Paul Mason: "I took this shot on the third night of fighting around Taksim Square. Amid tear gas and water cannon, I often saw protesters stand on barricades and summon friends, or make impromptu speeches into thin air."
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What does revolution mean to you?

From Judd Apatow to Molly Crabapple, Paul Mason to Ai Weiwei . . . we asked thinkers, writers, artists and dissidents to answer our guest editor Russell Brand’s question.

Fatima Bhutto
Poet and writer

I was born in Kabul, grew up in Damascus, and live in Karachi – I carried a lot of heavy ideas about revolution while growing up in those cities. Revolution, I thought, was the struggle of justice, of memory against forgetting, the future against the past. It was how people fought power. Subcomandante Marcos, Che Guevara and Emma Goldman made up the weight of how I defined insurrection. But the idea of revolution is much older than that. It is an internal mutiny above all else: right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration. (That’s Buddha I just plagiarised but I doubt there is a truer description of revolution than those thousand-year-old lines.)

Fatima Bhutto’s first novel, “The Shadow of the Crescent Moon”, will be published by Penguin next month


Judd Apatow

Russell Brand asked me to write about a revolution in comedy. He didn’t seem to have more than that. Revolution. Comedy. Go! I am not like Russell. I am not smart. I am not verbal. I am not insightful. I am not sexy. I don’t know how to break down trends or explain the history of comedy in any way that makes sense. I don’t have cool hair. I don’t look good in clothes. I could do this all day.

All I have is my gut – what I find funny or important. Over the years I have been rocked by certain comedic minds. As a kid I adored the Marx brothers. I loved the way they pointed out hypocrisy and attacked it, sometimes both verbally and physically. I must have had a lot of anger as a kid because whenever Groucho told off some rich asshole or snobby moron, I would be ecstatic. I think I found school unfair. I didn’t like the entire idea of popularity and social hierarchies. I was sick of getting picked last in gym class and losing girls to boring athletes. I was confused by my parents’ never-ending divorce. I hated school and didn’t love rules. The rebellion of the Marx brothers was my revolution. You didn’t have to suffer, you could be funny. You could tell them all to f*** off, through wit. Sometimes you could tell them to f*** off and they wouldn’t even understand that you told them to f*** off.

We need insightful satirical minds. Our world makes no sense. Sometimes it is magical but often it is just painful and ridiculous. Comedy is truth and temporary relief. I am not sure if the world is worse than it has ever been, or maybe it just seems worse because now with social media and Twitter and the internet we are forced to hear about every single act of stupidity committed in every corner of the planet as it happens. I am getting tired of it. I am thinking about jumping off the grid with a yellow legal pad and a George Carlin record on vinyl.

When I think of comedy revolutions, I think about Chaplin’s humanity, Martin and Lewis’s madness, and Peter Sellers’s everything. Lenny Bruce, Monty Python, Steve Martin, Saturday Night Live, Chris Rock, Adam Sandler, Jim Carrey, Woody Allen, Louis CK, Russell Brand, Jon Stewart, Will Ferrell, Richard Pryor. Aren’t they all revo - lutionaries? I could name 50 more. So you can’t pick a moment as revolutionary, or a person. Comedy itself is revolutionary. When done well, it challenges stale ideas, opens minds and brings delight. It makes you happy. What is better than a huge, outof- control laugh? Nothing. It is also essential. Without it, we would die. Or we would be so miserable we would beg someone to take us out of our misery. Comedy is everything to me. It saved me. It gave me purpose. It has helped me find meaning. It may be more of a saviour than a revolutionary. I am not a religious person. I want to be but I just can’t get there. I don’t buy it, and the violence and despair that often come from organised religion enrage me. But sometimes, when I am writing, I will think of something funny and then three more funny ideas flow from the first one. Those ideas will make me laugh and reveal my heart. I’ve been known to run around the house laughing or calling a friend to tell them about this moment of inspiration. In those moments I feel the presence of something. The jokes come from somewhere but not really from me. Some might say from the intelligence of the universe.

But I like to think that God is the best joke writer of all. He can write a joke that makes you laugh and cry. He is not afraid of a good dick joke and he will incinerate a fool. In those rare moments when I feel a deep connection to creation and my humanity, I do not fear death. Damn, I need to write more jokes.

Groucho Marx during the filming of Duck Soup. Photo: Getty

Paul Mason

I took this shot (above) on the third night of fighting around Taksim Square. Amid tear gas and water cannon, I often saw protesters stand on barricades and summon friends, or make impromptu speeches into thin air. There was an exalted mood and the picture captures it. It also captures the demographic of the front edge of a modern riot: young men and camera crews.


