The Candidate, by Alex Nunns
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In the 2015 election, I didn’t bother to take part. In fact, I pretty much buried my head and avoided it. I did vote: of course I voted, and I voted Labour, believing that Ed Milliband was a decent man at the head of a lousy party, but I was, as I had been since at least the Iraq War, if not since Peter Mandelson demonstrated the Blairites’ real priorities in 2000, a reluctant voter, who felt he had no real representation within the official political system.
If you’d asked me at that time what my ideal prime ministerial candidate would have looked like, I would have said, someone who did not seek the position, who spoke clearly about the world, rather than dodging round ideas, who opposed war and injustice, who was not muddied by association with the Blair years and who was prepared to aim for a move away from the apparently unstoppable drift towards a free-market economic free-for-all. Thanks to the deafening hegemony of the press, business lobbyists and cowed or corrupted politicians, that position, even under three years ago, seemed like a naive dream.
That year’s election result, an increased majority for the Tories (although on a considerably increased Labour popular vote), contrary to the expectations of the media and their opinion polls, didn’t, therefore, take me by surprise, although I had seen one Guardian cover which had shown Milliband to have been catching up with the Tories, and my hopes had been lifted somewhat. Though a Labour government, as the party was then, would not have made much of a difference to the country, it might at least have wiped the smirks off the faces of Osborne, his lackey Cameron and their odious puppet master Murdoch. In the end, though, as we all expected in our heart of hearts, Murdoch got his way as usual, and the Tories got back in, apparently stronger than before.
It would have amazed me then to discover that, a little over a month after the election, not only would I have joined the Labour Party, but that I would be on Facebook (which I had left several years before) posting enthusiastically for a Labour back bencher to become leader, attending Labour meetings and arguing with Blairites about the leadership election, and even wearing tee-shirts declaring my allegiance to the leadership candidate.
I can remember sitting in our garden, late on a summer evening, after having returned from the Isle of Wight Festival, and deciding that this man was for real, and that it was time to put my money behind him. I joined straight away: I didn’t want to just be a £3 supporter; I wanted to be a part of the movement to reintroduce socialism into British politics, and to do my bit to bring together all the angry people who had had no way of finding a voice that could reach beyond the paywall the British establishment had erected around itself. Jeremy Corbyn was saying things that had been too outre for mainstream discourse: things like, poverty is bad and not inevitable: war is a manufactured evil, not forced upon us; the news media is distorted by vested interests and hatred and we should be fighting the racist anti-immigrant propoganda; we should be funding schools properly; we should own our vital infrastructure networks; we should be reversing privatisation of the NHS, rather than collaborating with the corrupt capitalist clique who are stealing our country while lying through their teeth to us. And, most amazingly, millions of people were listening. Within two years, I was campaigning for a Labour Party that was propelled by this man to reduce the Tories to a minority government, change the political dialogue and unseat the hegemony of the elite mainstream media.
It has been an extraordinary couple of years: from despair to hope. This book tells the story from inside the left wing circles of the national Labour Party and, if at times it feels a little confused, and a little too busy, that is because it has a lot of material to cover,
There had been some precursors to the Corbyn movement, but, living on the Isle of Wight, working in public service and dependent upon mainstream media for my information as I was, I had largely missed them. Principally, the anti-austerity movement had been standing for all the right things for a few years, and gaining some coverage, but had been unable to inconvenience the insulated political class. The anti-war movement was similarly strong in voice but still fairly weak in influence, although the greatest parliamentary success of Ed Milliband’s leadership of Labour was probably the defeat of Cameron’s plan to bomb Syria, although Cameron went ahead and did it anyway in his next term. The anti-tax avoidance movement had caused a certain amount of change of narrative among the Tories, but no real change of direction. Online protest movements like 38 Degrees had begun to draw together people who were not active protestors but felt angry about political conditions. Looking back, I think that, for me, the biggest nudge towards thinking I should drag myself out of hopelessness had been reading The Establishment, by Owen Jones, which was widely read in 2015-16 (I remember the enthusiasm of the bookseller in Waterstone’s when I bought it as a moment of political fellowship). In particular, I was fascinated by what is now a reasonably familiar concept; the Overton Window, which is the constructed restriction on what is considered permitted discourse within the political realm. This concept, new to me then, perfectly explained the previously incomprehensible way in which issues that I saw as urgent and real were contained and marginalised by the political classes.
