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The Left, Corbyn and Labour’s Future: An Interview with Alex Nunns

by | February 8, 2017

Richard Seymour: Reading your book on Corbyn [The Candidate: Jeremy Corbyn’s Improbable Path to Power, O/R Books, 2016], one is immediately struck by the fact that you have opted for an incredibly detailed, textured history and analysis. There’s a sense in which a relatively minute but powerful historical moment, when you unpack it, seems to illuminate almost every dimension of British politics. It’s almost as if you’re painstakingly assembling the telling details, the moments, the testimonies, which otherwise might be lost. So the first question is what does this tell us about the kind of book you set out to write? 

Alex Nunns: I set out with two objectives. The first was simple: to explain how Corbyn became the leader of the Labour Party. I didn’t know the full answer when I started, and I wanted to get to the bottom of it. The mainstream media, of course, was resolutely determined not to understand what had happened, because to do so would have undermined their insistence that it was some kind of political nervous breakdown. I was disappointed—but not at all surprised—at the complete absence of intellectual curiosity on display. Here was a once in a generation, maybe even once in a century political upset. Journalists at the Guardian and the BBC, for example, might personally have opposed Corbyn, they might have thought his leadership was bound to fail, but at the very least they should have considered it interesting, worthy of explanation. Instead they acted in a way that laid bare how the media is an actor in the political drama, not a dispassionate observer of it—the priority from the beginning was to delegitimise Corbyn rather than to report on him. It was fascinating to watch it happen, to read comment pieces and watch news reports and think, ‘You’re behaving exactly as any crude Marxist analysis would predict, like an automaton, and you don’t even seem self-aware enough to realise.’ Actually the first chapter that I wrote was about the media, even though it appears quite late on in the book.The second objective I had was to try to capture for posterity the excitement and spirit of the first Corbyn campaign. Those moments when the impossible suddenly becomes possible are so powerful to those who experience them, but are quickly subsumed by the inevitable torrent of shit that follows. I think it’s politically valuable to relive such moments, to learn the lessons of what went right (as opposed to the usual what went wrong), to draw inspiration and hope, and also because it’s pleasurable. I think to rekindle that lived excitement in print requires a very close, chronological retelling of what happened. It’s actually the details that make it come to life. On the left we spend so much time frustrated and miserable at losing; it’s good to remember how intoxicating it feels when we’re winning.

RS: It’s always hard to know where to start a historical narrative; any decision is necessarily arbitrary. You start by talking about Ed Miliband’s interregnum, if that’s the right term, rather than Corbyn’s campaign. Do we need, in a sense, to get Miliband in order to get Corbyn? Why?

AN: It’s impossible to explain Corbyn’s rise without understanding the Miliband period. There’s one big, unavoidable reason for that: Corbyn couldn’t have won without Labour changing its leadership election rules in 2014 with the Collins Review, which introduced the famous £3 votes system (at the behest of the Blairites, ironically), but which more importantly got rid of the electoral college that had given MPs a third of the say over who leads the party. That third effectively provided a veto on any candidate of the left—that’s why Diane Abbott came last when she ran for leader in 2010, even though in the absolute number of votes she came third out of five. It’s one of those wonderful historical ironies that the change to the rules was a victory for the Labour right, the result of a push back against the unions who had been asserting themselves more forcefully within the party. The Blairites decided to make a stand against Unite over a confected crisis in Falkirk in 2013, which was one of those ‘scandals’ that dominated the news despite no one really knowing what it was about. In fact, it was about the Labour Party moving left, gradually and unspectacularly, out of the clutches of the Blairites. As well as the unions, the membership was shifting, partly as a result of new members attracted by some of Miliband’s more progressive policies (he did represent a significant break from Blairism), but mostly as a reaction to austerity and the realisation that the deal at the heart of New Labour—letting the City take ever greater risks as long as it cut the state in on the rewards—had proved a catastrophic gamble.

Of course, you can take the story back much further. My book does a little bit of that, yours does a lot more. But you certainly can’t explain how Corbyn became leader without getting to grips with the ambiguities and ironies of Miliband’s leadership.

