Jeremy Corbyn's Liberal Revival

The following is an excerpt from the new book The Candidate: Jeremy Corbyn's Improbably Path to Power by Alex Nunns (OR Books, 2016): 


“Wow,” says John McDonnell, breaking the silence. Everyone in the room expected Jeremy Corbyn to win, but not by this much. The “unelectable” left-winger has just taken 59.5 per cent of the vote in a four-horse race. 

The candidates and their campaign chiefs have been cooped up on the third floor of Westminster’s vast Queen Elizabeth II conference centre for 40 minutes anxiously awaiting advance notice of the result. Deprived of their phones and iPads to prevent the news leaking out, they have been forced to make small talk. After a summer in which the contenders have whiled away countless hours backstage at hustings up and down the country, there is not much more to say. When the gruelling programme of events began, Corbyn was a 200/1 rank outsider. Today, 12 September 2015, he is about to become leader of the Labour Party. 

After Iain McNicol, Labour’s general secretary, reads out the fateful figures, Corbyn’s defeated rivals—Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall—offer their congratulations. Corbyn and McDonnell reciprocate, thanking the others for a comradely contest. There are hugs, but it is all rather restrained. Yet inside, the victors are fit to burst. They are “gob-smacked” at the scale of the win. 

When the result is publicly declared downstairs in the conference hall an hour or so later, the discordance of the audience reaction hints at the troubles ahead. There is wild cheering from some sections of the room. People literally jump out of their seats, shouting and punching the air. Hardened trade unionists are standing up chanting “Jez we did, Jez we did!” There is ecstasy and disbelief in the block reserved for Corbyn’s campaign team. A few minutes earlier rumours had zipped along the rows that Corbyn had won 60 per cent, an idea his supporters dismissed, saying there was no way that could be right. Until the last moment, some feared the contest could yet be fixed or summarily cancelled. “You can’t imagine that they will allow this to happen,” said one. 

But it has happened. And Corbyn’s detractors cannot believe it either. Between the islands of joy there is a sea of dejection. MPs, many of them appropriately grouped on the right hand side of the hall, sit in stony silence, betraying their emotions with the occasional grimace. Party staff wear sullen, sad faces to match the black attire they are sporting, symbolising the death of the party they have known. An incredulous Labour-supporting journalist sits shaking his head repeatedly as he surveys the scene. 

Dressed in an uncharacteristically smart dark blue jacket gifted to him by his sons for the occasion—worn without a tie, in keeping with the European anti-austerity look—Corbyn delivers a victory address that heralds a changed party from that represented in the room. He makes a point of welcoming the new recruits who have surged into Labour’s ranks over the summer, inspired by the chance to transform national politics. His speech meanders its way to a rousing conclusion: “We don’t have to be unequal, it doesn’t have to be unfair, poverty isn’t inevitable. Things can, and they will, change.” 

The press pack descends on Corbyn as soon as he steps off the stage. The party staff, whose job it is to look after the new leader, seem paralysed. “Go on, get a grip guys!” Corbyn’s campaign press officer tells them, before manhandling his boss through the jostling paps himself, past the TV reporters jabbing microphones in his face. 

When Corbyn eventually gets out of the building he heads to a victory party for his team in a nearby pub. In a brief moment of respite in the cab on the way, he and his old friend McDonnell share a knowing look that says: “How the hell did we end up here?” 

At the Sanctuary pub it is pandemonium. 16,000 people volunteered their labour to the Corbyn campaign; it feels like they are all squeezed into the building. The bar manager is panicking about health and safety, saying he will have his licence revoked. When Corbyn arrives there is screaming and cheering and hugging. TV crews try to push their way in through the door. Others resort to filming through the window. 

A small amplifier and microphone are set up at one end of the room. Corbyn stands on a chair to make a speech. “We’ve been through 100 days of the most amazing experience many of us have had in our lives,” he says. Someone has given him a tea towel printed with an image of his mentor, the late Tony Benn. Corbyn reads aloud the quote below: “Hope is the fuel of progress and fear is the prison in which you put yourself.” Several people burst into tears. 