I can remember a thrill of recognition when I read, “…as the late socialist politician Tony Benn would often put it, social change is a combination of two things: ‘the burning flame of anger at injustice, and the burning flame of hope for a better world’” Though I certainly didn’t lack the flame of anger at injustice, I had been lacking hope for a long time, and every event that seemed it should inspire hope would, after the first headlines, get dragged back down into the mire of politicians’ vacilations and newsreaders’ contemptuous headshaking.
After the 2015 election, the candidates who came forward to stand as replacements for Ed Milliband did nothing to remedy that. Instead of change, we faced more greyness and surrender to neoliberalism. My despair was shared by Nunns:
The whole narrative was ‘we need to move to the right’… This was getting to the point where you go, ‘I’m not sure I’ll be able to take this if this is the direction it goes in. We’ve got to at least have a go, through the debate, to pull it back.’
The standard profile of the politician to whom we had become depressingly accustomed by now was a professional technocrat, addicted to playing a game defined as much by its restrictions as by any desire to achieve anything beyond personal advancement. In the Tories, this created the dominance of, frankly, a class of corrupt second-raters, skilled at delivering power to their corporate sponsors in return for personal advantage, staying just within the rules they had, over decades, set for themselves. Tragically, the Labour Party had followed suit.
…within the ranks of the Blairite MPs there was a decline in quality over time…made up of spads-special advisors-many of whom had moved effortlessly from university to MPs’ researcher to ministerial advisor to a safe seat to being in government (this applied to Brownites as well as Blairites). It was a career path that produced technocrats, people who had never needed to fight.
As the candidates lined up to succeed Ed Milliband, this was exactly what we were offered: a line-up of identikit technocrats. Andy Burnham (‘soft left’), Yvette Cooper (Brownite) and Liz Kendall (Blairite) presented nothing of any substance to someone who wanted to be led against the corrupt orthodoxy of austerity and privatised public services.
They have probably been thinking for years about their unique ‘policy offer’; which combination of the words ‘future,’ ‘Britain,’ ‘forward,’ and ‘together’ they will adopt for their slogan; and how they will answer the question about whether they took drugs at university.
In that environment, the hopes of left-leaning Labour members were not high. Some even simply thought that the Left should simply avoid the contest. Owen Jones is quoted saying as much.
My view was that, in the midst of general post-election demoralisation, a left candidate could end up being crushed. Such a result would be used by both the Labour Party establishment and the British right generally to perform the last rites of the left, dismiss us as irrelevant, and tell us to shut up forever.
Had I been thinking about it, I would probably have felt much the same. I was not part of ‘the left’, but their views, as outlined in this book, were the very ideas I was dreaming of, and had been dreaming of for many years, thinking that they were politically impossible to believe in. I remember telling my sister that, at least, Cooper had been sound on the establishment of SureStart, but, given her bland, centrist campaign for the leadership, that felt like a quirky anomoly, rather than an indication of her radical, egalitarian politics. She, like Burnham, looked less like a campaigner who had sold out than a careerist who had a couple of slightly radical sales positions.
This very dreeriness and the weight of rightward-peering consensus was, however, what drove the left to search for a candidate. John McDonnell and Diane Abbott both ruled themselves out, Mcdonnell for health reasons and because he felt he was too abrasive and Abbott because she wanted to run for London mayor. Clive Lewis declined because he felt he lacked experience; “…I don’t even know where the toilets are”, but the desperation for a Left candidate to at least shift the debate away from surrender to capital was powerful. As McDonnell put it in a journal article,
That the candidates for the Labour leadership so far have failed to mount the slightest challenge to capital shows the abject state of near surrender of the Labour Party. No core Labour principle is safe in the rush to not only return to Blairism but even go beyond. Redistribution of wealth through taxation is denounced as ‘the politics of envy.’ Privatisation of the NHS is acceptable as long as it ‘works.’ Caps on welfare benefits and toughening the treatment of migrants are suppoerted because they were ‘doorstep issues.’
