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  • Published in Book Reviews

The story of Jeremy Corbyn’s rise to leadership of Labour in 2015 is told with verve and insight in Alex Nunns' The Candidate, finds Lindsey German 

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Alex Nunns, The Candidate: Jeremy Corbyn’s Improbable Path to Power (OR Books 2016), 404pp.

There was a dull sinking feeling in the hearts of many socialists straight after last year’s general election. We hadn’t expected a Tory majority, we had accepted that Ed Miliband was feeble and uninteresting, but that he might be able to become prime minister, at least of a coalition government. We had even seen him endorsed by Russell Brand, an unlikely and desperate move which maybe did neither much good.

As depressing as losing the election, however, was the prospect of a Labour leadership contest which would put forward a range of centre and right-wing candidates who would move further onto a territory which was even more pro-neoliberal and anti-immigrant than previous Labour policies. Because the dominant narrative from the politicians and the press was that Labour lost because it was too left-wing, and that there had to be a return to the policies which could once again allow Labour to form a government.

It did not matter that this analysis failed to explain Scotland, or the big English cities. It was going to be set in stone, introducing a deadly and crushingly boring leadership race where the pace setter would be the Blairite candidate, Liz Kendall. Her pronouncements on business and migration would pull Yvette Cooper and Andy Burnham in her wake and whoever won, right-wing politics would triumph.

Two things turned the sentiment of left-wing gloom around: one was the series of spontaneous and young demonstrations in response to the return of a Tory government, a series which culminated in the mass People's Assembly demonstration in June; the other was the decision of Labour’s left to stand a candidate in the leadership election. That candidate was Jeremy Corbyn.

The rest, as they say, is history. But what a history it is. Alex Nunns tells the story of last summer’s campaign, its prelude and its aftermath, in an immensely readable and well researched book which looks at why and how it happened.

The first thing to say is that it nearly didn’t get off the starting blocks. While there were those of us in the movements who could see the potential for a left challenger (and argued this case with those inside the Labour Party who were in a position to influence the contest, including Jeremy Corbyn) there were a number on the Labour left who believed that such a contest would all end in tears, and that all it would do is weaken the standing of the left. This was the argument put, for example, by Owen Jones, who said later: ‘My view was that … a left candidate could end up being crushed’. Had that view prevailed, the experience would have been of the left having no candidate, seeing Andy Burnham as its best hope, and a widespread sense that there was no left to speak of in the Labour Party. Everyone would have drawn the conclusion that nothing could be done. It is to the credit of those activists who worked so hard to win the argument and then the nominations that this defeat did not happen.

The second thing to say is that the left victory didn’t come from nowhere. Nunns catalogues the history of Labour since its defeat in 2010. He details the almost imperceptible ways in which Blairism weakened within the party, starting with the shock defeat of the Blairite hero David Miliband by his younger brother, and developing through a closer relationship between the latter and left trade unions. He highlights, of course, the (in retrospect) catastrophic decision of Ed Miliband to abandon the electoral college system of voting for the Labour leader in favour of giving members and supporters one vote each. This achieved the outcome of putting Labour MPs on the same footing as every other member, much to their chagrin. It also meant that the PLP could not dominate leadership elections in the way that they had done previously (go back less than forty years and the PLP alone decided the leader) and made the election of a left-wing leader possible if not probable.

But even these changes would not have resulted in victory alone, as Nunns recognises. Jeremy Corbyn benefited extensively from the role of extra-parliamentary movements in paving the way for his leadership success. His central role in a wide range of movements including Stop the War, of which he was chair, and CND; the breadth and size of the movements themselves; plus, those around the students, Occupy and the Peoples’ Assembly, all contributed to activity and consciousness.

As Nunns says, the role of the People's Assembly demo in June 2015 was also key. This was the first major public appearance by Corbyn after his nomination and he was greeted with a rapturous welcome. It was clear that this movement, which included within it the anti-war and peace movements, anti-racist movements as well as anti-austerity campaigns, was the organising base for a key section of Corbyn's support. So, we had ‘this extraordinary coincidence of a historical political shift on the centre-left, a radical rule change … and the surprise presence of a left candidate on the leadership ballot meant that, unlike in Greece and Spain, in the UK the anti-austerity movement had an opportunity to make its home in an established party’ (p.83).

This strength has also turned into a major problem for Corbyn, given the hostility of so many of the elected representatives of that party to him and his politics, and the obstruction of much of the party machine. Nunns details much of the campaign of 2015: the mass rallies and support, which had their dynamism in movement politics, the growing number of members and supporters, the wave of enthusiasm for Corbyn. That led to a victory in September 2015 which was not understood by the party establishment, and also bitterly resented. Straight away, he was undermined by members of his own shadow cabinet, by the PLP and by the press. The scale of this disloyalty and hostility is remarkable, and led to the second leadership challenge from Owen Smith earlier this year. While that resulted in an even bigger margin of victory for Corbyn, it has not ended the impasse in the party. 

The right does not want the new members, does not want Corbyn, and will do everything possible to destroy his leadership. It will not split because it sees electoral oblivion there, but in reality, it represents a totally different kind of politics. This was illustrated by the mass abstention of Labour MPs on a Labour motion on arms sales to Saudi Arabia recently; an alternative whipping operation which will be used in future to damage the elected leader. 

Success for Jeremy Corbyn will depend on him mobilising his base, which does not exist solely within Labour, and which so far is willing to join up but less willing to get involved in the internal manoeuvres within the party. The mass demonstrations following the coup happened because this base mobilised. There is a polarisation in British politics where the left has to fight hard for the kind of people’s Brexit for which Jeremy Corbyn has been arguing. That fight cannot be simply won internally within Labour, but requires the kind of mass mobilisations and activism which can help shift opinion to the left and raise working-class confidence to fight. 

The obvious conclusion to draw from recent political events is that the polarisation of politics is central to any understanding, and that the failure of the social-democratic parties to do anything other than embrace neoliberalism is resulting in traditional supporters deserting them in droves to both right and left candidates. The left has to adopt a new kind of politics which can speak to those disaffected social-democratic supporters and win them from a right-wing alternative. 

Jeremy Corbyn is in the unique position of being representative of those new politics but within an old social-democratic party, and one where something will have to give at some point. This book is a valuable contribution to the politics involved and to the tactics that will be needed for the left to win. It is highly recommended.

Alex Nunns, The Candidate is available exclusively from O/R Books.

Lindsey German

Lindsey German

As national convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey was a key organiser of the largest demonstration, and one of the largest mass movements, in British history.

Her books include ‘Material Girls: Women, Men and Work’, ‘Sex, Class and Socialism’, ‘A People’s History of London’ (with John Rees) and ‘How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women’.

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