RS: You offer a forensic account of the state of the Labour Left — the ‘soft left’, the Bennites (both analogue and digital) — in the run up to Corbyn’s challenge. In many ways, it confirms the feeling that many of us had during the locust years of New Labour: that any prospect of a left this exhausted taking over the Labour Party is utterly remote. Even its own leading figures were incredibly despondent. Miliband, they seemed to feel, had been their best shot. And yet, the impossible happened: the Left didn’t split and start a new party, it took over and hugely expanded the biggest opposition party, reversing its organisational decline. Did the Labour Left have hidden resources? Was our dismissal of them too summary?

AN: Almost the entire left outside the Labour Party thought it was a lost cause, and they were wrong. But even John McDonnell wrote in May 2015—four months before the left took the leadership of the Labour Party—that it was the darkest hour that socialists in Britain had faced since 1951. Key figures on the Labour left didn’t want to put a candidate up because they thought they would be crushed. So I don’t think that even the Labour left believed it had hidden resources.

That was correct in terms of organisation. The Campaign for Labour Party Democracy, through which the Bennite insurgency of the 1970s and ’80s had flowed, was still plugging away but was hardly dynamic. The Labour Representation Committee, which had been a source of energy behind McDonnell’s leadership campaign in 2007, had got bogged down. There was a ray of light from Red Labour, initially an online project, which hinted at the constituency that later coalesced around Corbyn. But overall the organised Labour left was very weak. Many of the problems Corbyn has faced since becoming leader stem directly from that—the inability to win votes at conference, to win control of CLPs and regional bodies, the small number of left MPs in parliament.

So that’s the organised Labour left. But the story was different among individual Labour members. If you look at opinion polls, members were quite left wing even before the influx of Corbyn supporters. On most issues there’s very little between an average pre-2015 Labour member and a Momentum activist. There may be a culture clash but not a big divide in opinion. There was a big divide, however, between the membership and the bulk of MPs. So when Corbyn got into the leadership race, no matter how much he was derided by his opponents as ‘hard left,’ he was far more in tune with the membership than the other three candidates. That was shown at a crucial point in the contest when Corbyn was the only candidate to vote against the Welfare Bill, which introduced draconian benefits cuts that turned out to be too right wing for Iain Duncan Smith, who criticised them when he later resigned, but not for acting Labour leader Harriet Harman, who instructed her party not to oppose them.

That brings up an important point that often gets lost: in the 2015 contest Corbyn was way ahead, very quickly, among existing members, before the surge of new joiners. As soon as his campaign started telephone canvassing members, his staff thought the results were too good to be true. He had the most nominations from Constituency Labour Parties one month into the race—nominations decided in meetings of long-term members. A narrative has taken hold that the Labour Party was somehow done over by outsiders. In fact the profound change of direction came first from within the organisation itself. That’s where the left’s hidden resources lay.

RS: During the campaign, and in spite of tidal waves of media condescension and disdain, Corbyn’s messaging, his ability to cut through spin with straightforward answers, his seeming ordinariness, seemed spot on. He looked like a person that people well beyond the Labour Party could find likeable, and root for. Polls showed that he was the most liked of Labour’s candidates. A year and a half on, things look rather different: Labour’s ratings are poor, and Corbyn’s ratings are even poorer. Is this just a reflection of the extraordinary, concertinaed media and political campaign against him, or has he made big mistakes? Has leadership simply taken the new penny shine off our man? How did he get it so right in the first place? Why did the media’s negativity work for Corbyn in the first place, yet not continue to work for him after he won the leadership? What could the Left learn from his successful campaigning, as well as his present difficulties?

AN: Well, it’s different audiences. People in the Labour Party or on the left are well aware of the role of the media. They spend much of their lives getting angry at it. The attacks on Corbyn in the leadership elections were very effectively transformed by the Corbyn movement into opportunities for galvanisation. The attacks helped him. That’s one area where social media was so important. In the past, when the average Labour supporter’s window on the world might have been the Guardian or the Mirror, maybe the New Statesman, and the BBC, the kind of attacks that Corbyn was subjected to might have proved shattering. But when people could go online and find a whole community critiquing the media coverage, calling out the myths, getting angry at the sheer unfairness of it, then it became motivating.