Nobody has noticed the American family sat at the back. They only came in for a quiet lunch, and find themselves in the middle of a raucous party. “Apologies to this American family that we’ve interrupted,” Corbyn says. “We respect our good friends in America.” The room breaks out into a spontaneous chant of “USA, USA, USA!” It is the most unlikely chorus coming from a crowd of socialists celebrating the election of an anti-imperialist. “No one expected to hear that!” Corbyn laughs. 

It is a day of incongruities. As Corbyn and his supporters rejoice, a huge demonstration is snaking its way through central London, called in response to horrific scenes of people drowning in the Mediterranean out of desperation to reach a place of safety. Corbyn’s attendance would usually be a certainty. But members of his campaign staff have been anxious that he should not go—it is not expected of a party leader, and anyway there is too much work to be done assembling a shadow cabinet. Corbyn, though, will not be bossed. Without warning his team, in his victory speech at the QEII centre earlier he had announced: “One of my first acts as leader of the party will be to go to the demonstration this afternoon to show support for the way refugees must be treated.” 

It was quite a statement. Three and a half hours later, Corbyn is stood in front of tens of thousands in Parliament Square proclaiming: “Refugees Welcome.” Watching on, McDonnell feels proud of his friend’s “courage and grit and bravery.” Behind the stage, as the new leader’s third speech of the day draws to a close, a phalanx of young volunteers in bright red ‘TEAM CORBYN’ T-shirts forms a protective cordon ready to speed him through the throng of ecstatic supporters and selfie-seekers, and on to a future in which courage, grit and bravery will be in high demand.

••••• 

How on earth did Jeremy Corbyn become leader of the Labour Party? He had been doing his own thing as backbench MP for 32 years, the embodiment of a thoroughly marginalised political tradition. He had as little ambition to lead his party as he had expectation of doing so. It was easier to imagine the famous monkey hitting random keys on a typewriter and producing the complete works of Shakespeare than hammering out a plausible story that ended with Corbyn at the helm of the Labour Party. 

But while Corbyn’s rise was unlikely, it is not beyond explanation. This may come as news to many Labour MPs and newspaper pundits for whom it is more convenient to dismiss his success as a political nervous breakdown or a collective bout of madness. Rather, Corbyn was swept to the leadership by a fluid political movement that cohered around him, burst its dam and became a torrent. It was fed by three discernible tributaries. The largest ran through the party itself, where the members had turned sharply against New Labour. The second flowed in from the trade unions and was the culmination of a 15-year shift to the left. The final stream had its source in the social movements and activists of the broad left, within which the strongest current was the anti-austerity movement. 

Before they converged, each of these tributaries had carved out its own course in its own time. But they all sprang from resistance to the dominant economic ideology of the day—that bequeathed by Margaret Thatcher. It was the spectacular implosion of her economic system in the 2008 financial crash that changed everything. Suddenly the Faustian pact underpinning New Labour—in which the City of London was allowed to take ever-greater risks provided it cut the government in on some of the rewards—was exposed as a catastrophic gamble. 

This had a profound impact on Labour Party members, yet it took time to be felt. The membership still appeared Blairite in 2010, when David Miliband was its first choice for leader, only to be beaten by his brother Ed thanks to the votes of trade unionists. But by 2015 the party had changed. There was no big moment of epiphany, just an unspectacular drift leftwards. Some of it was down to new recruits joining, attracted by Ed Miliband’s more radical policies. Most was simply a realisation that the old formulas had failed. Underpinning it all was the lived experience of Tory austerity, generating a hunger for a more robust, combative opposition. 

The 2015 general election defeat was a bombshell. Rather than leading to demoralisation and retreat as the Labour right expected and the left feared, it instead galvanised the members, hardening the trends of the previous five years. This blindsided the Labour establishment. The Blairites, in particular, saw the defeat as an opportunity to launch a counter-revolution and reclaim the party. But there was no appetite for a return to a political project scarred by the financial crash, privatisation and war. Members had grown sick of the management techniques developed by Tony Blair that had shut them out of policy decisions and stitched up the party structures. Miliband, to his credit, had allowed some air to flow back into the party. The membership was not willing to be suffocated again. 

