The Candidate: Jeremy Corbyn's Improbable Path to Power
By Alex Nunns
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.
It is easy now to forget the extent to which Ed Miliband’s victory over his brother David in 2010 was seen as a break from New Labour.
Miliband’s five years in charge was a tale of two trajectories. At the level of the leadership, he began with a blaze of left rhetoric and became progressively more cautious.
But below the leadership the trajectory was in the other direction—the membership moved left over the course of the parliament and the unions embarked on a conscious project to reshape the party from within.
Compared to the 16 years of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown that preceded him, Ed Miliband represented a departure.
hip by clearly articulating that the deal at the heart of New Labour was over, swept away by the tide of history.
hip by clearly articulating that the deal at the heart of New Labour was over, swept away by the tide of history.
The story of Miliband’s political journey as leader was a gradual shift from his more radical instincts to “the cautious tactical politics he had learned under Gordon Brown.
The big story of Miliband’s leadership election was the split sympathies of party members and trade unionists.
The economy had changed since the crash, making life hard and bleak for many.
A pivotal date was Len McCluskey’s election as general secretary of Unite.
The union set about developing a new ‘political strategy’ to reshape Labour, officially adopted in summer 2012.
Other unions, in particular the GMB, were following a similar path.
Important to New Labour’s stranglehold on selections was the organisation Progress.
McCluskey wrote: “It is time for those who want a real alternative… to get organised in parliament and outside.”
Had Miliband known the true weakness of the Blairites’ position within the party during his leadership, perhaps history would have been different.
In winter of 2013-14… The resultant Collins introduced new rules for electing Labour’s leader that would have spectacular unintended consequences. Without it Jeremy Corbyn could never have become leader.
It was the left, largely shut out of the process, that regarded the Collins Review as a catastrophe.
The Collins Review was passed by 86 per cent to 14 at a special conference in March 2014.
Miliband was cast as the victor, but the Blairites felt they were the real winners.
Much later, once the full horror of what they had done dawned on them, the Blairites would disown Collins and hang it around Miliband’s neck.
There were two big, looming truths behind Labour’s election defeat. One was that voters did not trust the party with the economy. The other: they did not know who or what Labour stood for.
Ed Balls gradually moved towards the Conservative position on the need for more cuts.
The problem was that Labour actually did not stand for anything very clear.
Coming out of the election, there was no question that the scale of the task facing Labour was formidable.
To win a majority in 2020 it would have to gain 94 seats. Unless it could change the game, it would lose again.
On the eve of its greatest ever success, the Labour left perceived itself to be at the weakest point in its history.
It was out of weakness that the left selected an unlikely and reluctant leadership candidate
In the aftermath of the 2015 general election there was a pressing need for some kind of left mobilisation.
The Corbyn phenomenon of summer 2015 was fused from a nebula of diffuse activity. One of the earliest elements to become visible to the naked eye was an online petition calling for an anti-austerity candidate to stand for leader.
It was a sentiment that would only intensify as the contest developed.
It was the Blairites’ hasty and transparent attempt to use the general election defeat as a springboard to reclaim the party that set the tone.
The Blairites were the ideal villains. Ideologically they exhibited all the signs of rigor mortis.
One Burnham ally said of his candidate’s disgruntled left supporters: “Where else do they have to go?” He would soon find out.
Jeremy Corbyn was propelled to the head of the Labour Party by big historical trends that were years in the making. But there was nothing inevitable about it.
The newly raised threshold requiring a candidate to be nominated by 15 per cent of Labour MPs was intended precisely to prevent someone like Corbyn joining the field
It took activism to get Corbyn on the ballot.
They may have only won a place on the ballot, but it had come against such odds that it felt like a glorious victory. “The PLP nominations were a massive hurdle—it had been their veto on real party democracy and we’d beaten it.”
Before the mass rallies and before the campaign even got fully up to speed, Corbyn was ahead.
Corbyn had a great advantage over the other candidates: a unique selling point. He was the only one who unequivocally opposed the Thatcherite economic consensus that had failed so badly.
If the other candidates could not bring themselves to oppose Conservative austerity then suddenly it was they who appeared out of step with Labour opinion.
Corbyn’s candidacy was a magnet for people who were well used to organising on a shoestring.
The other candidates did, however, possess the advantage of actually having campaign offices and staff.