But that doesn’t apply to the wider public who are less sympathetic to begin with, and less interested. Although polling shows that the majority of the public do perceive the media to have an anti-Corbyn bias, it’s not an issue they’re going to get very animated about. And the scale of the media denigration of Corbyn has been extraordinary. He has made mistakes, sure, but even if he’d made none, would it have made much difference? If everyone in the leader’s press team was 20% better at their jobs, would the overall coverage have been better? I very much doubt it. The scale and determination of the campaign to delegitimise Corbyn means he can’t win in the media, he has to win in other venues. And incidentally, if Corbyn was replaced by another leader with the same left politics, they’d get the same treatment.

Still, there are some lessons. Corbyn’s messaging has been much clearer, more dynamic and sure-footed in the leadership campaigns, especially the first one, than as leader. That must be in part because it’s much easier—in a leadership campaign you just have to say what you think. Speaking on behalf of a party, large parts of which are against you, is tricky to say the least. But even so, in the first leadership campaign it’s not that Corbyn’s messaging was amazingly skilful. He was just proposing popular left policies that appeared vivid when set against the dull, cautious conventions of the PLP. It was interesting recently when Corbyn suggested, as an aside, some kind of maximum cap on earnings. The way it was announced was not exactly a textbook case of slick messaging. The press went berserk, deriding and ridiculing him. Yet the public heard him through the din: opinion polls showed an outright majority of people—and even most Tory voters—backed the idea.

So I think messaging is only part of it. The reason the first leadership campaign was so resilient was because it was a bold movement with an insurgent spirit, a bunch of ideas and nothing to lose. There was excitement, energy, enthusiasm. That shone through in the media coverage in spite of the best efforts of journalists.

RS: There was a dynamic sense of a movement informing Corbyn’s campaign, and he talked a lot about bringing movement politics into Labour — it was both a key message and a key strategic concept. What happened to the movement? Has it simply been corralled into party activity and, if so, for the better or worse? How did Corbyn and his supporters foresee sustaining a movement? What do you think of Momentum’s contribution thus far?

AN: The defining characteristic of the Corbyn movement in 2015 was that it was participative. It was made up of people who were sick of spectator politics and suddenly saw a chance to change national politics. They wanted to do things: to persuade friends, to evangelise on social media, to organise rallies, to vote, to volunteer for the campaign, to contribute to policy papers. Since Corbyn won, that movement has been intermittently reanimated, for example in the Syria vote when Corbyn called for opinions, and then in the coup. But the promise of democratising the Labour Party, which would give this participative movement something to direct its energy into, hasn’t been followed through so far. The movement could have instead gone into the structures of the party, into the CLPs and so on. That hasn’t happened to the extent that I expected. That’s why the right can still win key votes.

Momentum was launched specifically to sustain the movement. I won’t go on for long about Momentum. Sometimes the debate about it consumes the left but it’s worth keeping a sense of scale. 313,000 people voted for Corbyn to be leader in 2016; if you add the purged and those that support Corbyn but are unable to join the party you’re probably talking about 400,000 people in this movement. Momentum has 20,000 members. That’s a big organisation for the left, but it only has 5% of the Corbyn movement in it. 95% of them are doing something else.

It’s not surprising that Momentum has had such difficulty sorting out its structures—it’s a consequence of the fact that the movement is so new without an established culture and practice, composed of people from different political traditions who were suddenly thrown together. But its travails do illustrate that the movement is unstable. I also think Momentum has suffered with a dual identity—should it be an approximation of a social movement reaching out, or a kind of anti-Progress internal faction. It has tried to be both, but that brings the risk of being neither.

Movements are partly spontaneous. It’s hard to sustain them artificially. If you think of the anti-austerity movement between 2010 and 2015 it had long lulls between upsurges in activity. We haven’t seen many big demonstrations and actions in the past year and a half, which suggests this is a lull—or perhaps Corbyn and Brexit have diverted attention and energy.

