My Thoughts After Reading ‘The Candidate’ By Alex Nunns
Over the week I finally had a chance to read one of the books I got for Christmas, and it was about hope and social democracy that took place across the pond. The Candidate Jeremy Corbyn’s Improbable Path to Power describes in vivid detail how an introverted Labour MP from North London was propelled to power in the 2015 Labour Leadership election and beat back an attempted coup in 2016, and defied critics gaining seats in the 2017 general election despite a party controlled by Blairites hoping he’d fail. Here are the main things that help explain how Corbyn won the leadership contest, the circumstances he was dealing with, and how he exceeded expectations by winning 40% of the vote in the June snap election.
The David Cameron Years
After incumbent Prime Minister Gordon Brown had lost the 2010 general election to Conservate David Cameron there were two things that happened between this period and the next general election. The first was that trade unions felt that New Labour was becoming less responsive to organized labor after Blair promised he would actively work with them in power. Instead, Blair continued Thatcherism and sought to distance themselves from Labour. This frustration gave rise to new union members taking a more assertive approach and electing boards members who sought to challenge the status quo and bring up a debate on austerity. The second thing that happened was the Labour Leader Ed Miliband from 2010 to 2012 was openly repudiating New Labour politics giving hope to organized labor and some longtime party officials that sought change. But three years in Miliband lurched to the right, embraced austerity, distanced himself from unions, and offered no vision for Great Britain. While several polls showed the parties were nearly even the Labour party ended up losing 26 seats and the Conservatives ended up with an outright majority. Turns out running as Conservative-lite was no longer a winning strategy and that hunger for change brewed outside and within the party. Among both union members and long-time party members.
Labour Leadership Race
While the Blairite faction of the party continued to assert that the Labour party had moved too far left, members within the Labour party indicated the opposite. After the 2015 General Election a poll conducted by Lord Ashcroft said 54% of Labour voters believed that austerity had to end versus 46% indicating a desire for change within the party (Nunns, 52). That combined with no center left candidate splitting the vote and Corbyn advocating for an anti-austerity movement in the UK helped him leapfrog by winning 59.5% of the vote. He had the backing of Univision which was traditionally known for backing more moderate members of the Labour Party.
In the early days of the leadership race there were several Blairites running and nobody on the soft left so Jeremy Corbyn volunteered to run if he had the support of his colleagues. They initially expected to get to fourth or perhaps third place, but something interesting happened. The grassroots group Momentum along with labor unions promoting his leadership through social media created a surge in party membership. People were excited to rejoin the Labor party for the first time in decades. The strategy of activism and dealmaking worked better than expected and by August 2015 he was the frontrunner with the backing of 37 MPs. Combined with a series of well-done debates he surged and won with 59.5%, larger than Tony Blair’s 57% back in 1994. A clear mandate for the reluctant leader of the Labour party.
Jeremy Corbyn seemed to genuinely believe that he could work with not just people from the Socialist Campaign but the Labour right. His first cabinet was composed of members from people from across the party ranging from the most left-wing like McDonnell to the most right-wing like Angela believing they would work in good faith with them. He appointed over twenty people in his cabinet from the Blairite wing of the party who viewed his leadership win as a fluke. And problems soon began to arise.
Discussions that were supposed to be behind closed doors were leaked to the Conservative British tabloids and commentators who never gave the new opposition leader a chance. Leaks became common place designed to give the impression to the public that Labour was not united and sow resentment against the new democratically elected leader. Things escalated when Hilary Benn called a series of shadow cabinet members from the Blairite wing and convinced them to resign in protest to trigger another leadership contest. This happened in late June 2016 and then those same ministers went on tv openly calling and hoping for him to resign. To their shock Corbyn said no, but they continued with their plan for another leadership election with the help of the National Executive Committe (NEC).
The NEC was a national committee composed of members of the Blairite right of the party who set the rules for the 2016 Leadership Labour leadership. And much like how the DNC tried to undermine Bernie Sanders in the 2016 Democratic primaries the Labour party tried similar tricks. They tried kicking Jeremy Corbyn off the ballot, claimed to the press now debunked claims of Antisemitism in the Labour Party, banned local party gatherings, required 51 nominations for Corbyn to remain on the ballot, raised the price of voting for registered members from £3 to £25, and barred anyone who joined the Labour Party after January 12th, 2016, from voting (Nunns, 272–274). Even online phrases such as Blairite were grounds for expulsion.