It is evident that Corbyn was not a hard sell. The potential support was already there; it only needed to be alerted to Corbyn’s existence.
If a significant component of Corbyn’s support came from people who were not left wing but whose allegiances had shifted due to the consequences of the 2008 crash and the manifest ineptness of the old economic thinking, then what happened within the Labour Party in 2015 begins to look like a historic turn.
The Corbyn candidacy gave this stratified non-Labour (and, for the most part, non-party) left the chance to come back together.
There was an obvious explanation for the instant enthusiasm for Corbyn. Along with Caroline Lucas and John McDonnell, he was one of a tiny handful of politicians who commanded near-universal respect among grassroots campaigners.
After the claustrophobia of scratching around for nominations in parliamentary corridors, it was exhilarating to burst out to the big, bright, outside world, where real politics—the politics of people’s lived experience—was happening.
This activist core provided was a committed base of highly experienced campaigners, vocal on social media, keyed into left networks, and not shy about evangelising.
They could “vouch for Jeremy being the real thing, not just another Labour politician
“There was a movement looking for a home,” says the comedian Mark Steel, reflecting on the anti-austerity sentiment that propelled Jeremy Corbyn to such heights.
What became known as the anti-austerity movement in Britain was really a continuation of a broader struggle against the particular form of aggressive, free market, finance and consumer-based capitalism that was ushered in by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan and goes under the ugly name of neoliberalism.
By the beginning of 2015 the anti-austerity movement was attracting a wide range of people from well beyond the usual orbit of left activists.
In its search for a home, Labour was the last door the anti-austerity movement knocked on. Surprisingly, it found it not just unlocked, but wide open.
This was because one of the candidates in the leadership election had impeccable anti-austerity credentials.
Since 1994 Labour had really been three parties: a neoliberal one, a social democratic one and a socialist one.
The neoliberal strand, which reigned supreme for so long as New Labour, had by 2015 collapsed. But because this tendency still operated under the shell of Labour, no one knew. It took a leadership election to find out.
When the anti-austerity movement rushed into the Labour Party, there was far less hostility from existing members than might have been expected.
The surprise presence of a left candidate on the leadership ballot meant the anti-austerity movement had an opportunity to make its home in an established party.
Sections of the Labour Party, epitomised by Corbyn and McDonnell, had been involved in the anti-austerity movement all along.
It may have been uncharacteristic for the unions to back an outsider like Corbyn, but with their support he no longer was one.
The decision of Unison to nominate Jeremy Corbyn was a huge moment in the campaign.
As soon as it began to look like Corbyn could win, the most powerful force of all was unleashed: hope.
With a few exceptions, the big names at the Guardian and Observer proved relentlessly hostile to Corbyn.
A detailed look at the its coverage during the Labour leadership campaign leaves no doubt that it decided that Corbyn was out of bounds.
Yvette Cooper, Liz Kendall and Andy Burnham were supported, respected and accepted but the Labour left on the other side had to be stopped.
The more the press lambasted Corbyn, the more his support grew.
The onslaught may have been “horrendous,” but it did not have the desired effect
Perhaps the most important factor explaining why the press onslaught backfired was the existence of social media.
“Every time the mainstream media attacked Jeremy the social media would get to the truth of the matter.”
A media narrative asserting that there is no alternative is much easier to sustain if there is no alternative media.
Events were spinning beyond the media’s control.
Blair would rather the Tories win than for Labour to succeed from the left.
The Labour Left has always suspected as much of the Blairites, but it is useful to have it confirmed by their commander-in-chief.
The political force that so dominated Labour from 1994 to 2007 was humiliated in the summer of 2015. Its candidate, Liz Kendall, could secure the backing of just 4.5 per cent of Labour members and supporters.
Jeremy Corbyn’s rise was rejection—of Tony Blair and New Labour.
Ed Miliband’s victory in 2010, had not been decisive enough. This time it was emphatic.
The reason for the aura of invincibility that surrounded Progress and the Blairites was their unparalleled access to a friendly media.
Blogs and social media made it possible for alternative perspectives on party matters to gain wide currency.
But the Blairites’ biggest problem was ideological. The political programme they offered was one designed for the 1990s that had ossified into dogma.
“People want Labour to be the party of Hardie and Attlee. They don't want the party of Blair and Brown.”