Labour MPs appear to have had no inkling of this shift in sentiment. The Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) had become detached from the wider membership, with an insular culture all of its own. The prizing of conformity over talent had produced a lesser quality of MP, reflected in the clutch of mediocre hopefuls initially vying to replace Miliband. The PLP’s political centre of gravity meant that, as the 2015 leadership contest got underway, the debate was pulled heavily to the right, leaving a vacuum to be filled on the left. 

But in May 2015 the Labour left believed itself to be at the weakest point in its history. John McDonnell pronounced it the “darkest hour.” It looked as if there would be no left candidate for leader. Prominent voices such as the writer Owen Jones argued that the left should sit out the contest for fear of being “crushed.”

Yet the left’s message resonated with the membership from the moment that Corbyn was unexpectedly pushed onto the stage. One of the most persistent myths about his victory is that it was somehow foisted on the party by outsiders. This is fantasy. Corbyn was ahead among party members within weeks of getting his name on the ballot paper. When his campaign team started to canvass Labour members by phone the results were “too good to be true.” Corbyn swept up the nominations of Constituency Labour Parties across the country, moving into first place a month into the race. This all happened under the radar of the press, when Corbyn was still unknown to the general public. 

Polling at the conclusion of the contest confirmed this description of a profoundly changed party. Corbyn had massive support from newer party members. But most remarkably he had finished 19 points clear among those who joined before 2010. These were people for whom the Labour Party had been a political home when led by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. Now they wanted “a new kind of politics.” 

This sea change within the party might never have found an avenue for expression had it not been for developments in the trade unions. Their endorsements helped deliver Corbyn a majority of trade unionists’ votes and provided vital funds and staff for his campaign. But most importantly, their backing conferred legitimacy. If the unions, especially the two giants, Unite and Unison, were behind him, Corbyn could no longer be written off as a no-hope, fringe candidate. 

There might seem to be nothing remarkable about unions supporting Corbyn. He was, after all, the most pro-trade union candidate imaginable. But in fact it was a highly unusual development. Unions are cautious beasts. What matters to them is maximising influence. The last thing they could be expected to do was to back an outside chance. 

Why did they do it? Within each union there was grassroots pressure from activists. In several, including Unison, this power from below had a decisive impact. But there was also a bigger, historic process in train. In the post-war period trade unions had been integrated into British capitalism, given a seat at the table in the running of industry, sometimes treated as partners by government. The unions grew mighty but such corporatist arrangements made for compromised, inert organisations. Thatcher tore all that up. In the 1980s the unions were banished, vilified, broken. The new, aggressive form of capitalism she unleashed had no need for them. Blair, when he arrived in power in 1997, offered no salvation. 

This had an impact on Labour politics. The old corporatist system fostered an affinity between the unions and the Labour right. But the rug was pulled from under that alliance. New Labour regarded the unions with thinly-veiled contempt. 

Cast out by capital and brought low in their own party, the unions no longer had any reason to stick with the right. They gave the party a good shake when they backed Ed Miliband as the change candidate in 2010. They put resources into the anti-austerity movement that gathered pace with the Tories in power. A new school of general secretaries was less enamoured of the Labour establishment, less compelled to defend it, less likely to defy grassroots pressure to nominate someone like Corbyn for leader. 

But this is only part of the story. In their new role as an internal opposition in the party, the unions came into close combat with the Blairites. A minor skirmish in the Scottish constituency of Falkirk in 2013 blew up into a major national rumpus. Through a bizarre series of errors and miscalculations, the upshot was the adoption in 2014 of a whole new set of rules for electing the leader of the Labour Party—rules which, though no one dreamed it at the time, would open the way for Corbyn. 

Two changes would have a momentous impact on the 2015 leadership contest. The most consequential stripped MPs of their disproportionate voting weight. From now on the vote of an MP would be worth no more than that of an ordinary party member. The old arrangement had effectively given the PLP a veto on any prospective leader who lacked substantial support in parliament. Its abolition was the price the unions extracted for their reluctant acquiescence to the rest of the package. Almost inadvertently, the way Labour elects its leader had been radically democratised. 