Noam Chomsky
Linguist and philosopher

I cannot improve on Rosa Luxemburg’s eloquent critique of Leninist doctrine: a true social revolution requires a “spiritual transformation in the masses degraded by centuries of bourgeois class rule . . . it is only by extirpating the habits of obedience and servility to the last root that the working class can acquire the understanding of a new form of discipline, self-discipline arising from free consent”. And as part of this “spiritual transformation”, a true social revolution will, furthermore, create – by the spontaneous activity of the mass of the population – the social forms that enable people to act as free creative individuals, with social bonds replacing social fetters, controlling their own destiny in freedom and solidarity.


Ai Weiwei
Artist and dissident

The revolution is a bridge that connects the past and the future. It is necessary, unpredictable and inevitable.


Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick

Fuck Stalin, Mao, the Kims and all the other “revolutionaries” who defiled the noble concept of revolution in the interest of power, self-aggrandisement, repression and ironfisted control. The damage they have done to utopian thinking and the prospects for future humanistic change has been incalculable. Fuck Churchill for trying to “strangle Bolshevism in its cradle” and Woodrow Wilson for sending in 15,000 troops to join the Brits and others in undermining the Russian Revolution from its inception – not because it was repressive but because it threatened the rapacious capitalist world order and because its leaders exposed secret treaties revealing imperialist deals to carve up the world and wisely pulled Russian troops out of the mindless slaughter of the First World War.

And fuck western advertising and journalism for so trivialising the very idea of revolution that we now have regular fashion “revolutions” and other equally banal revolutions in manners and lifestyle.

But don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. The brutality of Mao and Stalin no more discredits the humanistic and egalitarian ideals of democratic socialism and revolution than 2,000 years of Crusades, child abuse, warfare and oppression perpetrated in the name of Christianity discredits the social teachings of Jesus Christ – or that Islamic fanaticism, which the US did so much to cultivate and incite during the Reagan years, discredits the teachings of Muhammad.

And don’t forget that many revolutionary societies have improved people’s lives, despite the efforts of the US and other global powers to upend or undermine them. Still the history of failed revolution is the albatross we bear as we search for a way to assert control over our lives and restore harmony and justice to this wounded planet.

By revolution we mean fundamental transformation of the social order as opposed to evolutionary change or reform. Such transformations turn violent when the beneficiaries of the old order deploy all the rep - ressive force at their disposal to maintain their privilege. It was Thomas Jefferson who wrote that the “tree of liberty” must be watered by the “blood of patriots and tyrants”. But despite Frantz Fanon’s contention that violence may have a positive and liberating effect on those who stand up to their oppressors, we have too often seen the use of violence unleash emotions and forces that beget more violence and new forms of tyranny and oppression. Still resistance is necessary. As “La Pasionaria” Dolores Ibárruri, the antifascist leader in the Spanish civil war, understood, “It’s better to die on your feet than live on your knees.”

In 1942 Vice-President Henry Wallace rejected the Time and Life publisher Henry Luce’s call for an “American Century”, offering instead his stirring vision of “the century of the common man”. Wallace called for a worldwide “people’s revolution” in the tradition of the American, French, Latin American and Russian Revolutions. Wallace’s revolution would end militarism, imperialism and economic exploitation, redistribute wealth on a global scale, and spread the fruits of science and industry – a vision just as relevant today. A world in which the richest 300 people have more wealth than the poorest three billion, in which the US maintains perhaps 700 overseas military bases and spends almost as much on military and intelligence as the rest of the world combined, and in which greed and the lust for power are privileged over creativity, kindness and generosity, is a world gone astray – one that demands revolutionary transformation of the deepest and most profound sort.

Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick are the authors of “The Untold History of the United States” (Ebury Press, £10.99)


Evgeny Lebedev
Newspaper proprietor

Revolutions are to our species what experimentation is to science: a way of pressing forward, fraught with risks. A brief survey of three relatively recent revolutions proves this. America’s revolution was mostly very good; it threw off the dastardly Hanoverians and, led by men of deep intellect, unleashed the greatest project in human liberty our world has seen.

If Edmund Burke is to be believed, the French Revolution was mostly bad, unleashing not just regicide but mass slaughter and war in Europe – though in my view its emancipation of many minorities and radicals is to be applauded. And in the country of my birth, revolution has been a mixed blessing; or rather, a mixed curse. There is no such thing as the Russian Revolution; only the Russian Revolutions, plural; and these ultimately gave rise to a totalitarian terror that we can only hope we’ll never see again. But humanity is yet fully to service its debt to Russia for conducting the communist experiment and showing that Marx’s method was incompatible with freedom and dignity. Some good did come from the upheavals of 1917. Revolutions are neither good nor bad but capable of being both and neither.

History has impregnated the word “revolution” with political theory; but the most important revolutions are intellectual, not political (of course the two are linked). Revolutions in thinking have generally come about when men and women of science have overcome the superstitious fears of the faithful. Perhaps the most important revolution, intellectual or otherwise, of the past few centuries came about with the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species in 1857. After that extraordinary work was published, nothing would ever be the same again: the mark, you might say, of a good revolution.

