The Candidate




“The judges greatly appreciated this exploration of the deep roots of the Corbyn phenomenon. In The Candidate, Nunns shows that Corbyn’s victories weren’t the accidental consequence of other candidates’ failures, but were built on the work of an energised, thoughtful and committed movement of citizen-campaigners.
       Cogent, optimistic, well-written and thoroughly researched, this hugely topical book records with great intimacy and insight an historical moment whose lessons mustn’t be forgotten, while also exposing the persistent forces which continue to work against social change.”
—Citation from the judges of the Bread and Roses Award, won by The Candidate, June 2017

"This is a fascinating account of why—as well as how—Jeremy became leader of the Labour Party and transformed our politics. 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."—John McDonnell, Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer

"A valuable, insightful account … too well-reported not to read."—Aditya Chakrabortty, The Guardian

"The best researched account I've seen to date." —Clive Lewis MP

"Insightful... As far as the leader's closest allies are concerned, Nunns's book is the most authoritative yet published on his rise." —Stephen Bush, The New Statesman

"If you’ve been inspired by the movement growing around Jeremy Corbyn, or simply want to know a bit more about the Labour leader’s unlikely rise to power, this is the book for you.”
—Liam Young, columnist, The Independent

“What Alex Nunns has achieved with The Candidate is remarkable. It's the real, inside story of the campaign to elect Jeremy Corbyn, from the ground up. It's as if someone has followed the participants with a video camera throughout, carefully detailing the important moments. But it's more than that: it bears all the hallmarks of someone who genuinely understands the decisive forces that made up the Corbyn moment. And Nunns communicates all this expertly. The book reads like a political thriller, and even though we all know the ending, it's nevertheless an enormously exciting read.”—Red Labour

“Grippingly told … Alex Nunns has done a real service in explaining [Corbyn’s] path to power.”
—Mike Phipps, Labour Briefing

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About the Book

In September 2015 an earthquake shook the foundations of British politics. Jeremy Corbyn, a lifelong and uncompromising socialist, was elected to head the Labour Party. Corbyn didn’t just win the leadership contest, he trounced his opponents. The establishment was aghast. The official opposition now had as its leader a man with a plan, according to the conservative Daily Telegraph, “to turn Britain into Zimbabwe.”

How this remarkable twist of events came about is the subject of Alex Nunns’ highly readable and richly researched account. Drawing on first-hand interviews with those involved in the campaign, including its most senior figures, Nunns traces the origins of Corbyn’s victory in the dissatisfaction with Blairism stirred by the Iraq War and the 2008 financial crash, the move to the left of the trade unions, and changes in the electoral rules of the Labour Party that turned out to be surreally at odds with the intentions of those who introduced them. The system of one-member-one-vote, which delivered Corbyn’s success, was opposed by those on the left and was heralded by Tony Blair who described it as “a long overdue reform that… I should have done myself.”

Giving full justice to the dramatic swings and nail-biting tensions of an extraordinary summer in UK politics, Nunns’ telling of a story that has received widespread attention but little understanding is as illuminating as it is entertaining. He teases out a plotline of such improbability that it would be unusable in a work of fiction, providing the first convincing explanation of a remarkable phenomenon with enormous consequences for the left in Britain and beyond.

Publication November 17, 2016 • 406 pages
Paperback ISBN 978-1-68219-064-7 • E-book 978-1-68219-065-4

About the Author

alex nunns author photo

Alex Nunns is a writer and editor. He is the 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.

Read an Excerpt

“Wow,” says John McDonnell, breaking the silence. Everyone in the room expected Jeremy Corbyn to win, but not by this much. The “unelectable” left-winger has just taken 59.5 per cent of the vote in a four-horse race.

The candidates and their campaign chiefs have been cooped up on the third floor of Westminster’s vast Queen Elizabeth II conference centre for 40 minutes anxiously awaiting advance notice of the result. Deprived of their phones and iPads to prevent the news leaking out, they have been forced to make small talk. After a summer in which the contenders have whiled away countless hours backstage at hustings up and down the country, there is not much more to say. When the gruelling programme of events began, Corbyn was a 200/1 rank outsider. Today, 12 September 2015, he is about to become leader of the Labour Party.

After Iain McNicol, Labour’s general secretary, reads out the fateful figures, Corbyn’s defeated rivals—Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall—offer their congratulations. Corbyn and McDonnell reciprocate, thanking the others for a comradely contest. There are hugs, but it is all rather restrained. Yet inside, the victors are fit to burst. They are “gob-smacked” at the scale of the win.