In this atmosphere, the idea of running to win was not really on the table. Merely fielding a candidate who could put the case for an alternative to servility to capitalist austerity was the only aim. Jeremy Corbyn was not even considered: “We suffered from a blindness to anything other than a conventionally acceptable candidate” Jon Lansman is quoted as saying.
The story that Corbyn tentatively proposed himself at a meeting of the Socialist Campaign Group is, according to Nunns, true. Despair had almost set in: “They discussed the alternative of backing one of the existing candidates in return for concessions…” and he put his name forward, assuming that he would be defeated, but unwilling to see a contest without a genuine Labour voice. In fact, Byron Taylor, the national officer of the Trades Union Liaison Organisation had suggested Corbyn to Lansman already, pointing out that Corbyn was “…the nicest man in politics…he hasn’t got any enemies.”
At this point, the Left’s highest ambition in the leadership contest was not to be wiped out. Nunns quotes one anonymous source as having said, “I don’t want the Left to fall flat on its face. The main thing is, we don’t finish fourth, or even worse than that, a distant fourth.” However, very quickly, a new factor became evident: people power.
The early signs were all good. Even before the campaign had any kind of central command, things were happening out in the wild. Throughout the summer what was known as the Corbyn campaign was actually an amalgam of spontaneous local activity, but in practice the official operation was often “at the reins of a runaway horse,” as Corbyn’s press spokesperson Carmel Nolan described it…[Marshajane] Thompson found an image on the internet with the #JezWeCan motif and paid her own money to have 100 t-shirts printed with the design…”We had a meeting in Newcastle where we literally advertised it 48 hours in advance and we got 250 people” says Ben Sellars. “This is in the first week of the campaign.” Meanwhile in London, an activist gathering held in a pub in Tottenham Court Road attracted 300 people wanting to campaign for Corbyn.
Jumping On Board
This must be around the time I came in, signing up to Facebook, partly because of a happy event around The Isle of Wight Festival and partly because I was, like nearly everyone I knew, amazed and delighted to hear a politician saying what I had been thinking, and speaking in terms that reflected the real world, rather than a photoshopped, PR-led mirage of ‘political reality’ that seemed divorced from the reality of my life and the world around me.
I’d found my dream candidate. Within days, I had joined the party, as a full member, not a £3 supporter.
The excitement of that time comes back to me now. I was far from the centre of things, on the Isle of Wight, going to my first constituency meetings, arguing for Jeremy, making new friends, voting in the constituency nomination poll, which overwhelmingly supported Corbyn. The local party here, like in many areas, was both excited and somewhat shocked by the influx of new faces, bringing an agenda that threw all the work they had done over the years up into the air. I must say here that the Island Labour Party, with a few exceptions, responded with great grace to the change. On Facebook, things looked rather different. A few very vocal figures were entrenched in their nostalgia for the Blair years and there were unpleasant and often circular arguments, which a couple of trotstkyite/leninist/whatever revolutionaries stirred with monomaniacal delight. However, the divisions were overwhelmed by the unanimity of the new voices, who leapt upon the opportunity to participate in politics that, at last, had some relevance to them.
This was the story nationally, according to Nunns. Local parties, by and large, were reinvigorated by the arrival of new members, while being, initially, somewhat sceptical about whether the surge in membership would translate to active participation. However, in the national party, the PLP, things were rather different. The best description is panic, and the most appalling example of the PLP’s failure to recognise the nature of their new support, and the change in the political landscape that it heralded, was interim leader Harriet Harman’s disastrous decision to not oppose the Tory government’s welfare reform bill.
Harman’s Horrible Blunder
The sheer barbarity of the Tories’ welfare reform bill, which Harriet Harman decided the Labour Party should not oppose, is well covered by Nunns.
It is a bill that piles the cost of the government’s austerity drive onto those in work on low pay-the very people Labour was founded to represent. But in her wisdom…Harman has decided not to oppose the bill. Labour will first table a ‘reasoned amendment,’ an obscure parliamentary mechanism for setting-out objections, and when that inevitably fails it will abstain…
John McDonnell, Nunns says,
has been sitting on the backbenches seething at the debate he has heard…With his first sentence, he cuts through all the vacillation: “I would swim through vomit to vote against this Bill, and listening to some of the nauseating speeches tonight, I think we might have to.”