My own family was torn asunder by the Bolshevik agitations of a century ago. We divided between those who sided with the Red Army and those who sided with the tsar. Generations of my family then witnessed the horrors that revolution can bring, causing wounds to our family that are yet to heal fully. Despite all these traumas, my instinct has generally been to make alliance with revolutionaries – particularly when they are trying to subvert the conventions and conformity that dominate much of public life, as in Britain today. I say this even as I know that evolution, not revolution, is the better guide to human affairs.

Molly Crabapple: a drawing from Discordia.

Molly Crabapple

Earlier this month, a veteran set himself on fire on the National Mall in Washington, DC. The media barely noticed. Their story, when they bothered to tell it, was of a mentally ill man committing suicide. They did not ask what he might portend.

Revolutions are terrible things. No matter how just the cause, for every ecstatic kid on the barricades, there’s a corpse. Revolutions are terrible, in the original sense of the word. They are bigger than human beings.

Human lives are a currency that the revolution spends. Which is why you shouldn’t sit snug in your apartment and talk about revolution, like it’s a marketing slogan. It’s what people do when normality breaks down so far they can’t live otherwise.

When, on the eve of government shutdown, a veteran burns himself alive in front of the powerful hee-haws who sent him to kill, maybe the news should notice. Maybe they should view it with the gravitas they once gave to self-immolating Tibetan monks. Maybe they should stop pretending everything is normal. Because, from Tunis to Varna, men setting themselves on fire has always prefaced something bigger. No one wants a revolution. Until they do.

Molly Crabapple is a New York-based artist. Her portraits of Guantanamo detainees were published in Vice magazine


Robert Winston

Unquestionably, the most revolutionary moment in history was when some unknown pre-human hominid, probably in a fit of temper or frustration, raised his hand into the air holding a flint and threw it down with full force onto a much larger rock.

The shattering force and resulting chipping eventually led to the stone hand axe, our greatest technological achievement. With this tool some 2.5 million years ago, mankind literally made history.

No other species on earth has been able to use a tool in this way to change its own evolution. That axe enabled our species to deflesh the bones of dead carcases, providing the vital lipids and proteins to fuel the growth of the modern human brain, which eventually tripled in size. It took over a million years more before someone, somewhere had the wit to think of attaching such a chipped stone implement to a stick. But that second revolution meant we could kill our prey and kill at a distance.

Once we could hunt, we did so in groups and the ability to communicate was a further impetus to the development of the cerebral cortex. So that first axe, devised probably in some remote valley in East Africa, led to this printed page, the electric light I am using to see what I’m writing, to the vehicle in which I have just driven to my office, to carbonbased climate change and the atomic bomb.


Deepak Chopra

I put my trust in inner revolution, although it is poorly understood. Citing the pitfalls of human nature, many would say that they don’t believe in inner revolution. We are too animal to be angels, and pretending to be angelic is worse than simply accepting how imperfect you are. The truth is that, when it comes to inner revolution, belief isn’t an issue. Inner transformation is a fact. It has occurred on the road to Damascus or sitting under the Bodhi Tree, and at this moment it is occurring, quietly, invisibly, modestly, in countless places. Inner revolution doesn’t make headlines and that’s something to be thankful for. This is the one event that cannot be diluted, polluted, corrupted or betrayed. Efforts to discredit prove less than futile. Politics is irrelevant.

Inner revolution is actually a form of evolution, a leap of aspiration. As long as human beings aspire, against all external odds, to be peaceful, altruistic, compassionate, loving and embraced by the sacred, those qualities will keep manifesting. Nothing can stop this phenomenon. I have wondered my whole life how to create inner revolution on a mass scale. It’s a vision worth living for, most people would agree. But what lights the spark is when it’s the only vision worth living for.


Martha Lane Fox
Digital pioneer

Revolution, for me, will be under way when we don’t have to fight to give everyone access to technology – the 11 million people in the UK who are currently unable to use the in - ternet will have skills but so will the billions of people in other parts of the world who are disconnected.


Salman Ahmad
Guitarist and activist

The highest form of jihad is to speak the truth in the face of an unjust ruler.

Prophet Muhammad

In the history of nations, there comes a time when the chasm between what the people of a nation deserve and what they are getting is so huge that revolutionary changes are needed to restore balance. I believe that time has come for the people of Pakistan. Many concerned Pakistanis want to see a fundamental change in the dangerous trajectory that Pakistan is on. As individuals, we have a choice to make.

Pakistan is bleeding from a million cuts, ranging from suicide bombers, drones firing missiles into people’s homes and schools being blown up to corruption among the leadership, hijacking of our value system by foreign interests and a decadent feudal mindset.

