The general election destroyed the myth that Corbyn was unelectable and incompetent. But ALEX NUNNS tells Morning Star editor Ben Chacko that the battle inside Labour is far from over
ALEX NUNNS’S book The Candidate, often seen as the most informed account of Jeremy Corbyn’s rise to leadership of the Labour Party, documents in great detail the incredulity of a political and media establishment faced with a serious revival of socialist politics.
The pundits dismissed Corbyn in the summer of 2015, and were proved spectacularly wrong. Yet the general election result earlier this month appeared to take them equally by surprise.
“What people had dismissed as a nervous breakdown in the Labour Party was actually a sentiment shared by millions — that’s what shocked the ‘experts’,” Nunns explains, when I put the conundrum to him.
“I remember one of the talking heads on Sky saying that ‘everyone who would vote for a Corbyn-led Labour Party is already a member of it’ — the mainstream commentariat thought this phenomenon was isolated from society and had no deeper lessons.
“But the truth is that Labour, especially now it is so huge, is part of society, and the dynamics within it are reflective of wider trends. It shouldn’t have come as a surprise to anybody that Corbyn would have a wider resonance. The 2017 result is just a bigger expression of the same thing that brought him to lead the party in the first place.”
Corbyn himself drew attention to the parallels with the leadership contest when the election was called, reminding doom-mongering critics convinced Labour was headed for oblivion that he had been a 200-1 outsider to lead Labour but had pulled it off.
“Yes and someone who actually kept repeating that through the election campaign was Theresa May!” Nunns laughs. “Trying to get out the Tory vote. I don’t think she believed it; she wasn’t worried, but she ought to have been.
“She was part of that broader feeling among media and political cliques, newspaper columnists and even academic political scientists, that the movement behind Corbyn didn’t need to be taken seriously.
“I think it betrayed that the pundits don’t really understand politics.
“They think it’s a game of messaging that is played via broadcasters and newspapers, who can set today’s news agenda, who can score this or that point. It’s played for five years and the party that played most skilfully wins.
“That’s not true at all.
“Politics is about interests. It’s about conflicting forces. And what was happening was the awakening of a section of society that felt unrepresented, was reeling from the effects of the 2008 financial crash and wanted something done.
“To their eternal shame people who are professionals in telling us what is going on refused to hear that voice and now they look stupid.”
It’s true many in the media have publicly eaten humble pie after the election result and admitted that they got it wrong.
But, I ask, isn’t there some truth to the charge — levelled at the commentariat by MediaLens — that a lot of these pundits didn’t just underestimate Corbyn — they took part in an active campaign of character assassination against him.
“That’s absolutely true,” Nunns says. “There were three things which the pundits and the right of the Labour Party threw at Corbyn constantly — he was, one, unelectable; two, not a leader; three, incompetent.
“The general election has destroyed all three of those myths. It was an extremely competent campaign run by the leader’s office.
“Corbyn’s message was self-evidently inspirational, in that he got millions to vote for it: more Labour votes than anyone since Tony Blair, a higher share of the vote than any Labour leader since 1970, and the biggest increase in vote share since 1945.
“So the three pretexts for an attack have fallen away, and all we’re left with is that these people disagree with his politics.
“Hopefully that will avoid the farcical charade we saw in 2016, when we saw Owen Smith running against Jeremy Corbyn on Corbyn’s own programme.
“They knew Corbyn’s politics were too popular to beat, so they tried to run on the ‘he’s not up to the job’ card.
“Similarly, the experts saying they underestimated him mistake their role for passive observers of politics when they are players in the game. What they write or say — and remember this group includes a lot of politicians and grandees as well as journalists — has an influence, or they wouldn’t bother.
“The idea was that if you keep saying someone is unelectable people will believe it. And it seemed to be working.
“Before the ‘chicken coup,’ Labour’s results and polling wasn’t bad, though I’m not saying it was great. Afterwards it was terrible, and the Copeland and local election results weren’t at all good.
“But the strategy didn’t work in the general election because it was much higher profile and more people were paying attention.”
Was this down to the requirement on broadcasters to be impartial during an election?
“Well, yes, they had to report what Labour was saying and give the leader’s team time to express their views, that was important.
