Alex Nunns will perhaps be best known to many as the source of some outstanding Twitter threads and schoolings of right-wing figures – most recently and highly amusingly of Daily Mail ‘election guru’ Dan Hodges.
However, his real claim to fame is as the author of probably the best account of the Jeremy Corbyn phenomenon, The Candidate. Nunns was able to gain access to most of the central figures involved in Corbyn’s journey from relatively unknown back-bench MP to Labour leadership candidate, then favourite, then winner – twice.
The first edition of the book stopped there – but an updated version running through to last year’s General Election and the ‘Corbyn surge’ that sent pundits into shock has just been published and has already received excellent reviews from well-known Labour figures and others.
The SKWAWKBOX was lucky enough to obtain an early copy and enjoyed it so much we asked Alex to give an interview on it.
Why should people read your book?
John McDonnell put it best. He said: “For anyone engaged in this movement, understanding precisely how we came to be where we are can only make us more effective as we go forward. That’s why Alex Nunns’ book is so important.”
The Corbyn movement has grown so fast that sometimes it helps to stand back and think: how the hell did that happen? What people get from the book depends on who they are. For people who have come into active politics since 2015, it gives them the essential background on what they’ve got themselves into. For people who have been on the left for years, I think they appreciate the analysis. For a lot of our national journalists, I guess it’s like a ‘Corbyn for beginners’ book.
People also say it’s a good, fun read. It tells a remarkable story—one that would have been made into a movie by now if it wasn’t about a left winger. It’s a rags to riches tale; David and Goliath. The group Red Labour said the book “reads like a political thriller.”
How do you think Labour’s internal and external dynamics have changed over the period covered by the book?
When the book opens the Blairites are still very powerful, pushing Ed Miliband to change the rules Labour used to elect the leader. It’s one of those beautiful historical ironies—if the right hadn’t won that battle, Corbyn wouldn’t be leader.
The book charts how, after the 2015 election but before Corbyn came along, candidates for the leadership were conceding Labour overspent before the crash. Shadow minister Rachael Reeves was arguing for much harsher spending cuts. The idea of borrowing to invest as an alternative to austerity was taboo. It’s hard to imagine now. Jeremy, John and the movement behind them have completely transformed the debate in the Labour Party. There are still disagreements over foreign policy, but their anti-austerity domestic agenda is unassailable. And as a result, they’ve changed the political weather. That’s why the Tories are on the back foot over universal credit, police cuts, Carillion—it’s because the opposition is now saying “There is an alternative to all this.”
By the end of the book, the general election result has destroyed the three pretexts used by Corbyn’s opponents to justify their recalcitrance: that he was unelectable, incompetent, and not a leader. It’s no longer plausible to claim that a man who took his party to 40 per cent of the vote is unelectable. Having headed a campaign that ran rings around the Tory operation, the charge of incompetence has lost its bite. As for leadership, Corbyn not only inspired millions of new voters, he shifted the conversation. The only remaining grounds on which to oppose him are over his politics—the true source of disagreement all along. But Owen Smith’s 2016 challenge on a Corbyn-lite platform demonstrated that his critics didn’t want to go there.
Politics moves fast – is there anything you’d change or add if you could, to reflect changes since the update?
It’s tough when you’re trying to write a kind of live history. You never know if something you write is going to be confounded by events. There has been an example recently: everyone thought turnout among 18-24 year olds had risen dramatically in the election. That’s what all the polling companies found. That evidence is in my book (which I finished writing a few months ago). Then last week the British Election Study came out with a study claiming that turnout didn’t rise among that age group, and I thought “here we go.” In fact others have since looked at the study and questioned its findings, so it’s still a matter of debate. That’s a small example.
The first edition of the book came out in 2016 and was focused on how Jeremy became leader. I wrote an update covering the general election for this second edition, and then I went back and revised the original text about 2015. Fortunately it all seemed to have stood the test of time.
You recently had a highly amusing Twitter clash with Mail columnist Dan Hodges over the astonishing consistency of his wildly wrong political predictions. Can he really be as dim as he seems?
I’ve never met him. He plays a specific role. I’m sure his employers are happy with his work.
Why’d did you think the media have gone back to using and featuring the same old names that got it wrong?
Because the alternative is featuring new names who oppose the system the big media organisations are a part of, and who aren’t part of the politico-media clique. There was a brief period after the election when some shows and newspapers tried to broaden the range of views they featured, but most soon slipped back into old habits.
I’ve been cataloguing the political panel of pundits on the BBC Sunday Politics programme. It’s absolutely amazing—usually two of the three panellists are from the Tory-supporting right, and very, very rarely do they have a voice from the left on—despite a Corbyn-led Labour Party winning the support of 4 out of 10 voters last year. I’ve been trying to imagine their justification for that, but I really can’t see one. It’s bad for the show because it means it can’t explain what’s actually happening on the left, which is one of the main forces shaping politics at the moment. It’s a disservice to viewers.
For those inspired by the book, what are some ways they can get involved to create the next chapter?
People contribute to the movement in different ways depending on what they’re best at. Some prefer to do their politics mostly on social media and that’s been vital. But the power in the Labour Party comes from decisions made collectively, usually in boring meetings. So anyone who feels they can get involved in their local branch, their CLP, their trade union branch, their local Momentum group—they should do that, and make their voices heard.
Initially, when Jeremy was elected leader, some people assumed that was job done. What everyone learned fairly quickly was that it wasn’t enough just to elect him leader. The attacks kept coming. It won’t be enough to elect him prime minister either. It’ll require an even bigger mobilisation. Corbyn has shown amazing fortitude, but he’s only as strong as the movement supporting him. It’s in our hands.
The new edition of The Candidate can be ordered here. The SKWAWKBOX was not paid in any way for this article.
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