He [McDonnell] continues:
Poverty in my constituency is not a lifestyle choice; it’s imposed upon people…This Welfare Reform Bill does as all the other welfare reform bills in recent years have done and blames the poor for their own poverty and not the system…I find it appalling that we sit here-in, to be frank, relative wealth ourselves-and we’re willing to vote for increased poverty for the people back in our constituencies.
That line-”…blam[ing] the poor for their own poverty and not the system…” gave me another new hero. It summed up the confidence trick that the Thatcherites had inserted into British politics in my teens and that subsequent governments, Tory and Labour, had embedded and refined as a cover for the blatant thievery of an establishment that regarded itself as above question: sneering at disenfranchised, abandoned people for their victimhood. The fact that anyone was prepared to speak with such moral certainty against the corruption of the Draco Malfoy of British politics, George Osborne, and his Pansy Parkinson, Cameron, gave me a little hope. The fact that the PLP bottled its duty in such spectacular fashion by not opposing this brutal, snide bill with every weapon at its disposal secured my certainty that supporting Jeremy Corbyn was not just an opportunity, but a moral imperative.
When the division bell rings at the end of the debate, 48 Labour MPs-over a fifth of the parliamentary party-defy Harman to oppose the Bill. Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall are not among them. But John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn are.
The chapter on this inglorious moment in Labour history is particularly rich. Harman’s motivation for this career-defining blunder is discussed, and suggests that she was
…”traumatised” by her previous experience as acting leader after the 2010 election, when under her watch the Tories pinned the blame for the financial crash on Labour overspending.
According to Nunns, both Burnham and Cooper were desperate for Labour to oppose the Bill, but divided by a squabble over who should speak first in a Shadow Cabinet meeting, and therefore suggest the reasoned amendement. “But Harman was resolute that Labour would not vote against it. The Shadow Cabinet was fragmented.”
I remember being aghast and weary. Had Burnham or Cooper resigned the Shadow Cabinet and joined the rebels, I think the leadership contest would have been a lot closer, but they drifted into the disaster, tied to their belief that a facile show of unity trumped principles and, in so doing, lost my respect.
I wasn’t the only one.
There was…a perception of moral decay in Labour’s position, a feeling captured by Diane Abbott in an outraged op-ed published the day after Harman’s interview (on the BBC’s Sunday Politics on 12th July 2015). “How did a party that once promised to end child poverty in a generation become one that will shrug and vote for measures which will force tens of thousands of children into poverty?” she asked.
Stunningly, this is an argument that Labour won, to an extent. After Corbyn’s election as leader, Iain Duncan-Smith, the right-wing Tory welfare minister, resigned over further cuts, this time to disability payments.
“Fiscal self-imposed restraints,” said Duncan Smith while explaining his resignation on the Andrew Marr programme, “are more and more perceived as distinctly political rather than in the national economic interest.” He might just as well have directly quoted Corbyn’s campaign slogan that austerity is a political choice not an economic necessity.
The (Over) Reaction
There was a quality of blinking disbelief to the media coverage of the leadership election. The over-ironed, open-necked shirts out of which comfortably Blairite skinny-necked ‘experts’ opined their certainty that a Corbyn victory was an impossibility were viewing the end of their cosy hegemony, and seemed to become shinier and starchier, simply denying it could be happening. Jonathan Freedland, Anne Perkins, Andrew Rawnsley, Michael White and Polly Toynbee, all of The Guardian, were notable columnists of the ‘left’ who circled their Priuses against the assault on the British media’s four-decade-long war against disadvantaged and marginalised people. Andrew Rawnsley lost his reason:
That Rawnsley should react with animosity rather than curiosity was perhaps understandable. Suddenly, the centre of gravity was moving away from the Labour elite to which he had unparalleled access, and from which he had mined the raw materials needed to fashion-with considerable skill-the books and journalism that had won him acclaim. Newbies were putting that all at risk.
I gave up buying The Guardian (I had been a twice-a-week reader, on average, for thirty years) and have only bought one copy since (although I am thinking of paying an online supporter fee, now that the anger it inspired at the time has settled).