“But despite the impartiality rules, the broadcast media was still sailing close to the wind. After the London terror attack people were sharing the BBC ‘shoot to kill’ interview by Laura Kuenssberg, the one where the BBC Trust itself said it was inaccurate, and it showed the BBC hadn’t ever removed it though they knew it was misleading.
“And then it was aired again on the Daily Politics despite being a known falsehood.
“So the media didn’t become paragons of virtue, but the fact that they were giving Corbyn airtime meant that people could hear the message.
“And he made the most of it. He was very bold. After the Manchester terror attack his foreign policy speech was very rational and reasonable, but it was also very brave.
“People were walking on eggshells, and he took the bull by the horns and talked about the links between foreign policy and terror.
“The media chorused that it was an outrage, and then a poll came out showing an outright majority agreed with Corbyn.
“The media had actually spent two days popularising what he had said in order to demonise it and it totally backfired.”
Indeed, Labour’s strategy succeeded despite overwhelming media hostility.
In some senses it was a very traditional approach — face-to-face canvassing, street rallies and a big community “get out the vote” push — but the means by which this was done, including brilliant innovative use of social media as an organising tool by the likes of Momentum, was brand new. Will all parties learn from this, I wonder?
“I’m not sure all parties can,” Nunns points out. “Only Labour has the hundreds of thousands of people you need to make it work.
“This was a campaign where the divide was clear on policy and equally clear in approach: the Tories have the money, but Labour has the people.
“Of those half a million members, lots and lots campaigned. And they didn’t just campaign, they talked to friends, family, colleagues.
“When you’re talking about 500,000 people doing that, all you need is for them to convince a few friends before you’re looking at millions of votes.”
These new members — the Corbynistas, as they are often dubbed — have been patronised and misrepresented by the media and MPs alike.
“There was a sneeriness to the way the rallies were reported,” Nunns agrees.
“When we saw thousands in Gateshead people said: ‘That’s a safe seat, what’s he doing there?’
“But it inspires and encourages people and if you do that maybe they will go out and campaign and convince others.
“You shouldn’t underestimate the huge sense of energy and confidence these generate on social media either.
“Labour supporters got to feel they were not alone, you’re part of a huge movement of people who are as excited about what’s happening as you are.”
He welcomes Corbyn’s determination to remain on a campaign footing.
And what of the Labour right, most of which has spent most of the last two years doing nothing but plot to oust Corbyn?
“They’re going to have a hard time threatening his leadership, at least directly.
“He’s destroyed the ‘unelectable’ pretext, and the manifesto actually excited a lot of people who had had doubts about him before.
“They have to fight him on policy, and his agenda is very popular, so how can they win?
“But that doesn’t mean they have been routed. The Labour Party establishment still has a huge presence on the NEC, in the bureaucracy, in regional structures, in CLPs and in the PLP.
“Last year, despite being vastly outnumbered, they were winning votes on the floor of Labour conference. It will be interesting to see what happens at conference this year.
“Their disagreement with Corbyn is political, it’s ideological, so they aren’t about to change their worldview and become fans.
“They will still try to frustrate efforts to turn Labour into a social movement, to democratise the party. But the case for that is now overwhelming.
“Labour is becoming part of the landscape in communities and that is a huge campaigning asset. The members chose twice to make Corbyn leader, against the strenuous efforts of the establishment, and the election result shows their judgement was better than the establishment’s.
“Ditto with the campaign, where a bid to run an entirely defensive, unimaginative campaign by the bureaucracy was overcome by the leader’s office and the members.
“It was self-activation that won seats like Battersea, the Wirral and Weaver Vale, not resources from party centre.”
With the Conservatives so weak and divided, Nunns senses that the future is bright for Corbyn’s Labour, especially given the way the Grenfell Tower inferno exposed the rotten nature of Tory Britain.
But the mobilisation cannot stop, he warns.
“If Labour had won, it would be in the midst of a monumental struggle with a weak economy and a Parliament totally divided on Brexit.
“When it does win, we must anticipate that the forces that will be thrown against it will be huge.
“To sustain a Corbyn government and to see its programme implemented will require popular mobilisation on a far greater scale even than the election. But socialists don’t have a choice about it. We have to seize the chance that is arising.”
Alex Nunns is the author of The Candidate: Jeremy Corbyn’s Improbable Path to Power. Ben Chacko is editor of the Morning Star.