In the wake of Corbyn's electoral success, Feyzi Ismail interviews Alex Nunns, author of 'The Candidate: Jeremy Corbyn's Improbable Path to Power'
A lot of people, including some on the left, were surprised by Jeremy Corbyn’s electoral success. Were you?
The picture improved as the campaign went on, and I expected Labour to get over 35%, but I was gobsmacked when the exit poll was released. Looking back to the beginning of the campaign when Theresa May called the general election, and Labour was 24 points behind in the polls, all of the ‘serious’ commentators were saying Labour can only go backwards from here. People were insisting oppositions always lose vote share from a local election to a general election. I was worried at that time but I did think that Labour ran a good campaign from the very start. In fact, from even before the general election was called, Labour was launching really good policies aimed at the local elections. So I did think there was quite a lot of potential for Labour to catch up, but I didn’t think they would do as well as they did.
What was the significance of the elections? Is this the seismic shift in British politics people are talking about?
For the left it’s seismic because the left has been saddled with this idea that if you go into an election promising policies that deviate from the Thatcherite consensus then you’re going to get crushed just like in 1983. That’s the justification that the right of the Labour party always used for not adopting any kind of left-wing policies. And that’s now been consigned to history. Corbyn has shown that you can go into an election on a left manifesto that challenges the Thatcherite consensus and you can win 40% of the vote, which is an incredible achievement. So for the left, the election opens up so many possibilities. That then has reshaped the whole political landscape. The argument on austerity has effectively been won, although the government persists with it. But that government is very unstable and there may be another general election soon. If you can achieve 40% in the circumstances that Corbyn achieved them – with everything stacked against you – then if another election were to come later this year or next, the conditions should be better. Corbyn will have a more united party, and there’s just a sense of momentum and hope behind Labour. I note that the Conservatives are now terrified of having another election because they believe that Corbyn would win it – that’s some turnaround.
Where does Corbynism come from and what were the forces that created it?
In 2015 when Jeremy Corbyn ran for Labour Leader there was an upswell of feeling. A movement appeared that had three distinct tributaries into it: first, there was a sense within the Labour Party itself among existing party members that New Labour was over; second, there was a longer term shift to the left in the trade unions, resulting in them backing a left candidate, which was very important; and third, there was the anti-austerity movement, the anger at the consequences of the 2008 crash, which animated the left here just as it did across Europe and in America. In Britain we saw it in various manifestations like Occupy and UK Uncut and the anti-austerity demonstrations. But it didn’t have an electoral focus before Jeremy Corbyn came along in 2015. That’s how he became leader of the Labour Party. In 2017, that sentiment, which mainstream commentators wrote off as just some kind of political nervous breakdown in the Labour Party, was shown to be far more broadly shared in society. The way the 2008 crash has been used by the Conservatives to launch a programme of austerity has created a very deep backlash. Now that backlash has found expression in a left programme from the Labour Party.
Can you say something about the strengths and weaknesses of Corbyn’s campaign?
I’m not sure it had many weaknesses! It was an incredibly successful campaign. For a start, it’s not all just about the campaign because you had to have that sentiment in the country – you could have had the best campaign in the world but if the sentiment didn’t exist to be harnessed then it wouldn’t have worked. But before the general election was called, Labour started to launch its policies very effectively as it built up for the local elections. The ironic thing was that Theresa May then called a snap election, which was supposed to give the governing party an advantage because they know it’s coming, and Labour was already effectively running a general election campaign while the Tories didn’t know what they wanted do. They had to suddenly scramble around to write a manifesto, which turned out to be a disaster. Labour also had to work really hard to write their manifesto and I think it’s testament to the team that they managed to come up with something so good. And then they sold those policies really skilfully – they managed to get the press onto Labour’s agenda even though that’s the last thing the press wants. For example, after the Manchester attack, obviously the first consideration is that 22 people died, but politically you would expect it to favour the Conservatives. Jeremy Corbyn gave that speech where he said that Britain’s foreign policy has provided a context within which jihadism could flourish. The press attacked the speech as being beyond the pale. And then opinion polls found that Corbyn’s view was supported by an outright majority of the population. But in attacking the policy, the press spent two days amplifying it. Labour dominated the news. And that seemed to happen throughout the election. Then of course Jeremy Corbyn himself was a huge asset to the campaign. He has proven three years in a row that he is fantastic at going out on the road and talking to people, giving speeches, inspiring big rallies and creating energy. He prompted people into action, into going and knocking on doors. Plus there was the work that Momentum did in sending activists to the right places. And Labour dominated social media. A lot of that was spontaneous but direction was provided by Corbyn’s personal accounts, by prominent Corbyn-supporting social media figures, by Momentum and others. It all added up to a formidable election campaign in the end, and given that one accusation from the leadership’s opponents was that they can’t organise anything, it was glorious that suddenly, out of nowhere, here was this steamroller of a Labour campaign.
Where do you think the sentiment for change comes from?
I think it’s a consequence of the 2008 crash and the fact that the economic model we have – Thatcherism – is no longer able to deliver for the vast majority of the population. It is unable to reconstitute itself. New Labour previously operated on the basis that it’s OK if you let the City of London take ever greater risks as long as the state is cut in on some of the rewards. But the crash destroyed that bargain. Most people in the country don’t consciously make that analysis, but the reality filters through. If wages have not gone up for such a long time people know that something is wrong. The 2008 crash was like an earthquake, which rattled all the buildings above, didn’t quite bring them down – so we’re still surrounded by all the same power structures – but they’re teetering, they’re not as secure as they used to be, and people can sense that. They want something different. Foreign policy is another area that became a focus in the campaign because of the terrorist attacks. The amount of anger at the Iraq War, that doesn’t just dissipate, people don’t just forget. And obviously Jeremy Corbyn, being a former chair of the Stop the War Coalition, was not associated with that failed foreign policy agenda at all.