A selection of the headlines from The Guardian website’s front page on 22 and 23 July gives a sense of the almost hysterical tone that thook hold: “Blair urges Labour not to wrap itself in a Jeremy Corbyn comfort blanket”; “Think before you vote for Jeremy Corbyn”; Labour can come back from the brink, but it seems to lack the will to do so”; “Blair: I wouldn’t want to win on an old fashioned leftist platform.” On these two panic-stricken days alone, The Guardian website carried opinion pieces hostile to Corbyn from Anne Perkins, Suzanne Moore, Polly Toynbee, Tim Bale, Martin Kettle, Michael White, Anne Perkins (again), and Anne Perkins (yet again). There was no a single pro-Corbyn column…
But The Guardian had a problem: its readers [disagreed]…78 percent of the 2500 people who responded [to a Guardian poll] backed Corbyn…Such sentiment was often reflected on the letters page, an oasis amid the relentless negativity elsewhere. And anyone brave enough to venture ‘below the line’ into the netherworld of online comments could not mistake the strong feeling that Corbyn was being unfairly treated and his supporters patronised. Commenters showed themselves to be expert at puncturing pomposity and exposing illogic, but the most striking feature of their contributions was anger at The Guardian itself…The charge was that The Guardian was effectively trolling one particular candidate-one who had the support of many of its readers.
The long term effect on the press of the earthquake beneath the British political elite’s inward-looking fortress of privilege is a subject for another essay, but it is worth noting that The Sun, which before 2015 dictated popular political culture to a pathological degree, seems like an irrelavence two and a half years later. Who is The Sun’s current political editor? Any guesses? I don’t think it important enough to bother looking it up.
The New Statesman was particularly egregious. I followed it on Facebook and noted, as did many other people, that it became not dissimilar to The Daily Mail in tone. Indeed, when The New Statesman’s editor did “…stake out his position on July 22nd, [it was] in the Daily Mail of all places…”
The section on the press is, perhaps, the bit of the book which has had the most impact upon me. Part of the establishment’s great confidence trick is that it is supremely skilled at sidelining voices that are not in accord with its own. Its greatest trick in this regard is to accuse oppositional voices of being ignorant and deranged: think of how often you hear establishment lackeys like Melanie Phillips or Andrew Rawnsley describe criticism of power as ‘conspiracy theory’. They alone have the right to express opposition, because they alone have the inside knowledge which the ordinary democratic voter does not have a right to share, except through the filter of their power. In the Labour leadership election, this closed shop collapsed in upon itself as it realised that, for the majority of people, and, in particular, the people it thought it had effectively demotivated from political participation, their voices were innaccessible, irrelevant and ridiculous. The people who chanted Jeremy Corbyn’s name at a rock concert less than two years after the leadership campaign haven’t heard of Jonathan Freedland, Polly Toynbee, Max Hastings or Andrew Marr. They had heard of Laura Kuenssberg by then, but only as a figure of ridicule on Facebook and Twitter. The edifice of inward-looking, London-property-owning hegemony only really began to notice that the world had moved beyond it during this leadership campaign.
And this was not an accident. In the leadership election, the Corbyn campaign knew that it needed to reach around the fortress of hopelessly corrupted commercial and ‘public service’ news power and it succeeded.
Research carried out by YouGov in August 2015 found that 57 percent of Corbyn supporters cited social media as “a main source of news,” compared to around 40 per cent for backers of other candidates. “Part of the reason why they were spending so much time on social media was because they didn’t trust the traditional media any more.” believes ben Sellers. One of the main functions of the Corbyn For Leader social media operation rum by Sellers and Thompson was to circumvent the press, both by publicising the explosion of activity happening all around the country, and by curating the mainstream media to pick out the half-decent reports (“sometimes that was a struggle,” Sellers quips.
It was patently clear that some journalists felt threatened by the arrival of this new realm. A media narrative asserting that there is no alternative is much easier to sustain if there is no alternative media. The existence of a different point of view, forged among a network of people who would previously have been atomised, is what provoked the snobbish accusations of “virtue signalling” and “identity politics.” Being continually challenged about their bias and presuppositions brought howls of exasperation from journalists that congealed into a collective feeling of offence. It contributed to the general sense of consternation at Corbyn’s rise. Events were spinning beyond the media’s control.