Do we let the forces that are at play act themselves out to the detriment and possible destruction of the country? Or do we chart a new path towards a new Pakistan? Over the next few months, I intend to travel across the country to raise awareness for this new Pakistan. Everyone from across the spectrum can agree on the slogan of Amn-o-Insaf (peace and regional harmony), Rozi (economic security) and Taleem(education). This is a universal slogan, which Pakistanis of all ages and inclinations can agree upon.

Salman Ahmad is a Pakistani guitarist and activist who has served as a UN goodwill ambassador on its HIV/Aids programme

Thierry Noir
Graffiti artist

The revolution can start in front of your door if you want it to. Even a small revolution can start like this. It happened to me in January 1982 . . . I moved from Lyons to Berlin. From the very beginning I lived in a youth centre directly in front of the Berlin Wall. After two years of this life, in April 1984 I started to paint the Berlin Wall, behind my house. My own revolution was started.

Life near the Berlin Wall was a slow melancholic repetition of nothing. Nothing happened in the morning, nothing in the afternoon, nothing in the evening, nothing at night. I began to paint the wall and had no idea that immediately, thousands of people would ask me aggressive questions. The most popular one was: “Who pays you to paint the Berlin Wall?”

It was difficult to make them understand that even if you paint hundreds of thousands of colours on it, the Berlin Wall would never be beautiful.

After 9 November 1989, the cutting of the Wall began, and everybody wanted to have a little piece of this painted wall. The holes in the wall became bigger and bigger, so big that I could pass through them to the other side, to paint the back of the Berlin Wall. Revolution was suddenly normality, in a city twice as big.


Warren Ellis
Science-fiction writer


Revolutions don’t stop. Once begun, they continue to revolve. There somehow remains, against the will of history, a presumption that they spin around to a state of grace, a better position on the wheel.

We fantasise this about politics, and in the digital space, in the creative world and within the engines of commerce. It’s rare that we consider the wild machinery of revolution and understand that disruption is a runaway process and that eventually even the most powerful disrupters will themselves be disrupted. Only those actors crushed in the cogs of the process are remembered as “revolutionaries”. Those who meet success become the establishment and are themselves targeted targeted by the operations of the dream state of revolution.

Warren Ellis has written extensively for Marvel Comics. His most recent prose novel is “Gun Machine” (Mulholland Books, £13.99)



Francesca Martinez

Our political leaders are using the economic downturn to push through a neoliberal agenda that will dismantle the welfare state, privatise public services and extend the huge inequality of wealth and power that scars our society. It’s no accident that those responsible for the crash have greatly increased their wealth over the past few years while half a million people across the country now have to use food banks to survive and a third of disabled people live in poverty.

Under the banner of austerity, welfare claimants are demonised as lazy scroungers and disabled people are stereotyped as burdens on the state. Aided by the corporate press, the government is stoking up hate and anger as we are encouraged to turn against each other rather than identify the true source of our problem: a corrupt and increasingly undemocratic system that has replaced the principle of one person, one vote with one pound, one vote.

We need a new societal aim, one that respects the limits of the natural world and places human well-being at its centre. The prevailing ethos has been one of greed, competition and inequality, and we must build a new society driven by the goals of sustainability, compassion and equality.

We need to democratise workplaces, dramatically increase investment to create “green jobs”, tax carbon emissions, raise corporate taxes and increase regulation, reform the financial sector and adopt a raft of other common-sense policies. We need a revolution of our ideas, and an explosion of hope, creativity and co-operation. We need to build a society in which every person is free to live with dignity. We need to pull together as one species and protect this beautiful piece of rock that we call home.

To sign Francesca’s War on Welfare petition, visit:


Howard Marks

Contemporary thinking about revolutions distinguishes them from coups, rebellions and wars of independence, and tends to apply to them Marxist notions of transferring power from reactionary to progressive classes – a straightforward move of power to the people. I would love to see this happen, and I hope and pray that such a change will come soon and would include the following:

  1. The immediate dismantling of the current, clearly insane and sinister prohibition of the consumption of recreational drugs and its inevitable consequences of proliferation of crime and unnecessary suffering.
  2. An explicit policy of complete disarmament: it has to be morally wrong, or at least illogical, for a government to demand or encourage criminal acts from its citizens.
  3. A commitment to forming a society devoted to the sincere care of the mentally immature, the disabled, and others less fortunate than us and providing them with opportunities to develop creative personalities.
  4. A determined resolution to achieve the peaceful coexistence of conflicting ideologies.

Despite being well travelled, I have encountered only one society that manifestly embodies many of these ideals – that of the Kalash Valleys in northern Pakistan. There are no prisons, no laws, no police and no vested interests masquerading as moral principles. It’s a wine-drinking, dancing, pagan society without a written language. There is no word whatsoever for “goodbye” as no one wants to leave.