RS: The role of the trade unions was one of the most surprising aspects of Corbyn’s success. Ordinarily, they don’t back the radical. Their history is that they support moderation and small-c conservatism in the Labour Party leadership. The crucial turning point in your narrative appears to be the decision of Unison, not a traditionally radical union, swinging behind Corbyn — and you make it clear that, though there were big historic changes lurking in the background, it depended on activism. Can you describe why unions, which have seen declining numbers and are increasingly inactive on an industrial front, changed the tune of a century? And was it, crucially, a poisoned chalice? Does Corbyn’s dependence on the trade union leaderships limit what he can do?

AN: I was shocked when Unite and then Unison nominated Corbyn in 2015. How that came about was one of the big questions I wanted to answer in my book. As far as I’ve seen, there has been no attempt to explain or understand this by the media, despite the impact it has had on national politics. But it’s a fascinating story.

After the Second World War the unions were given a seat at the table in the running of British industry, becoming part of a corporatist system that allowed them to grow mighty but made them cautious. They were booted out of that role by Thatcher. It was an explicit aim of Thatcherism, or neoliberalism as it became known, to break the power of labour. This had important political consequences within the Labour Party. The corporatist role had fostered an alliance between union general secretaries and MPs from the old, pre-Blairite Labour right. The Labour Party was run as an alliance between those two power centres, based on an unwritten set of reciprocal obligations, or rules: the unions had influence over industrial policy and helped the Labour right manage the party, but they didn’t intervene too much in politics. There was a demarcation between the political and industrial spheres.

The basis of that alliance was undermined when the unions were ejected from their corporatist role in the economy. New Labour was a consequence of that: a new kind of Labour right, seeking an accommodation with neoliberalism and thus actively hostile to the unions. Suddenly the unions were being treated as outsiders in their own party. They had to look for new ways to exert their influence. They gradually started to work the structures, to unify their voice (helped by their consolidation in to fewer, bigger unions), and to make alliances with the most receptive part of the party to their plight: the left. By Ed Miliband’s time in charge the unions were actively intervening politically in the party. They recognised that the right’s great bastion was the PLP, so some unions attempted to reshape it by getting union-friendly, leftish candidates selected to stand for parliament. It was that effort that brought Unite into conflict with the Blairites in Falkirk, resulting in the Collins Review that accidentally opened the way for Corbyn’s victory.

But the Collins Review wasn’t just about leadership election rules. Its main purpose was to change the financial relationship between the unions and the party. The ultimate aim was to introduce state funding of political parties if Labour won the 2015 general election. It was about finally “freeing” the party leadership from its dependence on union money. That’s why Blair welcomed Miliband’s reforms in 2014 as something he should have done himself. All this happened under a leader who owed his position to the votes of trade unionists. Unions took note of that.

When the 2015 Labour leadership contest got underway, the only candidate who rejected this direction of travel was Corbyn. Andy Burnham, who was initially considered the unions’ favourite, went out of his way to distance himself from them, refusing to take any union donations.

Even so, the leaderships of Unite and Unison (but not other unions like the CWU, the bakers, ASLEF) were still reluctant to get behind Corbyn because he was from a part of the left with which they were not traditionally allied. That’s where the activism came in—the grassroots pressure that was part of the tide of support for Corbyn. Given the context, Len McCluskey of Unite and Dave Prentis of Unison wisely decided not to play King Cnut.

But we shouldn’t get too carried away about the extent of the grassroots pressure in the unions. We’re really talking about the activist layer of trade unionists. That was shown in the relatively low number of trade unionists who voted in the leadership elections—they made up just 17% of the total vote in 2015, much less than party members and registered supporters. In 2016 that rose to 20%, about 100,000 people (60% of whom voted for Corbyn). But there are millions of trade unionists, and in the past far larger numbers have taken part in leadership elections. There are reasons for the low participation: the Collins Review rules are extremely convoluted, requiring trade unionists who want to vote to ‘opt in’ not once but twice; many politically motivated trade unionists have become full party members and voted in that category instead. But there is still an impression that the Corbyn phenomenon is not as deep in the unions as it is in the party and the social movements. There wasn’t an equivalent surge of support among unusual suspects in the unions as was seen in those other spheres.

