of the Labour Party leans left in years to come have much to learn from Alex Nunns’ forensic reconstruction of events, and his superb analysis of their meaning. The Candidate presents a number of strategic lessons that will require learning if Corbynism is not to be a temporary leftist diversion from the otherwise rightward march of Labour.

The Candidate: Jeremy Corbyn’s Improbable Path to Power can be purchased from the O/R Books website here.

Daniel Whittall teaches Geography and Economics at a college in West Yorkshire.