Alex Nunns the Candidate – Jeremy Corbyn’s Improbable Path to Power
(OR Books, £15 – reviewed in 2016)
A book that skilfully analyses the political motives and organisational forces behind the election as Labour leader in September 2015 of Jeremy Corbyn, who – as Alex Nunns points out on page 294 – “was in no sense ready for it” and “was thrust into a nearly impossible situation”.
The jury is still, of course, still out on Corbyn as a Labour leader.
But what this book does clearly show is that those who stood against him – and their supporters – had nothing to recommend them as none could envisage an economic alternative to the Tories austerity package that has cut the standard of living for many, whilst also failing to reduce Britain’s economic debt.
Corbyn has been an MP since 1983. He held no government post during the period when Labour was in office between 1997 and 2010. The Islington MP had, though, built a reservoir of personal support amongst radical campaigning organisations (many not directly connected to Labour) by backing their causes in and out of Parliament. These causes included his steadfast opposition to the disastrous Iraq War.
Meanwhile, having seen the selection of Labour Parliamentary candidates become dominated by Tony Blair’s New Labour, unions – particularly UNITE and the GMB – began to get organised at the start of the current decade to try and get pro-union candidates, preferably working class ones, into Labour seats.
In 2010, the new Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition Government chose to use the 2008 financial crash to impose severe public sector cuts particularly on the poorest in society such as the unemployed, disabled and sick. Privatising the NHS was expanded. When opposition to such moves was led by the trade unions and community groups, New Labour MPs preferred to look the other way whilst Corbyn and his closest ally, John McDonnell MP, rallied to the fightback against austerity.
Nevertheless, the chances of Corbyn ending up as Labour leader were remote to say the very least. However, New Labour in 2014 had over extended itself. In its drive to maintain the power of the Parliamentary Labour Party – and weaken the trade union influence – New Labour backed Miliband’s decision to implement the Collins Review recommendations, whereby the next Labour leader would be elected on a one-member-one-vote system. John Rentoul, a Blairite journalist proclaimed: “it means that the next Labour leader will be a Blairite”.
Rentoul’s contention was to be tested when Miliband quit as leader following Labour’s poor showing at the 2015 General Election. At the start it seemed highly unlikely that Corbyn would even get on the ballot paper as he required a minimum of 35 nominations from MPs. It helped that despite his political differences with most of his Parliamentary colleagues he had never resorted to personal attacks on them. There was also a feeling that all sectors of the Party should be represented. Although he had less than 20 MPs who intended actually voting for him it proved possible to gather in sufficient nominations for Corbyn to be able to stand against Liz Kendall, Andy Burnham and Yvette Cooper. Burnham was the bookies favourite, Corbyn was 200-1.
Initially the aim of those backing Corbyn was for him to enjoy a respectable showing and move the debate to the left. But it soon became apparent that there was a groundswell of support for Corbyn amongst all sections of the Labour Party. These included many who had been in it for years, those who had joined as a result of Ed Miliband’s opposition – timid as it was on too many occasions – to austerity and those, many from the campaigns and organisations he had worked with for decades, who were being persuaded to join Labour in order to elect Jeremy Corbyn as its leader. Throw in the work undertaken by the trade unions to recover the party for the working class then all told this was a powerful combination.
It was, though, one that needed organising and co-ordinating. The book is extremely good in charting the achievements of such as Alex Halligan of Unite in organising events at which Corbyn could speak directly to potential supporters and also help him reach out to a larger audience using social media.
Corbyn, of course, won by a landslide and captured every section – the older, relatively new and the brand new – of the Labour Party. He beat all his opponents by obtaining a majority at the first ballot.
Since then Jeremy Corbyn has had to face down a series of revolts amongst his Parliamentary colleagues. There has also been an unprecedented level of media hostility – much of it very personal – even though as the Labour leader admits in this book his economic programme would not be seen as particularly remarkable in Germany.
Whether, of course, the move to the left in Labour that Jeremy Corbyn has helped inspire can be maintained and built upon to secure a more equal society for everyone is still up for grabs. That’s up to all of us and not just Jeremy Corbyn!