When the result is publicly declared downstairs in the conference hall an hour or so later, the discordance of the audience reaction hints at the troubles ahead. There is wild cheering from some sections of the room. People literally jump out of their seats, shouting and punching the air. Hardened trade unionists are standing up chanting “Jez we did, Jez we did!” There is ecstasy and disbelief in the block reserved for Corbyn’s campaign team. A few minutes earlier rumours had zipped along the rows that Corbyn had won 60 per cent, an idea his supporters dismissed, saying there was no way that could be right. Until the last moment, some feared the contest could yet be fixed or summarily cancelled. “You can’t imagine that they will allow this to happen,” said one.

But it has happened. And Corbyn’s detractors cannot believe it either. Between the islands of joy there is a sea of dejection. MPs, many of them appropriately grouped on the right hand side of the hall, sit in stony silence, betraying their emotions with the occasional grimace. Party staff wear sullen, sad faces to match the black attire they are sporting, symbolising the death of the party they have known. An incredulous Labour-supporting journalist sits shaking his head repeatedly as he surveys the scene.

Dressed in an uncharacteristically smart dark blue jacket gifted to him by his sons for the occasion—worn without a tie, in keeping with the European anti-austerity look—Corbyn delivers a victory address that heralds a changed party from that represented in the room. He makes a point of welcoming the new recruits who have surged into Labour’s ranks over the summer, inspired by the chance to transform national politics. His speech meanders its way to a rousing conclusion: “We don’t have to be unequal, it doesn’t have to be unfair, poverty isn’t inevitable. Things can, and they will, change.”

The press pack descends on Corbyn as soon as he steps off the stage. The party staff, whose job it is to look after the new leader, seem paralysed. “Go on, get a grip guys!” Corbyn’s campaign press officer tells them, before manhandling his boss through the jostling paps himself, past the TV reporters jabbing microphones in his face.

When Corbyn eventually gets out of the building he heads to a victory party for his team in a nearby pub. In a brief moment of respite in the cab on the way, he and his old friend McDonnell share a knowing look that says: “How the hell did we end up here?”

At the Sanctuary pub it is pandemonium. 16,000 people volunteered their labour to the Corbyn campaign; it feels like they are all squeezed into the building. The bar manager is panicking about health and safety, saying he will have his licence revoked. When Corbyn arrives there is screaming and cheering and hugging. TV crews try to push their way in through the door. Others resort to filming through the window.

A small amplifier and microphone are set up at one end of the room. Corbyn stands on a chair to make a speech. “We’ve been through 100 days of the most amazing experience many of us have had in our lives,” he says. Someone has given him a tea towel printed with an image of his mentor, the late Tony Benn. Corbyn reads aloud the quote below: “Hope is the fuel of progress and fear is the prison in which you put yourself.” Several people burst into tears.

Nobody has noticed the American family sat at the back. They only came in for a quiet lunch, and find themselves in the middle of a raucous party. “Apologies to this American family that we’ve interrupted,” Corbyn says. “We respect our good friends in America.” The room breaks out into a spontaneous chant of “USA, USA, USA!” It is the most unlikely chorus coming from a crowd of socialists celebrating the election of an anti-imperialist. “No one expected to hear that!” Corbyn laughs.

It is a day of incongruities. As Corbyn and his supporters rejoice, a huge demonstration is snaking its way through central London, called in response to horrific scenes of people drowning in the Mediterranean out of desperation to reach a place of safety. Corbyn’s attendance would usually be a certainty. But members of his campaign staff have been anxious that he should not go—it is not expected of a party leader, and anyway there is too much work to be done assembling a shadow cabinet. Corbyn, though, will not be bossed. Without warning his team, in his victory speech at the QEII centre earlier he had announced: “One of my first acts as leader of the party will be to go to the demonstration this afternoon to show support for the way refugees must be treated.”

It was quite a statement. Three and a half hours later, Corbyn is stood in front of tens of thousands in Parliament Square proclaiming: “Refugees Welcome.” Watching on, McDonnell feels proud of his friend’s “courage and grit and bravery.” Behind the stage, as the new leader’s third speech of the day draws to a close, a phalanx of young volunteers in bright red ‘TEAM CORBYN’ T-shirts forms a protective cordon ready to speed him through the throng of ecstatic supporters and selfie-seekers, and on to a future in which courage, grit and bravery will be in high demand.

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