But it was the less significant reform that consumed the attention of the media: the ‘registered supporters’ scheme by which non-members could vote for a fee, set at £3 in 2015. It was the brainchild of the Blairites, who imagined there was a reservoir of centrist voters just beyond the walls of the party. Allow them the chance to vote in Labour’s internal elections and they would pour in, dilute the influence of trade unionists and party activists, and refloat the New Labour ship. It was, to put it mildly, a misjudgement. Although the effect of registered supporters on the 2015 contest has been exaggerated (they accounted for a quarter of the total ballot, not enough to outweigh the members), an incredible 84 per cent of them voted Corbyn. 

The ‘£3ers’ had another less quantifiable impact, related to the third great tributary feeding the Corbyn surge. It was the involvement of the social movement activists, campaigners and loosely networked progressives of the broad left that lent the Corbyn campaign its particular character. The rallies, the social media fizz, the burst of young people suddenly appearing on the scene—this looked like movement politics. 

All the dynamism on the left over the previous half-decade sprang from resistance to the policies adopted to deal with the legacy of the financial collapse, which had borne down hardest on those least to blame for the crisis. Like the economic ideology that produced the crash, this was an international phenomenon. Widespread anger at elites was reflected in the growth of movements and parties of both the left and the right across Europe and the US. On the left, it gave rise to Syriza in Greece, Podemos in Spain, and Bernie Sanders in the US. In Britain it was seen first in the Occupy movement and UK Uncut, local ‘save our services’ campaigns and giant union-organised demonstrations. A section of this mobilised constituency rushed into the Greens before the 2015 general election, but found its way blocked by the first-past-the-post electoral system. Whereas in Europe new parties of the left had shot up at the expense of their established social democratic rivals, in Britain the anti-austerity movement saw a sudden opportunity to express itself within the Labour Party. 

The offer of a vote for £3 lowered the bar of entry, but it was not certain that movement activists would accept it. Many of them had grown up despising a Labour government shamed by the Iraq War. Only a candidate whose years of activism left no doubt about his commitment could have captured their trust. Yet there was something else to it. The breath-taking surge of people inspired by Corbyn’s candidacy came after party members had put him in the lead, after trade unions had lent his challenge an air of plausibility. They joined because it looked like he could win. The momentum they generated ensured that he would. 

The excitement inherent in the rare chance to actually change national politics was infectious. It took on a viral quality, spreading beyond the usual suspects to young people getting involved in politics for the first time, students, artists, anti-establishment rebels, online petitioners. They combined with socialists who had left Labour under Blair but were now returning to restore the party to what they considered its true values. 

When these new recruits came into contact with existing members and trade unionists at rallies in halls, churches and public squares around the country, through Facebook groups and Twitter hashtags, a new political movement was born: the Corbyn movement. Its defining quality was its desire to make history for itself. It wanted to do things: volunteer, proselytise, phone canvass, recruit friends, attend events, suggest policies, vote, build a force for change. It was a coming together of people grown tired of spectator politics. It met an echo in the participative ethos and practice of Corbyn and his campaign. 

This movement had a powerful tool not available to previous generations: social media. In a leadership contest featuring a highly political electorate accustomed to expressing itself online it was a game-changer. It fostered a collective identity among people who might otherwise have been unaware of each other’s existence. It allowed the Corbyn phenomenon to expand at breakneck speed and was a catalyst for activity in the world beyond the internet. It transformed what might in the past have been shattering attacks from the press into opportunities to galvanise supporters. 

Online, Team Corbyn was streets ahead of its rivals. Instead of seeing social media solely as a platform from which to broadcast, it sought to unlock the democratic potential of the technology by encouraging engagement, debate and participation. Its strategy was geared towards making people feel “like actors in this campaign, rather than consumers of it,” as Corbyn’s social media coordinator put it.6

“A movement, not a man” was one of the unofficial slogans shared by Corbyn supporters. As the man himself frequently insisted, it was about ‘we’ not ‘I.’ “Our campaign—it’s not me, it’s our, it’s a lot of people together—is changing things and I happen to be in a position where I’m asked to speak on behalf of it,” he said.