Howard Marks’s tour is called “Scholar, Smuggler, Prisoner, Scribe”. More details at:

The student fees protest in 2012. Photo: Getty

Laurie Penny

Revolution is the unthinkable necessity and is therefore necessarily unthinkable. The word was first used to describe the motion of celestial bodies; only in the 19th century was it widely adopted to convey, in Hannah Arendt’s words, “a transformation in which the subjects themselves became the ruler”. Even the most hardened activists sometimes fall into the habit of speaking of revolution in impossible terms – as a change whose unfeasibility justifies retreat into paranoid inertia.

In a time of austerity and immiseration, to speak of massive, ambitious political change as more than an impossible dream is a revolutionary act in its own right. It feels far longer than two years since ordinary people took to the streets from London and New York to Cairo and Tunis to demand redistribution of wealth and power and an end to state violence. Across the world, the backlash against revolutionary sentiment in thought and word and deed has been brutal – in Britain, it has quietly become common knowledge that to attend or organise any protest is to risk arrest. Since the student sit-ins and riots of 2011, thousands of people have been jailed and have suffered physical injury merely for taking a stand against austerity and inequality in what we persist in thinking of as a functioning democracy.

The one image from that time that I can’t get out of my head isn’t of burning police cars, or of friends and strangers bleeding under baton blows. The image I can’t forget is a hand-drawn sign on the lawn of a student occupation reading simply: “This Is Actually Happening!”

Pinch yourself: it’s real. Revolution is when the unthinkable occurs because it must; when people decide that the risks involved in fighting for change are less fearful than the risks involved in not fighting for it.


Henrietta Hitchcock


The lack of youth representation in the current political climate is both frustrating and undermining. Young people have no attractive role models to speak out for them within the political spectrum.

This is made worse by the broken promises from Nick Clegg, who won over many of young voters through his promise to cut university tuition fees. But we were left with a coalition government where the Liberal Democrats do not seem to have much of a say.

Housing benefit for the under-26s is under threat, youth employment has almost flatlined and university fees have tripled. But where do we go for inspiration, to hear a voice that argues for us and not against us?

The options are bleak: at least in the 1980s popular culture expressed protest and discontent. You had Billy Bragg, the Smiths, Paul Weller and the Style Council, Elvis Costello, the Housemartins, all calling people to make a stand.

Now, what we see around us is a society mesmerised by materialism; an X Factor generation whose outdated education system does not teach them how to fit into the 21st century, so they take it from the latest YouTube sensation, actors or glossy mag.

Only 44 per cent of people between 18-24 voted in the 2010 general election, compared to 73 per cent of 55-to-64-year-olds. Why would any party target its policies towards young people when they don’t vote? On the other hand, why should young people vote if they’re bored by politics in general?

Young people’s heads are turned more and more by vapid entertainment rather than political coverage. They are distracted by pop culture, media and by their own lives. It is not in the interest of the government to get young people on their side but it is in their interest to keep young people distracted, disenfranchised and otherwise occupied, so that they don’t have to deal with them.


Tim Street
Director of UK Uncut Legal Action

Democracy is and always has been the most revolutionary idea. Democracy means popular control of production and investment decisions, the meaningful participation of citizens - regardless of background or wealth - in every aspect of society. We need democratic institutions more than ever so that we can make this country fairer and give people a sense of dignity and wellbeing. Where do we start? We can begin by holding corporations, which put profit before people, to account and fight back when they bully and threaten us. We can begin by using our voices and our bodies to protest, to take direct action against the cuts and tax dodging. The government's austerity policies have caused millions of people across the UK to lose their jobs, homes, benefits and public services. The billions in tax that rich individuals and companies dodge could be used to fund these same vital services.

This article first appeared in the 23 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Russell Brand Guest Edit

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How Jeremy Corbyn won the Labour leadership election

The revolt against the leader transformed him from an incumbent back into an insurgent. 

On the evening of 12 July, after six hours of talks, Jeremy Corbyn emerged triumphantly from Labour’s headquarters. “I’m on the ballot paper!” he told supporters gathered outside. “We will be campaigning on all the things that matter.”

The contest that Corbyn’s opponents had sought desperately to avoid had begun. Neither a vote of no confidence by 81 per cent of Labour MPs, nor 65 frontbench resignations had persuaded him to stand down. Days of negotiations led by Tom Watson had failed (“For years I’ve been told that I’m a fixer. Well, I tried to fix this and I couldn’t,” Labour’s deputy leader sorrowfully told the parliamentary party). The rebels’ last hope was that the National Executive Committee would force Corbyn to reseek nominations. After being backed by just 40 colleagues in the confidence vote, both sides knew that the leader would struggle to achieve 51 signatures.