However, their plan soon faced resistance when five of the trade unions that didn’t vote for Corbyn in 2015 cowrote a letter to the NEC. GMB and Unison which stated that their plan to replace a leader less than a year after he was elected was wrong and said “we call upon all Labour MPs” to end this charade (Nunns, 300ish). They continued until they coalesced around Owen Smith who seemed to have no substantial policy differences with Jeremy Corbyn’s ten policy initiatives. What they didn’t count on was that the Opposition Leader enjoyed strong support right outside of Labour headquarters and seemed to fill streets and venues wherever he went by the thousands. That enthusiasm translated into an even bigger mandate for him in 2016 when he won 62% of the vote and for the first time among full party members by 57%.
After he won his second leadership bid the reluctant leader reshuffled his cabinet in a way more reflective of a democratized party and leaks to the media occurred less frequently. They still occurred as happened just before the snap election but not as frequently as during his first cabinet.
UK Election 2017
In late April Prime Minister Theresa May called for the current Parliament to dissolve and to have a snap within six weeks. At the time the Conservatives were ahead of Labour 52% to 25% in opinion polls with many estimating the former winning perhaps as many as 400 seats. Established news organizations from the BBC to newspapers like the Guardian predicted Labour would be decimated in the upcoming elections with no hope for ever winning any seats. However, those same arguments happened in 2015 doubting Corbyn winning the contest and he just won his second leadership race.
Corbyn’s team had a unique strategy that involved arranging meetings in local areas from the North to the Southwest and hearing from voters over policies that would improve their lives. Instead of a top-down approach under New Labour, this Labour party was taking a more democratic approach. The meetings would ask for input from local residents and listen to their concerns and opinions about what would help them and their residents. These policy ideas were then incorporated into their manifesto that would appeal to all voters in the United Kingdom. And the Labour manifesto was crafted that appealed to trade unions and college students, Welsh and Scottish, leavers and remainers, British nativists and BAME groups, coal miners and environmentalists, liberal and conservative, and institutionalists and reformers. The manifesto was very popular with the public and despite an anti-Corbyn Labour leader leaking it hoping it’d derail his own party; it had the opposite effect creating an aurora of excitement.
Another thing that happened was that the NEC which at the time was under Blairite control didn’t believe in expanding the electorate and challenging the Tories in marginal seats. The second was the fact that the Labour establishment poured money into safe seats like Tom Watson while ignoring marginal seats like Canterbury that could be won. Instead that job was left to trade unions, Momentum, and Jeremy Corbyn getting as much airtime as possible. This helped him win over neutral crowds when he was grilled by the Sky News reporter Jeremy Paxman with his calm demeanor and subtle humor. Even as Paxman shouted at him and talked over him Corbyn didn’t seemed phased at all giving Brits the sense that he could handle a crisis. And also showed some of his humor.
Paxman: There is nothing in this manifesto that calls for getting rid of the monarchy which is another thing you believe in isn’t it?
Corbyn: Look, there’s nothing in there because we’re not going to do it.
As millions watched a series of debates like these and his exceptional performances on television, the Labour party enjoyed a groundswell of support and saw their numbers climb from 25% to as high as 38% in the polls. While many were surprised by commentators pointed to the shy Tory effect where the Conservative party overperformed expectations with in 1992 and 2015. May’s attempts to turn two terrorist related incidents into an advantage, gave Corbyn the opening to draw comparison between domestic terrorism and austerity leading to 20,000 less officers on the street.
That combined with Theresa May’s U-turn on the dementia tax and refusing to have a debate with may have contributed to Labour’s surprising surge leading up to the election. But it had more to do with how Corbyn was perceived by the public, how confident he was under pressure, being arrested for protesting South African Apartheid, his solidarity union workers, his criticism of the Iraq War, and his anti-austerity message. That resonated with people who felt left out and lead to some spectacular results. The Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn won 40% of the vote, the highest since 2001, and gained over 30 seats. The first time the party had gained seats in Parliament since 1997.