The remarkable thing about the humiliation of the Blairites was that they did not see it coming.
The inescapable truth confronting the Blairites was that there was no appetite for their message.
The exhaustion of Blairism and its refusal to either adapt or die was a major impetus behind Corbyn’s rise.
Presented with a candidate in favour of party democracy, members seized the opportunity.
The election of Corbyn was, “a massive ‘vote no’ to New Labour and everything it stood for.”
What the press pejoratively labelled ‘Corbynmania’ was the emergence of a new political movement.
It was no surprise that the phenomenon was accompanied by relentless attacks from the Labour Party establishment.
The defining characteristic of the burgeoning Corbyn phenomenon was that it was participative.
People who showed up at a Corbyn rally felt they were part of the making of a movement.
His line of libertarian socialism aspired to the radical democratisation of society and the economy, rejecting unaccountable top-down power whether wielded by an over-mighty corporation or a paternalistic state bureaucracy.
Corbyn excited people by offering them the opportunity to shape politics themselves for the first time in decades.
Overarching all of these positions was perhaps Corbyn’s most cherished aspiration of all: to restore democracy to Labour’s policy-making process, allowing the membership to determine the direction of the party.
That ethos really the essence of Corbyn’s entire campaign.
There was no mistaking the message—every aspect was about inviting people to take part.
His campaign was not an exercise in political positioning, but a serious attempt to harness a movement.
This was evidence of an emphatic turn against New Labour politics. The shift was not only coming from outside, but from within.
And that shared objective was to change the direction of the Labour Party by electing not a demagogue with a pre-prepared plan, but a self-effacing democrat offering people the chance to shape the future themselves.
Foreign policy was the terrain upon which the Labour elite and the media mounted their fiercest attacks on Corbyn.
Corbyn had gone so far as to ask: “What is security? Is security the ability to bomb, maim, kill, destroy, or is security the ability to get on with other people and have some kind of respectful existence with them?” This man had to be stopped.
For his entire political life, Corbyn had been an anti-war internationalist and a human rights advocate.
He was one of the very few MPs to protest the gassing of the Kurds in Halabja in 1988 by Saddam Hussein when the dictator was still a British ally, and led calls for the suspension of the arms trade with Iraq.
Corbyn’s international worldview may have been anathema to the establishment, inside and outside Labour, but not to many party members.
A big part of his constituency was made up of returning and existing members who were still sickened by the shame of Iraq.
They were more interested in Corbyn’s pledge to apologise on behalf of the Labour Party for the Iraq War. Corbyn was able to make good on his promise.
Jeremy Corbyn’s victory on 12 September 2015 was a staggering achievement; an extraordinary moment; an unprecedented event in the history of British politics.
The result was a super-sized endorsement for Corbyn. His 59.5 per cent beat Tony Blair’s 57 per cent from 1994
Said Corbyn on the day. “It is a mandate for the issues that I have put forward during the election and a mandate for new democracy in the party.”
For thousands of people, the result was a reason get involved in the Labour Party. 15,500 joined as full members in the first 24 hours of Corbyn’s leadership.
The political movement around Corbyn had just pulled off the upset of the century.
“We knew that the shit was going to hit the fan the next day.”
Building a shadow ministerial team with little more than a day to complete the job, is what might be called a nightmare.
The final shadow cabinet appointments were made the following day. Corbyn had delivered his promise to reach across Labour’s political spectrum.
He had appointed more women than men. McDonnell was shadow chancellor and yet the sky had not fallen in.
Most shadow cabinet members could only manage nine months of service before resigning in an attempt to subvert the democratic choice of the party.
Corbyn had made it. He was Labour leader. He had appointed a shadow cabinet. He was heading to his first meeting with the PLP. Now all the trouble started.
There is only one intention: “to break him as a man.” That is the view of Diane Abbott as she watches her parliamentary colleagues take turns to spit venom at Jeremy Corbyn.
It is 27 June 2016, nine and a half months since Corbyn addressed his first Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) meeting as leader. MPs are determined to ensure this will be his last.
The long-anticipated coup against Corbyn is in full swing.
MP after MP stands up to attack their leader in “the most contemptuous terms possible:A non-Corbyn supporting MP has “never seen anything so horrible”
“You are not fit to be prime minister”, Bridget Phillipson tells Corbyn.