But by 18-14, the NEC ruled that Corbyn would be automatically on the ballot (“Watson, Watson, what’s the score?” chanted jubilant aides in the leader’s office). After withstanding a 16-day revolt, Corbyn appeared liberated by the prospect of a summer of campaigning. His confidence prefigured the outcome two months later.

Corbyn did not merely retain the leadership - he won by a greater margin than last time (with 61.8 per cent of the vote to last year's 59.5 per cent) and triumphed among all three sections: party members, affiliated supporters and registered supporters. The rebels had hoped to narrow his mandate and win among at least one group: they did neither. Far from being a curse for Corbyn, the contest proved to be a blessing. 


The day before the pivotal NEC meeting, Angela Eagle, who had been preparing to stand for months, launched her leadership bid. The former shadow business secretary was admired by MPs for her experience, tenacity, and economic acumen. Her trade union links and soft left background were further cited in favour of her candidacy.

But after an underwhelming launch, which clashed with Andrea Leadsom’s withdrawal from the Conservative contest (leaving Eagle calling questions from absent journalists), MPs gravitated towards Owen Smith.

Like Eagle, Smith hailed from the party’s soft left and had initially served under Corbyn (two prerequisites in the rebels’ eyes). But unlike her, the former shadow and work pensions secretary did not vote for the Iraq war (having entered parliament in 2010) or the 2015 Syria intervention. “It looks like the war party,” a senior Corbynite said of Eagle’s campaign launch with Hilary Benn. Many Labour MPs feared the same. With the left-leaning Lisa Nandy having ruled herself out, only the ambitious Smith met the criteria.

“I’d been in hospital for two days with my brother, who was unwell, in south Wales,” he recalled when I interviewed him.  “I came out having literally been in A&E at Cardiff Heath hospital for 29 hours, looking after him, to have my phone light up with 30, 40, 50 colleagues, MPs and members, ringing up saying ‘there’s going to be a contest, Angela Eagle has thrown her hat into the ring, you should do likewise.’ And at that point, on the Wednesday night, I started ringing people to test opinion and found that there was a huge amount of support for me.”

On 19 July, after Smith won 90 MP/MEP nominations to Eagle’s 72, the latter withdrew in favour of the Welshman. A week after the Conservatives achieved their second female prime minister, Labour’s 116-year record of all-male leaders endured. Though Smith vowed that Eagle would be “at my right hand throughout this contest”, she went on to appear at just one campaign event.

Corbyn’s challenger was embraced by MPs as a “clean skin”, untainted by service during the New Labour years. But Smith’s non-parliamentary past was swiftly - and ruthlessly - exploited by his opponents. His time at the US drugs firm Pfizer was cited as evidence of his closeness to big business. Corbyn’s supporters also seized on interviews given by Smith as a by-election candidate in 2006.

The man pitching to the left was found to have defended Tony Blair (suggesting that they differed only over the Iraq war), supported private sector involvement in the NHS and praised city academies. “I'm not someone, frankly, who gets terribly wound up about some of the ideological nuances,” he told Wales Online. Such lines were rapidly disseminated by Corbyn supporters through social media.

“Getting out early and framing Owen was crucial,” a Corbyn source told me. A Smith aide echoed this assessment: “It helped secure their base, it took a load of people out of contention.”

Throughout the campaign, Smith would struggle to reconcile his past stances with his increasingly left-wing programme: opposing private provision in the NHS, returning academy schools to local authority control, banning zero-hours contracts and imposing a wealth tax of 1 per cent. “It was easy for us to go for the jugular over his background when he portrayed himself as a left candidate,” a Corbyn source said.

Smith insisted that the charge of opportunism was unmerited. “To be honest, my opponents have extrapolated rather a lot in an attempt to brand me as a ‘Blairite wolf in sheep’s clothing,’” he told me in August. “Well, I’m nothing of the sort, I’ve always been a democratic socialist and I always will be.” He added: “I’m someone who’s been surrounded by people who’ve been on the left of the Labour movement all their lives. It should come as no surprise that I’ve come out of that background and I’m pretty red. Because I am.”

But a former shadow cabinet colleague said that Smith did not stand out as “a radical” in meetings. “The only time that I remember him becoming really animated was over further tax-raising powers for Scotland and the implications for Wales.”

As well as Smith’s ambiguous past, Corbyn’s allies believe the breadth of his political coalition hindered him from the start. “He was trying to bring together Blairites, Brownites and every other -ite in between,” a campaign source said. “That was never going to hold, we knew that and from the moment there were splits it was easy to point out.”

Jon Trickett, the shadow business secretary and one of Corbyn’s early supporters, told me: “They tried to pretend that there was no distinction between them and Jeremy on policy grounds, they tried to narrow down the areas of difference to electability. But, frankly, it didn’t seem credible since some of the people behind it were absolutely ideologically opposed to Jeremy. Peter Mandelson and people like that.”