In the 7 years between 2008 and 2015 when Jeremy Corbyn was elected Labour Leader, what was the role of the social movements in expressing opposition?
Take the issue of tax avoidance by big corporations, which became a major policy focus for Labour’s campaign. Well, nobody was talking about that until UK Uncut went and did sit-down protests in Vodafone stores. It was pushed onto the agenda by UK Uncut and Occupy in 2011. At the time people dismissed them as eccentric and irrelevant but they shifted the dial of politics in this country, even if wasn’t immediately evident and took a long time to be felt. But that’s how winning arguments works: you don’t do it immediately, you create the idea that something is wrong and then gradually more and more people come to see that you have a point. I think that’s one element. And then from 2010 to 2015, there were lots of local Save Our Services campaigns, anti-cuts campaigns, there was the People’s Assembly and there were big anti-austerity demonstrations organised by the trade unions – one of them had over 400,000 people on it, which was the biggest demonstration since the Iraq War. The anti-austerity movement went in fits and starts. It wasn’t an unstoppable momentum leading inevitably to Jeremy Corbyn and Labour getting 40%. But it ensured the issue couldn’t be forgotten because discontent kept bubbling up. Since becoming leader, whenever Jeremy Corbyn has been threatened or when he got to the general election, the movements have mobilised effectively, either to defend Corbyn or to get people to vote Labour. If we have another election this year, there will be another big mobilisation.
How deep is the Tories’ crisis?
The Tories got 42% of the vote which is fairly remarkable. If I was Theresa May I would be going around saying, “Look, I got 13.7 million votes,” but she’s not because the result in terms of seats was much lower than expected. And while it’s pleasant to see that for once the news is dominated by Tory strife instead of Labour strife, there is obviously a large section of the population that has backed the Conservative Party. But I think their brand has been so tarnished. Where they are dependent on the DUP to be in government and have got a whole collection of MPs who don’t want to leave the single market and who were never on board with the Brexit agenda, and then they have a whole bunch of MPs who are Brexit fanatics, then it’s extremely hard to see how they’re going to govern or how they will effectively do a Brexit deal. I’m sure as a party the Tories will manage to survive these pressures because they’re like Japanese knotweed, but I’m not sure the government will.
What do you think the Labour right is going to do now?
We know what the Labour right was intending to do after the general election, which was to launch another coup at some point and have Chuka Umunna or Yvette Cooper as the candidate. Now all those plans have been scuppered by Labour doing unexpectedly well. They can’t really make a move against Corbyn because whereas it was seen as a life and death struggle for the left previously – the idea that if the right took the party back, the left would be purged or consigned to oblivion and the leadership rules would be changed so there could never again be a left leader – now those stakes have transferred to the right. It would be a big risk for the right to cause open civil war in a situation where the membership has been energised and enthused by a successful campaign and a manifesto they believe in. Anyone who tries to take all that down would provoke fierce anger that could ultimately lead to a long term defeat within the party. So I don’t expect them to do anything dramatic. But I wouldn’t expect them to abandon their beliefs either, and I doubt they’ll stop all the destructive tactics they are in the habit of using. They still occupy powerful positions in the party apparatus and the regions; most of the staff are from the right of the party; and they still have dominance in the PLP. Hopefully there are a lot of MPs who are now thinking, “My majority has gone up from a thousand to 13,000 because of this political agenda.” I should think in the PLP there will be a big section of MPs in the middle, neither left nor right, who will acquiesce in the Corbyn project, or at least pretend to. As for the true neoliberals in the parliamentary party, they aren’t really relevant, they have no base.
What will happen if Jeremy Corbyn wins the next general election?
The next election could come at any time and we don’t know what the context will be. We’re about to go through a period of flux with the Brexit negotiations and a weak Conservative Party, which could throw up some unique historical opportunities. But the purpose of a Corbyn government would be to radically shift power away from the elites. Those elites aren’t going to be in favour of that, so there will be fierce resistance. A Corbyn government would have to stand firm. One thing about Corbyn: he would never disassociate himself from the movement. He’s the most stubborn person around. It makes me laugh when people say he’s too weak to be prime minister. He will not budge if he decides not to. Obviously in government there will be compromises to make, but who better to decide on those compromises than Jeremy Corbyn? He’s not going to be seduced. I don’t think it’s possible to buy Jeremy Corbyn. He’s remarkable in that respect, that you know he’ll do what he can in the situation, and that he’s incorruptible. That’s important because if Labour gets into government, the extra-parliamentary movement is going to have a crucial role to play and it can’t afford to be demoralised. Jeremy Corbyn would be at the head of a British state which doesn’t like him very much! Enormous power would be exerted from that side, and the leadership would be stranded unless it is countered by broad, social pressure from below. As always with Corbyn, putting him into position, whether as leader or prime minister, is not enough. I don’t think the movement behind Corbyn would even want it to be enough, in any case. The movement is made up of people who want to shape the future themselves, who value the role Corbyn plays, but know it’s a collective endeavour. That’s how the odds have been overturned repeatedly in the last two years, and that’s the only way they could be defied again once Corbyn is in Downing Street. But isn’t it incredible that the problems faced by a potential Corbyn government are now a pressing concern? What a turn up.
Feyzi Ismail teaches at Goldsmiths, University of London, and is active in UCU
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