“You need to go for the sake of the party,” remarks Ivan Lewis.
“You are a critical threat to the future of the Labour Party,” chimes in Jamie Reed.
The tirade continues for over an hour. Nobody talks about Corbyn’s politics;
A non-Corbyn supporting MP has “never seen anything so horrible”
The ‘Keep Corbyn’ rally has been called with just 24 hours’ notice. As one shadow cabinet minister after another resigned their post on Sunday 26 June
The coup has been taking place in the anti-democratic arena of the TV studios.
Now the square is jam-packed. It has been announced from the stage that the police estimate 10,000 are here.
Now they are hearing from Dennis Skinner, “I see the greatest crowd since the miners won in 1974,” he declares. “We’ve got a battle on to save Jeremy as the leader of the Labour Party.”
As if on cue, the man himself appears into view. The roar from Parliament Square is deafening. Everyone has their hands above their heads clapping.
His survival is necessary for their survival as a political force.
When he refuses to let a small part of the Labour Party impose its will on the rest, he is defending the project that all those came together to build just the previous summer.
The defining feature of the coup was that it was anti-democratic. Iwas an attempt by two power centres within Labour—the PLP and the party bureaucracy—to cancel the democratic choice that party members and supporters had made.
The baton was handed on to the party machine, which moved to keep the leader off the ballot and suspend all local party meetings.
In taking these actions Labour Party officials exposed the role they had long been playing as a centre of resistance to Corbyn.
Working hand in hand with elements of the National Executive Committee the party bureaucracy used every trick in the book to secure the ouster of the leader.
Orchestrating all this was the custodian of the machine, Labour’s general secretary Iain McNicol.
In the end, by 18 votes to 14, the NEC voted that the leader should be on the ballot automatically.
But the machine had a fallback position.
Since the onset of the coup Labour had experienced the most rapid membership surge in British political history.
The NEC proceeded to vote on a “special paper” meaning only members who had joined the Labour Party before 12 January 2016 would be able to vote.
Two other important decisions were reached. First, the fee to become a registered supporter was hiked from the £3 it had been in 2015 to £25.
Second, the NEC took the extraordinary step of banning all CLP and branch meetings for the duration of the leadership contest, effectively shutting down the party.
The legacy of pulling such blatant administrative manoeuvres was the branding of Corbyn’s opponents as bad losers who placed little value on democracy.
It was as if the coup had cracked open the casing around the party machine, making its inner workings visible for all to see.
Mighty as the troika of the PLP, the machine and the media seemed, Jeremy Corbyn was able to see off the coup.
The issue at the heart of the coup concerned where power lay in the Labour Party. Was it with the PLP, as had historically been the case, or was it with the membership?
Politically, Corbyn was only able to defy the coup because of the legitimacy he took from the members.
In contrast to the flexible, responsive membership, the parliamentary party was largely a relic from the New Labour era.
Where most constituencies are safe seats, many MPs can have what are effectively jobs for life if their party has no recall process in place, such as mandatory reselection.
Members had elected Corbyn in part because of his promise of an open, participatory politics. The PLP was explicitly attempting to veto that vision.
In response to Margaret Hodge announcing her plan for a motion of no confidence, a “vote of confidence in Jeremy Corbyn was started on the 38 degrees campaigning website.
Within two hours of the petition going live 45,000 people had signed. By 9 p.m. the total had risen to over 100,000. .
The following day, Corbyn was able to answer questions about his leadership by pointing to the 150,000 signatures to the petition
By 1 July over quarter of a million people had signed the public vote of confidence, more than had voted for Corbyn in the 2015 leadership contest.
Despite MPs’ protestations that their concern was to have a more “competent” leader, in reality the objective of the mutiny was to defeat a left movement threatening to remake the party
For such a movement to arise not in opposition to a war or a bad government, but in favour of “a new kind of politics,” proposing no less than to overturn the political and economic orthodoxy of the previous 35 years, was a remarkable historical event. For that movement to find expression inside the principal party of opposition, taking as its figurehead a reluctant leader who had to be pushed into the role, was without parallel.
The spectacular story of Corbyn’s rise serves as a vivid demonstration that, as the new leader said in his victory speach on the 12th of September 2015, “things can, and they will, change.”