A frequently expressed charge was that Smith’s left-wing pledges would be overturned by Blairite figures if he won. John McGeechan, a 22-year-old postgraduate student who joined Labour after “self-indulgent, self-serving MPs initiated their corridor coup”, told me of Smith: “He’s just another mealy-mouthed careerist who says whatever he thinks is going to get him elected. I don’t believe at all that he means what he says about creating a radical socialist government given that he’s got the backing of Peter Mandelson, Alastair Campbell and Tony Blair, people who’ve disagreed with Corbyn on pretty much all his socialist policies. I don’t believe that he’s going to stand up to these people.”

Whether believable or not, Smith’s programme showed how Corbyn had shifted Labour’s centre of gravity radically leftwards - his original aim in June 2015.


On the night Corbyn made the leadership ballot, the rebels still found cause for hope. Unlike in 2015, the NEC imposed a freeze date of six months on voting (excluding 130,000 new members) and increased the registered supporter fee from £3 to £25 (while reducing the sign-up period to two days). “It’s game on!” a senior figure told me. By narrowing the selectorate, Corbyn’s opponents hoped to achieve a path to victory. With fewer registered supporters (84 per cent of whom voted for Corbyn last year), they believed full party members and affiliated trade unionists could carry Smith over the line.

But when 183,000 paid £25 to vote, their expectations were confounded. Far from being “game on”, it looked to many rebels like game over. Once again, Corbyn’s opponents had underestimated the left’s recruiting capacity. Smith’s lack of name recognition and undistinctive pitch meant he could not compete.

Alongside the main contest were increasingly fractious legal battles over voting rights. On 28 July, the high court rejected Labour donor Michael Foster’s challenge to Corbyn’s automatic inclusion on the ballot. Then on 8 August, a judge ruled that the party had wrongly excluded new members from voting, only for the decision to be overturned on appeal.

In the view of Corbyn’s allies, such legal manevoures unwittingly aided him. “They turned Jeremy, who was an incumbent, back into an insurgent,” Trickett told me. “The proponents of the challenge made it seem like he was the underdog being attacked by the establishment.”

Smith, who repeatedly framed himself as the “unity candidate”, struggled to escape the shadow of the “corridor coup”. That many of his supporters had never accepted Corbyn’s leadership rendered him guilty by association.

“The coup had an enormous galvanising effect and an enormous politicising effect,” a Corbyn source told me. “For a great number of people who supported Jeremy last year, there was a feeling, ‘well, we’ve done the work, that’s happened, now over to him.’ What the coup meant for a lot of people was that this isn’t about Jeremy Corbyn, this is a people’s movement, which we all need to lead.” The Corbyn campaign signed up 40,000 volunteers and raised £300,000 in small donations from 19,000 people (with an average donation of £16). Against this activist army, their rivals’ fledgling effort stood no chance.

“At the launch rally, we had 12 simultaneous events going on round the country, livestreamed to each other,” a Corbyn source said. “We had a lot of communication with people who were big in the Sanders campaign. In the UK context, it’s trailblazing.”

On 12 August, after previously equivocating, Smith ruled out returning to the shadow cabinet under Corbyn. “I've lost confidence in you. I will serve Labour on the backbenches,” he declared at a hustings in Gateshead. In the view of Corbyn’s team, it was a fatal error. “He shot apart his whole unity message,” a source said.

Smith, who initially offered Corbyn the post of party president, was rarely booed more than when he lamented Labour’s divisions. As one of the 172 MPs who voted against the leader, he was regarded as part of the problem, rather than the solution. By the end, Smith was reduced to insisting “I wasn’t in favour of there being a challenge” - a statement that appeared absurd to most.

As well as his leftist credentials and unifying abilities, Smith’s other main boast was his competence and articulacy. “HIs USP was that he was this media-savvy guy,” a Corbyn source said. “As a result, he threw himself up for any and every media opportunity and made tons of gaffes. We just made sure people were aware of them.”

The most enduring gaffe came early in the campaign, on 27 July, when he spoke of wanting mto “smash” Theresa May “back on her heels”. Though Smith initially defended his “robust rhetoric” (“you’ll be getting that from me”), by the afternoon his campaign had apologised. What was explained as a “rugby reference” dogged them for weeks. “It played into the hands of how Corbyn wanted to depict us,” a Smith source told me. “It was really hard to shake off.”

More unforced errors followed. Smith suggested getting Isis “round the table”, in anticipation, many believed, of Corbyn agreeing. But the Labour leader baulked at the proposal: “No, they are not going to be round the table”. Corbyn’s communications team, more organised and agile than in 2015, denounced Smith’s remarks as “hasty and ill-considered”. As with “smashed”, the Labour challenger had achieved rare cut-through - but for the wrong reasons.

