In The Candidate by Red Pepper journalist Alex Nunns, we have the story of the summer of 2015, of how the contingent and half-farcical workings of a marginalised group of MPs and activists unleashed a force that revolutionised the Labour Party and has, I would argue, saved it from extinction. The narrative runs at a brisk pace, from the party under Ed Miliband's stewardship to the calamitous 2015 general election, and covering the arm-twisting that had to be done to get Corbyn's name on the leadership ballot through to the wave that deposited him at the top of the party. Everything is extensively referenced so if you weren't part of it you get a real sense of the political and media establishment's horror as it dawned on them Corbyn was going to do it. There are also plenty of interjections and reflections from comrades who were part of the team long before it became fashionable. In fact, it's the storytelling that is the great strength of the book, but it will make for uncomfortable reading for those who backed an Anyone But Corbyn ticket and then supported the botched coup. Nevertheless, if such folks don't wish to wallow in ignorance forever, Alex does a good job in setting out why Corbyn supporters are Corbyn supporters, and why the six-time winner of Parliament's beard of the year was able to win a poll that really mattered.
As you might expect, Alex addresses a number of key controversies that cropped up before and during the leadership campaign. The first is the perennial "elections are won from the centre ground" argument. This fallacy has been visited many times before here, and doesn't warrant repeating. Yet in the aftermath of the general election, this nonsense got an airing in the aspiration talk that quickly coloured explanations for the defeat. The view was that somehow the party wasn't speaking to people who want to do well and get on. This "getting on" was famously defined by former Scottish Labour leader Wendy Alexander in an utterly abysmal pamphlet as "second home ownership, two cars in the driveway, a nice garden, two foreign holidays a year, and leisure systems in the home such as sound, cinema, and gym equipment." This argument united the early leadership contenders, and was an unsubtle coded attack on the "leftist" election platform Labour put to the electorate.
We know memories are short in politics, and a lot of convenient forgetting happens. Still, it's worth remembering Ed Miliband's programme was so left wing that Theresa May stole it. And secondly, perhaps I need someone to explain to me in a patronising tone what socialism has to do with tightening immigration controls, the avoidance of nationalisation, and more plans to clamp down on social security. What the 2015 manifesto was was incoherent, and our campaign was plagued by mixed messaging while the Tories kept focused on the deficit, the economy, and how Labour was going to shack up with the SNP. Here, Alex suspends the narrative and takes out the scalpels. He, sensibly, questions how aspiration and Labour's lack of concern with it can be at fault when it wasn't on any campaign's radar? It wasn't something anyone reported back on from the doorsteps - and it was certainly not a sentiment I encountered while pounding the streets of (then) swing seat Stafford. He argues it was a baseless conclusion to draw, but was deployed to ensure that the party's politics swung back from Ed's partial break with the policy consensus to the Blairist comfort zone. And that's more or less what we got from the "mainstream" candidates who did battle it out with Jeremy, albeit with slightly different emphases.
Alex also takes on the argument that UKIP ate significantly into Labour's vote because it was too left. Drawing on work done for the British Election Survey, Jane Green and Chris Prosser found that people were actually more likely to vote Labour if it was perceived to be left wing. If it portrays itself as a centre party, it's less likely to attract voters. That appears to fly in the face of experience, particularly when we ponder Tony Blair and the triumph of 1997. But not if you consider what has happened to Scottish Labour, or the Socialists in France, or PASOK and now SYRIZA in Greece, and you might add Hillary Clinton and the Democrats. That is if centre or radical left parties are seen to be abandoning their core values and commitment to social justice and/or socialism and attacking the constituencies that support them, punishment can go beyond bad election results: it can destroy the party. Nevertheless, in the face of inconvenient evidence others went out and found some that supported their arguments. For example, Jon Cruddas popped up with some data claiming that austerity was popular with voters, which is why Labour lost. The basis for such a bold claim was 56% of respondents agreeing to "we must live within our means, so cutting the deficit is the top priority." Deploying leading questions is something social scientists learn to avoid from GCSE onwards as they have a tendency to produce distorted results. Simultaneously, Lord Ashcroft asked a 12,000-strong sample more plainly whether the government should continue with austerity. 54% said no.
What was also important about the would-be leadership contenders' stampede to the right was how far they had misjudged the party mood. The assumption appears to be that because David Miliband carried the party membership in 2010 that rinsing and repeating would have a similar effect. Disastrously so in the case of Liz Kendall. It was a collective failure of listening, of writing off the sceptical voices who always got up in their CLPs to criticise the neglect of the working class or pursuit of policies inimical to labour movement interests. Unfortunately for them, far from being isolated they were merely articulating what a large number of party members think and felt. Under Ed Miliband Alex makes the case that the party membership moved to the left, and was encouraged to stay there as the factions of the Parliamentary Labour Party jostled over the Falkirk affair and generally carried on as if the rest of the party were spectators. It meant that as far as Jeremy Corbyn's success was concerned, it was more or less a foregone conclusion as soon as he got on the ballot paper.
This claim is and will continue to be subject to much debate. I've argued before that Harriet Harman's tax credit debacle had an important role in catalysing support behind the Corbyn campaign, whereas Alex argues Jeremy was in the lead by that stage. The other candidates didn't help themselves. Liz Kendall was all for cutting them, Yvette Cooper more quietly in favour, and Andy Burnham adopted a position that satisfied nobody. Had they read the mood properly, or indeed had they been different candidates entirely then things may have turned out differently.
Continuing in the myth-busting theme, Alex takes on the argument that Corbynism represented a revolt of the middle class, as it it was a performative take over of the Labour Party by people uninterested in changing the world, but keen to shove their leftist identity politics down bamboozled party members' throats. It seemed to me then that this was more a case of Jeremy's opponents bumping into his more annoying supporters on social media and extrapolating from there. As it turned out, this as nothing of the sort. In polling done by YouGov, Alex notes how in the first week of August 2015, 36% of Jez backers were from the AB social grades. This compared to 40% for Andy, 48% for Yvette, and 65% for Liz(!). Across the party as a whole, Jez support comprised 51% of the ABC1s and 57% the C2DEs. If you buy the nonsense that the Labour Party is becoming more middle class, then Jeremy Corbyn's support base is disproportionately working class.
I've just picked out a few of the polemical targets Alex takes aim at. All throughout The Candidate, there are amusing asides and quips at the expense of the Labour right and equally as befuddled journos and commentators. As a history of Corbynism in its initial phase, it's difficult to see how it can ever be surpassed. Stephen Bush calls it a a court biography, but that does not detract from its quality at all. Alex has written a book that any honest treatment of Corbyn and Corbynism has to reckon with. I therefore hope he is thinking about a sequel that picks up from day one of Jeremy's leadership, but as it's still early we'll have to wait quite a while for that one to appear.