Sunday 27 November 2016

The Candidate by Alex Nunns

In the extraordinarily fluid period it is going through, the sudden rise of Jeremy Corbyn from the obscurity of the back benches to the front rank of British politics is perhaps the most shocking, and for some baffling, turn it has taken in decades. Within the space of a month, socialist ideas were catapulted back into the mainstream and by the end of last summer Labour was won by the left. As readers know, the so-called "deep process" underpinning Corbyn's rise is part of a pattern across the West activating different constituencies behind different political projects. In Labour's case, the new recruits won to the party were representative of the rising class of networked workers. To ensure the party remained a going concern and to avoid the black hole so-called "sensible" politics dragged Scottish Labour into, they had to be won over. But structural change doesn't just happen. Movements here work like a mole, but often requires something that can loosen the soil and allow it to break onto the surface.

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.


Anonymous said...

"Across the party as a whole, 51% comprised the ABC1s and 57% the C2DEs." Er, does not figure ...

Phil said...

It's now been corrected!

Blissex said...

«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."»

That's the usual "conservatory building classes" argument, and it is both misleading and sort of right.

The affluent lifestyle above requires true "middle class" earnings, of around £80,000 per year per household at least. How can any tory party (New Labour, Conservatives, Liberals, ...) promise a mass uplift to such levels of earnings, given that they are mostly about neoliberal policies of pushing down middle and low wages and for greater job insecurity?

Because "aspiration" is really a cute way of saying "bigger house prices and higher rents in southern England" rather than better wages and benefits. That really gets the attentions of swing voters in southern marginal seats, because they have seen tax-free effort-free capital gains of £10,000 a year for every £10,000 of deposit for the past 30 years. Which has enabled them to spend all their income, or even more than their income thanks to remortgaging, without any need to save for their pension.

The "conservatory building classes" argument when properly framed as "bigger house prices and higher rents in southern England" is sort of right because both major parties have core voter blocks, and the swing voters outside them are largely property speculators in marginal southern seats, and will vote for their property speculation profits before anything else.

An example consider 2004-2005: at the local elections New Labour got a colossal defeat, as bigger house prices were not at stake, and voters including southern property owning swing voters despised Blair, but at the national elections soon thereafter New Labour was given again a parliamentary majority: having ensured that house prices and rents got bigger, swing voters did not fire a team that delivered.

The problem is that swing voters are more naturally in a coalition of southern middle class small property owners and southern upper class big property owners in the Conservative Party, than in a coalition of southern middle class small property owners and working class renters in the Labour Party.

Labour used to win elections when middle class small property owners regarded themselves primarily as wage earners rather than property owners, and many of them did not own property. Those times are gone until a catastrophic collapse of property prices happens. Southern property capital gains are just too big for their beneficiaries to give up.

The three options Labour has are:

#1 Try hard to get the many millions of wage earners in south and north to vote instead of abstain.
#2 Hope that there is a southern property price fall and voters fire the Conservative Party.
#3 Turn Labour into a party of small and big property southern owners like the Conservatives, plus identity politics, while still taking the votes of northern wage earners because of inertia.

Blair/New Labour benefited from #2 and then tried #3.
Corbyn seems to be trying #1, which hopefully works. But if he can find a magic formula that does not scare southern property voters, the chances of a decisive swing after #2 increase.

Charlie Mansell said...

Just a point about Cruddas' "leading question. Of course it was a leading question because he was not doing neutral sociological research on voters, but instead was testing the Tory narrative of the time on voters. You don't sanitise your opponent's message when finding out if it works or not. The wider evidence is it has electorally worked over the last 7 years of government. Testing that does not mean one has to agree with it.