When Jeremy Corbyn became Labour’s leader, it disrupted politics, it disrupted the media and it was inexplicable. Except it wasn’t. Journalist and author Alex Nunns has explained exactly how a lifelong, left-wing backbencher rose to the helm of the one of the largest political parties in Britain. And it makes complete sense.
Alex Nunn’s The Candidate was released by OR Books on 17 November. And it seeks to explain how such an unprecedented political development was able to happen. It is insightful and highly readable. It goes ahead and explains the mechanisms that catapulted Corbyn to heights he himself would never have imagined. The increasing gap between where Labour MPs stood and where their members wanted them to stand. The role of the economic downturn, austerity economics and of course the Iraq war, which decimated New Labour’s popularity. And the role of the trade unions, which were looking to gain a new alliance within British politics. Finally, the way left-wing movements eventually saw Corbyn as a candidate worth getting behind.
And the book takes you on the journey. With its in-depth research, you feel you’re experiencing the early struggle of Corbyn’s campaign. In Corbyn’s own words, quoted right at the start of the book:
We’ve been through 100 days of the most amazing experience many of us have had in our lives.
And through inspiring story-telling, you experience it right there with them.
His last book, ‘Tweets from Tahrir’ was also pretty successful. He co-edited it with Nadia Idle and it is about the Egyptian revolution, something he was “massively excited” about. It used social media to construct a picture of what different people were experiencing at the same time. Something you couldn’t for instance do during the French Revolution, he says.
He applies the same enthusiasm to The Candidate, wanting to explain a completely unprecedented thing.
Nunns did so in an article for Le Monde Diplomatique and was asked to extend it. Plunging into research surrounding Corbyn’s election, he interviewed people at the very heart of his campaign. This included the man’s friend and ally John McDonnell. But he also interviewed campaigners, largely ignored by the media, who were at the very centre of the movement.
One of the themes Nunns explores in his book is the big misconception that people want more centreground politics. And this was where the last Labour leader stumbled. If Ed Miliband supposedly represented the left, the electorate certainly didn’t think so. The British Election Study conducted a survey and asked people to place parties on where they thought they sat on the left-right spectrum. The results showed that people perceived the Tories as more right of centre than they perceived Labour to be left. This blew the theory out of the water that the electorate wanted someone on centre-ground. And as a country, we voted for a party that was almost as right-wing as UKIP, in people’s minds.
Although Miliband’s problem was more a problem of ambiguity, Nunns says you can’t write him off. He did represent a huge break to the left, re-traditionalised Labour and allowed more debate with the help of the trade unions. At least in the context of 2010. But while some labelled him ‘soft left’, others associated him with ‘blue Labour’. Miliband became more tactical and accepted austerity. And this happened at the same time as the Labour membership was doing the exact opposite – moving to the left.
— Alex Nunns (@alexnunns) October 27, 2016
The formidable mainstream media
However, the mainstream media did not give Miliband any favours. In fact, they decimated his personality. Recalling the “bacon sandwich thing” Nunns agrees it is much easier for the media to attack a personality – because otherwise they would have to concentrate on policies. Policies that are actually popular.
It is the same performance on repeat now, with Corbyn in the main role. Because Miliband broke from the norm, as Corbyn does now.
In such moments of political flux, when a sudden development cannot be made to fit into the standard pattern of reporting used to depict the world, underlying biases are revealed.
– Excerpt from ‘The Candidate‘.
The right-wing media called Corbyn’s selection a suicide vote. But the real wounds were inflicted in the column inches of where Labour was most comfortable. The Guardian. Some pro-Corbyn opinion pieces may have appeared in the early days of Corbyn’s candidacy, legitimising it as ‘the home of the liberal left’. But the majority of content on Corbyn was anti-Corbyn and a full-on attack. There were, for example, three pieces from Anne Perkins in just two days.
This was extraordinary because the Guardian’s own readers supported Corbyn. Its own content – comment and investigations – had parity with Corbyn’s policies. The Guardian’s readership seemed to see through the paper’s mission and this became a galvanising force for Corbyn, who would not let those he represented down.
While some may try and write off ‘The Candidate’ as a Corbyn fan fest, it really isn’t. And it’s not only for lefty politico geeks. Nunns says:
One of the reasons I wrote this book was because the media was giving no explanation of where this all came from. It seemed that Jeremy Corbyn just appeared and suddenly he’s leader of the Labour party as if it’s completely inexplicable. But actually it didn’t come from nowhere. It came from a big historical shift which I argue is all to do with the financial crash and that weakens the centre-ground and it weakens the economic model since Margaret Thatcher.
The special relationship
Before the 2016 US Presidential election, I asked Nunns what the world might look like if Donald Trump was the US President and Corbyn, the British Prime Minister.
Clearly not wanting to contemplate a President Trump, he quickly retorts:
The stuff he wants to do in foreign policy is dramatic. He probably wouldn’t be allowed to do it.
But on Corbyn, there is much more enthusiasm.
Just to get back to a situation where the government cares about employment and running public services publicly instead of privatising everything. To shift politics just a bit would be a massive achievement.
He believes Corbyn has already changed perceptions, recalling that even Owen Smith has used words that replicated Corbyn’s message. Such as that austerity is a political choice rather than an economic necessity.
So if he became Prime Minister, it would be really difficult, all the problems that we’ve had so far would seem small compared to the problems we would have then. But what it would do is start to shape what the next era of history is going to unfold. Because if it’s true that the era that started with Thatcher is breaking down now, and has been since 2008. . . If Jeremy Corbyn was able to become Prime Minister and shift the world back to a more civilised approach to politics and a more civilised conception of society and the way we organise our lives then that could be something which is important not just here but also abroad.
Whatever that future looks like, and Nunns doesn’t believe in predictions, his book will give you a good idea of how we at least got to the present day. And political history is currently unfolding as we speak. Corbyn has faced many obstacles within his own party and there will be many more. Fighting the status quo will not be easy, but it is clearly happening around the world. For better or worse, Trump’s election is one example of that, as was Brexit. Even smaller movements around Europe are gaining momentum. The Candidate is therefore an important read for a small picture of history in the making.
– Read The Candidate by Alex Nunns from OR Books.
Featured image via Flickr/Garry Knight