A book that seeks to explain the meteoric rise of Jeremy Corbyn, a rebellious but principled backbencher
Jeremy Corbin’s unexpected rise to lead the Labour party in 2015 has been the subject of many rushed books. While Rosa Prince’s Comrade Corbyn: A Very Unlikely Coup was an account of "ex-girlfriends, [and] the state of his flat" Richard Seymour’s Corbyn: The Strange Birth of Radical Politics is a more serious account of the Corbyn phenomenon. Alex Nunns’ book The Candidate: Jeremy Corbyn’s Improbable Path to Power is a much more detailed study of the Corbyn-mania and the forces that propelled it into being.
The book maps, in great detail, how Corbyn became the unlikely candidate and how his equally improbable rise was organised and managed against the powerful trio of the hostile media, the parliamentary labour party and the Labour party machine. The Candidate locates the rise of Corbyn in a number of related developments -- the election of Ed Miliband as the leader of the Labour party was the first sign of a coming rupture with the new Labour. And it was this that paved the way for Corbyn’s rise.
Nunns skilfully delineates the trends and forces that came together at what he calls a historically weak juncture for the left, within the Labour party to lay the spadework for Corbyn’s rise. The author fingers three ‘tributaries’ which fed into Corbyn’s popularity. The first tributary composed of a vast swathe of silent labour party members disillusioned by Labour’s relentless right-ward drift under Tony Blair. The second is the fact that the trade union movement, severely weakened under Blair and Miliband, was seeking to find a union-friendly leadership candidate at a time when unions were a diminished force within the party. And thirdly, the long-standing social movements and new social forces which the economic crisis of 2008 and the subsequent austerity unleashed.
Nunns hones in on the anti-austerity movement as an example of a new social movement. Another important initial trigger for candidate Corbyn was the letter published in The Guardian by the 2015 intake of Labour members of the parliament, suggesting that labour leadership contest should include an anti-austerity candidate. This call was enthusiastically responded to by the left of the Labour party and other lapsed Labour activists. The message, energetically spread via social media, was instrumental in stimulating an energised debate about the prospect of a left candidate. With other likely contenders of the left ruling themselves out of the leadership contest, Corbyn reluctantly stepped up as the last-resort candidate of the left.
To the surprise of almost everyone, Corbyn managed to gather the required number of MP nominations to be on the leadership ballot, mere minutes before the deadline. At first, he was dismissed as a joke candidate with no hope of making it to the ballot paper, the media and political class only began taking him seriously when the first YouGov polls in July 2015 gave him commanding lead among the leadership contenders. Nunns convincingly argues that a large part of this surprising lead was rooted in party membership and constituency labour parties, rather than registered supporters which contributed to Corbyn’s support and emerged in the latter phase of the leadership campaign.
Although the new registered supporter category was brought in to counter block votes of the trade union within the party, it served the opposite effect by opening the party to an unprecedented number of mostly new, young members that felt empowered by Corbyn’s radical politics. The earlier mentioned YouGov polls sent shockwaves through the mainstream media which was opposed to Corbin’s surging popularity. Nunns is particularly good at describing how panic gripped The Guardian, which is normally considered vital to the leadership elections of the Labour party; he also writes about how the paper’s coverage grew largely negative.
Nunns delves deep into internal politics of Labour party and the parliamentary labour party. He is good at peeling off the workings of inner factions and ideological tendencies such as Red Labour, Compass Group, Labour Representation Committee, Left Platform, Campaign for Labour Party Democracy (CLPD), Labour First and Progress. The book also focuses upon groups such as Tribune and the Campaign group within the parliamentary labour party. This section of the book offers a well-informed peek into the inner ideological universe of the Labour party.
In particular, his description of the origin of CPLD and its largely forgotten founder, the Czech émigré Vladimir Derer, is absorbing. Nunns points out that it was the hubris of the New Labour which spread disillusionment among its party membership. This hubris and tone-deafness to the changed political realities in the wake of the 2008 crash led to the reassertion of the left current in the party and led to the election of Corbyn.
Nunns also pays sufficient attention to the vital role played by regional organisers in Corbyn’s victory. Unlike the other two books mentioned earlier, Nunns brings Corbyn’s story up to date by including a chapter on the challenge mounted onto his leadership by the parliamentary labour party. This led to the second leadership election within a year of the first one, representing quite a unique moment in the Labour party’s history whereby the leader of the party was deposed by his parliamentary colleagues despite the heavy membership mandate bestowed on Corbyn.
Yet Corbyn withstood parliamentary blackmail, and won the second leadership election with an even larger mandate despite the fact that a significant number of registered supporters were disallowed from voting in the second leadership election. All in all, the book is a useful addition to a string of rushed books seeking to explain the meteoric rise of a rebellious, but personable and principled, backbencher.
The book is indispensable for those interested in the history of different groups that make up the Labour party, in the state of the trade union movement and in the wider social movements and larger political forces. The book’s next edition will be greatly enhanced if an index could be added at the end. I recommend this book to readers interested in the history of Labour party, Labour party activists and campaigners, student of politics and media and campaign strategists and general readers alike.