That leads to a big vulnerability for Corbyn: union support is still contingent upon individuals at the top of the unions. You can see that in the total fear that the possibility of McCluskey losing the Unite general secretary election has engendered. Unison’s leadership is obviously not comfortable being in the pro-Corbyn camp and could switch. If Corbyn falls, I think it will be because the union leaderships turn against him. We saw an illustration of the constitutional might that unions still enjoy in the 2016 coup. It was only the votes of the trade unions, who have 12 seats on the National Executive Committee, that ensured Corbyn was on the ballot. The unions stayed solid at that crucial moment, but they might not always.

So that’s the reason why union support could be described as a poisoned chalice: Corbyn is limited in what he can do—in certain policy areas, on party reform—by what the leaders of the big unions will accept. I wouldn’t put it as strongly as a poisoned chalice—Corbyn has to take his power from somewhere. Any support has strings attached.

One thing keeping the unions from turning on Corbyn is the whole history of them seeking new ways to exert themselves that I described. If the party is just handed back to the right, that entire 15-year project could be lost. As the unions have backed successful candidates against the wishes of the majority of the PLP in three consecutive leadership elections, it’s a good bet that one of the first things a triumphant Labour right would do upon regaining control is emasculate the unions.

RS: You rightly ask, of the Labour Right during the campaign, “why were the Blairites so inept?” They didn’t sharpen up their act a year later when they attempted a coup, and were defeated again, in a campaign that drew perhaps hundreds of thousands of new members into Labour. In fact, no one did — not the ‘soft left’ elements out for Corbyn, nor the Old Right, nor the Blairites. Yet, they did immense damage to Labour in the polls, in a way that has not yet been reversed. Why, in fact, were they so consistently inept, and can they make a comeback? What would a revived Labour Right look like?

AN: The Blairites are in trouble. Ideologically they exhibit all the signs of rigor mortis. They’ve lost the leaders’ office with its levers of power, although they still have a presence in the party machine. And their leading figures just aren’t very good—a consequence of a long period when conformity was prized over talent. It’s all exemplified in Tristram Hunt, long touted as the Blairites’ big thinker, whose profound insight after the 2015 election defeat was that Labour should appeal to “people who aspire to shop in Waitrose,” without apparently realising that there wasn’t a Waitrose in his Stoke-on-Trent constituency. His path to the top of the Labour Party couldn’t have been easier, parachuted in to his seat in a shameless stitch up, quickly drafted into the shadow cabinet. Then suddenly there’s an obstacle in his career path: Corbyn. Initially he promoted himself as the leader of the “resistance.” A year and a half later he just gave up. Think of the others who have similarly wandered off over the years: Jamie Reed, John Hutton, Ruth Kelly, James Purnell. It suggests Blairism isn’t the kind of ideology people are prepared to make sacrifices for.

The old right are much more dogged. They see it as their mission to “save” the Labour Party from the left every 30 years or so. But they messed up badly with the coup, their strength in the unions is a shadow of what it was, they don’t have an attractive leader, and they are bereft of appealing ideas. They are very good at organising and stitch-ups, though. That’s one reason why the Corbyn movement has so far been unsuccessful at exerting itself within the party.

Both parts of the right do themselves no favours in their obsession with Corbyn. Shouting “Corbyn must go” often seems to be enough for them. If he did suddenly go, and the party fell back into their hands, I don’t think they’d have much idea what to do. So it’s difficult to imagine what a revived Labour right would look like, although it’s obvious that their route back is through organising. The coup taught them the importance of unions, so I expect to see the battle being taken into Unite and Unison. It’s already happening.

As for the soft left, I’m baffled. With Corbyn’s victory a huge reservoir of new people flowed into the party, many of whom might have been sympathetic to the outlook of the soft left. Instead of engaging and understanding those new recruits, winning their trust and support—as they probably could have done—the parliamentary soft left instead threw in its lot with the coup. Owen Smith ran as a soft left candidate, backed by leading soft left figures like Lisa Nandy. They alienated themselves from their natural constituency at a time when it was larger than ever before. If they’d won they would have been hostages of the right, with no base and not a chance of implementing a soft left program. Bizarre.