But the movement also made the man. Corbyn gained confidence throughout the contest. The mass rallies in every corner of the country helped the reluctant candidate “grow into the role” of leader, “though not in a conventional sense,” according to his friend Jon Lansman.

Though he might deny it, without Corbyn’s particular personal qualities it is much less likely that the movement would have got off the ground. Ironically, it was his reticence to push himself forward that enabled his rapid advance. He stood only from a sense of duty to the left. He could scrape together the required 35 nominations from MPs precisely because they perceived him as no threat. A more ambitious figure such as McDonnell would have found the door slammed in his face. “Jeremy’s the nicest man in politics; he hasn’t got any enemies,” was the pitch an ally made when arguing that Corbyn should be the left’s candidate.

Corbyn’s great achievement in the subsequent months was to liberate the Labour left from its ghetto, to appeal across the party and beyond. His brand of libertarian socialism—critical of the top-down model of nationalisation associated with old Labour, advocating instead cooperative management—sounded fresh to a new generation. His anti-austerity message was on trend with the anger electrifying the left across Europe. His promise to democratise the party and invest power in the members was an offer both open enough to appeal widely, and radical enough to create excitement. 

Yet Corbyn managed to present a vision that felt both contemporary and like a return to Labour’s core values. Though his opponents cast him as a ‘hard left’ throwback who had not changed his mind since the 1980s, aspects of his programme were, in his own words, “depressingly moderate.” His economic policies could be judged to be to the right of those proposed in 1983 by the SDP—the rightist splitters from Labour.

The MP Clive Lewis describes Corbyn as “a Christian socialist without the Christian. He’s an ethical socialist.” When, at a pivotal moment in the contest, Corbyn became the only candidate to vote against the Welfare Bill, he was at one with the majority of Labour members on what they considered to be a moral issue—that the government should not deliberately increase poverty. The PLP, meanwhile, seemed to have discarded its moral compass. While the chasm dividing MPs and members offered Corbyn the opportunity to gather broad support, his character eased the way. He embodied the left’s usual unbending resolve but combined it with a personal warmth and generosity that proved attractive.

That Corbyn lacks the characteristics traditionally expected of a leader continues to confound his critics. He has neither the rousing oratorical skills of Tony Benn nor the raw charisma of Alexis Tsipras, the Greek prime minister. According to a close ally, “He’s not an ideologue; he’s not a strategist; he’s not an organisation builder.” He provides a different type of leadership, the ally says, drawing on other strengths: his integrity, his adherence to principle, his moral force. He is an example. And he is an enabler. 

People determine the course of history, but in circumstances not of their choosing. The financial crash of 2008 was like an earthquake that rattled the buildings above but did not completely bring them down. Since then, joists and walls have tumbled, concrete dust has been falling from the ceilings, and some structures have toppled. Corbyn is a product of this precarious historical moment. 

There are echoes of a previous period of tumult, when the political and economic orthodoxy appeared incapable of responding to a changed world and parties contorted as the terrain beneath them shifted. An unlikely figure from outside the consensus became Leader of the Opposition. Margaret Thatcher acted not so much as a midwife to a new era, but as a surgeon performing a caesarean section. It is the orthodoxy she established which appears now to be teetering.

For all the twists and turns of agency and chance along the way, only in the most extraordinary times could the left take the leadership of the Labour Party three months after proclaiming its own nadir. It was an astonishing victory, and it may have come too quickly. The obstacles facing Corbyn as a leader of the left are orders of magnitude greater than those that confronted Thatcher. Even if one historical era is giving way to another, that provides no guarantee that Corbyn or the left can succeed. But when such a rare chance arrives, there is only one option available: to seize it. If Corbyn’s rise demonstrates anything, it is that politics is only predictable until it is not. 

Excerpt from The Candidate: Jeremy Corbyn's Improbably Path to Power by Alex Nunns (OR Books, 2016). Reprinted with permission from OR Books

For a limited time, 20% off The Candidate for AlterNet readers—just use coupon code AlterNet on the last page of checkout.

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