Note: Spookily, as I write this, I have received a marketing email from O/R books for the second edition of The Candidate. This new edition is expanded to include the 2017 election and the email uses social media quotes by ‘Britain’s major political pundits,’ all predicting the demolition of Labour at the polls. The same quotes are used in this publicity video.
Hubris doesn’t get much better than this.
As John Prescott says, the heart of the Corbyn campaign was not tactical, but issues-led: they talked about policies. The true pleasure of recalling the campaign, for me, is the excitement I felt every time an issue I cared about, that had become codified, contained and sidelined by ‘the political process’ was dragged into the spotlight and became live and real. The horrible corruption of privatisations, the mental health care disaster, the cruel and sickening purge of poor people from the economy by ‘welfare reform’, the collapse of education, the barely-coded racism of ‘immigration control’, the designed chaos of Tory prisons policy: issue after issue would turn up on social media and, instead of being buried in establishment pundits’ headshaking, would be discussed, witnessed to by the people who were suffering from the policy and would drown out the lies that had been told about it with real, human truth.
The years between Jeremy’s first leadership election and the general election of 2017 included the doleful attempt by the right-wing capitalists within the Labour Party to challenge him with the corporate lackey Owen Smith’s pathetic leadership campaign. It only strengthened Jeremy as leader, although you wouldn’t believe it if you read the Guardian, for whom the only story was “how long will Corbyn last?” Even the stunning political earthquake of the general election, during which I campaigned with enthusiasm and blogged with fury, hasn’t blunted their hypocrisy and partiality. In that election, as during the recent local election campaign, manstream media has been on the attack, settling upon one particular lie, that anti-semitism is an attitude unique to the Labour Party and a characteristic of it. It has done harm, mainly through the old fascist trope of repetition and ubiquity, and I worry that the anti-semitism campaign, contrived and corrupt as it is, has done a certain amount to split the party at a time when it should be coming together.
Nevertheless, I am optimistic that we will see a revival of the enthusiasm when the current government finally collapses in on itself. The people who listened with interest when I was leafleting for Labour during the 2017 election weren’t members of the party, but they were careworkers, disabled people whose support payments had been decimated and blocked by JobCentrePlus target campaigns, carers whose elderly dependents had little or no support from a National Health Service being deliberately run into the ground, and they felt hopeful then, as I hope they will feel when Jeremy leads us into the next election.
I really can’t afford to buy the second edition of The Candidate much as I would like to read it. I read my copy of the first edition last summer, and going back through it to write this has revived my political fire a bit. I am still in the party, as the secretary of my local branch and, incredibly, I have been nominated to be assistant secretary of the Island CLP, which is a bit embarrassing. In March, I attended an economics conference hosted by John McDonnell, and I was awed by the depth of talent and energy that has coalesced around the Labour Party’s policy making: academics, campaigners, charity workers and, most importantly, people like me who just care enough to get involved, are all having their say, so that, come the next election, we will go in with policies even more deeply worked out and clearly thought through than those we offered the electorate, and so nearly delivered, in 2017.
There is still hope.
- Jones, Owen, The Establishment And How They Get Away With It London, Penquin, 2015, pxxiv ↑
- Nunns, Alex, The Candidate: Jeremy Corbyn’s Improbable Path To Power, OR Books, 2016, p84 ↑
- Nunns, p235 ↑
- Nunns, p294 ↑
- Nunns, p 83 ↑
- Nunns, p85 ↑
- Ibid ↑
- Nunns, p86 ↑
- Ibid ↑
- Ibid ↑
- Nunns, p126 ↑
- Nunns, p127 ↑
- Nunns 191-193 (all three previous quotes) ↑
- Ibid ↑
- Nunns, p193 ↑
- Nunns, p195 ↑
- Nunns, pp194-195 ↑
- Nunns, p202 ↑
- Nunns, p219 ↑
- Nunns, pp213-214 ↑
- Nunns, p209 ↑
- Nunns p225 ↑