RS: Jeremy Corbyn won hugely but inherited a crisis-ridden Labour Party, one which was in long-term decline, and in which the dominant forces didn’t want any rescue to be effected if it meant moving to the Left. The odds, despite him having won two elections and attracted hundreds of thousands of members, and waded through acres of hostile print and newsreel, still seem vastly stacked against him. What is it realistic to expect him to achieve? How should the expectations of Labour Party activists be calibrated? Is there any sense of them being prepared to war-game what failure would look like?

AN: It’s an irony that it’s most difficult to war-game failure when daily survival is so tenuous. If I were in charge I’d be operating on an assumption of imminent failure at all times! Corbyn was thrust into an almost impossible situation. Despite the enormous expansion of the Labour Party, the left in society is structurally weak. Corbyn’s day job involves operating in arenas—parliament and the media—where the left is even weaker still. The left is unprepared intellectually and tactically—especially for Brexit. Corbyn is trying to lead a fractured party through the most tumultuous times. His own MPs hold him in contempt. His party’s bureaucracy has tried to oust him. And Labour is an electoral party that many commentators already believed had no hope of winning the next election before Corbyn, Brexit and the coup came along. Achieving anything in this scenario would be remarkable—not impossible, because we’re living in highly unpredictable times, but remarkable.

Given all that, it is worrying that there has been a lack of progress on transforming and democratising the party while the opportunity is there; that the movement that propelled Corbyn to power in the leadership elections has not been nurtured and deployed at other times. Those things need to outlast Corbyn.

Don’t overlook the achievements that have already been made. I think in his first nine months Corbyn transformed the debate on welfare, from being focussed on scroungers to being focussed on the victims of cuts. He and John McDonnell quickly turned Labour into an anti-austerity party. But the context has now been transformed by Brexit, which is a nightmare for Labour. Brexit plays to all the party’s long-term weaknesses and none of its strengths. It’s just typical that at the moment that the left finally takes the leadership of the Labour Party, a referendum on Europe comes along and drives wedges into all the party’s fissures. Imagine if Cameron had never called it. Of course, Labour would still have had its own problems—the coup would have happened anyway. But Cameron and Osborne’s project was looking shaky. Austerity had failed. The cuts were increasingly unpopular. The Tories were down at 30% in projected national vote share in the 2016 local elections, behind Labour. The NHS was moving towards crisis. And we now know that Trump was about to arrive and destroy Cameron and Osborne’s pro-China orientation. Instead, all of that is obliterated by Brexit.

But the underlying forces that brought Corbyn to the fore are still there. The fact he didn’t come from nowhere should give us hope. When the economic orthodoxy can no longer deliver, political turbulence follows. That doesn’t mean the left will win, but it means there is an opportunity to be seized. The movement that catapulted Corbyn onto the stage is improvised and unfinished, but it is tangible, it is real. It fulfils a need.

To purchase Alex Nunn’s new book The Candidate with an exclusive 20% discount, click here and quote the discount code “Salvage”.

Alex Nunns is a writer and editor. He is the author of The Candidate: Jeremy Corbyn’s Improbable Path to Power (available with a 20% discount with the discount code “Salvage”) co-editor of Tweets from Tahrir: Egypt’s Revolution in the Words of the People Who Made It and has written for Le Monde Diplomatique and Red Pepper.

Richard Seymour is a writer, broadcaster and socialist, raised in Northern Ireland and currently based in London. He is the author of The Liberal Defence of Murder (2008), Unhitched: The Trial of Christopher Hitchens (2012), Against Austerity (2014), and Corbyn: The Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics (2016).A contributing editor of Salvage, he also writes for The Guardian, the London Review of Books, Jacobin, and many other publications. He currently presents a programme, ‘Media Review’, for TeleSur, and has previously appeared on BBC, Al Jazeera and C-Span. He has recently completed a PhD at the London School of Economics, where he also teaches.