Smith’s rhetorical looseness became a recurring problem. At a rally on 23 August, he appeared to refer to Corbyn as a “lunatic”. In an interview with the Daily Mirror, he said of meeting his wife: “1,200 boys, three girls and I pulled Liz. So I must have something going on. That must be leadership.”

Earlier in the campaign, Smith’s team denied that the candidate referred to the size of his penis when he quipped of his height: "5ft 6. 29 inches - inside leg!” The guffaws from his supporters suggested otherwise.

We used to have a gaffe counter,” a Corbyn source told me. “I think it got up to 30 by the end.”

Smith’s team, meanwhile, despaired at how the Labour leader’s own missteps failed to dent him. The discovery that Corbyn had in fact secured a seat on a Virgin train, contrary to initial impressions, did little lasting damage. “It’s priced in, the bar is much lower for him,” a Smith source complained.

Incorrect claims, such as Labour being level in the polls before the coup attempt and Corbyn giving 122 speeches during the EU referendum campaign, were believed by many of his supporters. “How do you rebut bullshit?” a Smith aide asked. “If you respond, it becomes a story.”

So frequently had Labour MPs condemned their leader that extraordinary charges were soon forgotten. On 22 August, shadow business minister Chi Onwurah wrote in the New Statesman that Corbyn’s treatment of her and Thangam Debbonaire could constitute “racial discrimination”.

If this had been any of my previous employers in the public and private sectors Jeremy might well have found himself before an industrial tribunal for constructive dismissal, probably with racial discrimination thrown in,” she argued. But within a day, the story had moved on.  

For Smith, fleeting momentum was achieved through significant endorsements. On 10 August, the GMB backed his campaign after becoming the only trade union to ballot its members. The following week, Labour’s most senior elected politician, Sadiq Khan, endorsed Smith. Unlike Andy Burnham, the London mayor believed he could not remain neutral during this profound schism. Smith was subsequently also backed by the Scottish Labour leader, Kezia Dugdale. Neil Kinnock and Ed Miliband trumpeted his cause. Yet such declarations counted for little. “It’s like the Remain campaign and the Archbishop of Canterbury,” one Smith ally told me, suggesting that Labour members, like Leave voters, ”weren’t listening” to such grandees.

But in the view of Corbyn’s team, the rebels profoundly “underestimated” their opponent. “He’s a nice guy but he also has an inner steel and won't flinch from a challenge. The Obi-Wan Kenobi comparison is very accurate when you work up close with him. He’s also extremely intelligent and has a great grasp and retention of detail. It showed in the debates.”

“I have to say, I felt pretty sorry for Owen at several points,” another Corbyn source reflected. “Whatever it was, his ambition or being pushed into it, it didn’t seem like it was the right time for him. He hadn’t worked out what he was about and why that fitted with the times.”


Those Labour MPs who long warned that an early challenge to Corbyn would prove futile have been vindicated. “Party members are always loyal to the incumbent,” a senior source astutely noted. In the case of Corbyn, a lifelong campaigner, who many contended was “never given a chance”, this traditional fealty was intensified.

“Most of the people backing and funding him didn’t think Owen was going to win,” a Corbyn source said. “Their aim was, one, to reduce Jeremy’s mandate and, secondly, to map the selectorate.”

Having won a second leadership contest - an unprecedented achievement for the Labour left - the leader’s supporters insist their ambitions do not end here. “We’ve got to think incredibly seriously about how we win a general election in a totally changed landscape,” a Corbyn source told me. “This campaign has been showing how to do it.” But a Smith aide warned that it was a “massive strategic error” to make electability, rather than principle, the defining test of Corbyn. The leader, he suggested, could withstand a general election defeat provided he simply affirmed his values.

Beyond regarding a split as worthless, Labour MPs are divided on how to proceed. Some want another leadership challenge as early as next year. Rather than seeking to narrow the selectorate, they speak of recruiting hundreds of thousands of new members to overpower the left. “There are lots of people out there who want a credible, electable, centre-left proposition and we have not given them enough of a reason to sign up,” a former shadow cabinet minister told me. “Who has an offer and the charisma to be able to bring in new people? That has to be the question the next time round.”

Others believe that backbenchers should follow Thumper’s law: “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.”  A senior MP argued that MPs should “just shut up” and “let Jeremy crack on with it.” The imperative, he said, was to avoid MPs “taking the blame for us getting thumped in a snap election”. Some are prepared to move beyond neutrality to outright support by serving under Corbyn.

The Labour left and their most recalcitrant opponents both confront challenges of electability. The former must demonstrate a path to victory despite Corbyn’s subterranean poll ratings. The latter, who boast so often of their superior appeal, must face a remorseless truth. Until they are electable in the party, they will never be electable in the country.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.