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Alex Nunns' new book is insightful – but can't settle the myth of Corbyn

Corbyn gets the court biography treatment in The Candidate, yet the book has little to say about the world beyond Labour's left.

One of the reasons why Jeremy Corbyn irritates people in Westminster is that he has risen to prominence without acquiring any of what used to be regarded as the qualities essential for success. Most leaders cultivate a solar system’s worth of orbiting journalists, who can be relied on to produce friendly columns and a supportive biography. What these writers, most of them true believers, sacrifice in insight, they gain in access: they might be regarded as slavish, but they were essential to understanding the working of the courts of David Cameron, Ed Miliband, Gordon Brown and Tony Blair.

For Corbyn – who, as Kitty Muggeridge once said of David Frost, “rose without trace” – the closest he had to a friendly journalist was Seumas Milne, now embedded at the heart of the Corbyn project as his director of communications, and therefore not available to write a sympathetic biography. So the studies of Corbyn thus far have been written by highly critical friends, at best.

Alex Nunns’s The Candidate is only the latest of a slew of books on Corbyn published this year. Rosa Prince’s Comrade Corbyn was more sympathetic to Corbynism than her tenure at the Telegraph might suggest – but she wrote it, nonetheless, from a Westminster perspective. Prince is part of the group that, as the BBC’s Mark Mardell once put it, covers politics “in a certain way, through a fairly narrow lens, and measure daily success and failure through a set of unwritten rules reached by instinct rather than reflection”. They make the mistake of seeing the Labour leader as a poor player of the parliamentary game rather than realising he is someone who altogether disdains it. This was the mistake that his Labour rivals made when they attempted to remove him this summer: as the shadow cabinet resignations mounted, his enemies congratulated themselves on their skill at chess, blissfully unaware that Corbyn was playing Scrabble.

If Rosa Prince struggled to understand Corbyn’s role outside Westminster, Richard Seymour’s Corbyn: the Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics attempted to clarify his role within it. Seymour’s book is the finest study of Corbyn yet written, but it comes from that section of the far left which wouldn’t, as the author puts it, “be seen dead in Labour”.

Though they disagree on much, Prince and Seymour believe that Corbynism is destined to fail: Prince because it neglects the rules of Westminster, Seymour because it is still shaped too strongly by the demands of winning power there. Accordingly, the best sections of Prince’s book are those that deal with the struggles of his opponents, and the liveliest passages in Seymour’s are those that detail the weaknesses of the Labour Party, whose strategies proved as “useful as a paper umbrella” and whose candidates were “as charismatic as lavatory dispensers”.

In The Candidate, Corbyn is at last given a wholly sympathetic hearing. Nunns is the political correspondent at Red Pepper. As far as the leader’s closest allies are concerned, Nunns’s book is the most authoritative yet published on his rise. Here, finally, is Jeremy Corbyn’s court biography.

The strengths and weaknesses of that approach are much as you would expect. As with Matthew d’Ancona, in In It Together, or Andrew Rawnsley, in The End of the Party, the best studies of the Cameron and Blair eras, respectively, Nunns knows his territory. But, as with the d’Ancona and Rawnsley books, a reader often wants him to stick the knife in – or at least apply a more critical eye. A writer more inclined to wield the knife, however, would have been unable to write this book.  Nunns, astutely, grasps that the Labour party’s rise has to be understood through not only events in the Labour party but in the Labour movement. The defeat of Ken Jackson, the last rightwinger to lead Amicus, paved the way for the creation of Unite – and the assertive leadership of Len McCluskey. 

The best sections take place in what you might call the prehistory of the Corbyn campaign: the early struggle to make the ballot, the formation of a campaign team, the core of which – Andrew Fisher, Simon Fletcher, Seb Corbyn and John McDonnell – remain essential to the success of the overall project. Nunns describes how Carmel Nolan, Corbyn’s press chief for his first campaign, was recruited in an interview that took place on a park bench – because, at the time, the campaign had no office.

Outside the confines of the Labour left the book is less surefooted. An early, and symptomatic, passage claims that Blair took a personal interest in parliamentary selections. Yet one of the causes of the present trajectory of the Labour Party is that Blair never invested much time or political capital in the generation that came after him. That was why the likes of Michael Dugher, the defeated Blairite choice to run in Doncaster North in 2005, assumed Brownite colours to fight and win later contests, and why most of those MPs elected in 2001 and 2005 endorsed Yvette Cooper, the heir to the mantle of not Blair, but Brown.

That lack of fluency around the animating issues of the Labour right makes The Candidate an imperfect read, though a reader who picked up both Nunns’s and Prince’s books could claim to be fairly well acquainted with every faction in the Labour Party. A book that did both, combining this with the prose and verve of Seymour’s, might finally settle the mystery of Corbyn.

Stephen Bush is NS special correspondent

The Candidate: Jeremy Corbyn’s Improbable Path to Power by Alex Nunns is published by OR Books (404pp, £15)

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman and the PSA's Journalist of the Year. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

This article first appeared in the 10 November 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump apocalypse

Terry Notary's simian appearance as performance artist Oleg in The Square
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Ruben Östlund’s film The Square hammers home the point that we are all still animals

 Each thread and simian guest star shows how little distance there is between the civilised and the primitive.

Yasmina Reza’s play Art, about three friends whose closeness is threatened when one of them spends a fortune on an entirely white painting, offered audiences a series of packaged talking points (Does objective taste exist? What is art?) for their post-theatre meal. Ruben Östlund’s film The Square, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes last year, serves the same function. Before the first scene is over, the Stockholm curator Christian (Claes Bang), a vision of metropolitan spiffiness in his red-framed glasses, has already wondered whether an ordinary bag placed in a gallery would qualify as art. In his current exhibition is a room filled with piles of gravel. A visitor pokes his head in, decides there’s nothing worth investigating, then leaves. We’ve all done it.

Like the canvas in Reza’s play, there is a catalyst for disorder here: the blue neon square set into the gallery’s courtyard. It is conceived as “a sanctuary of trust and caring” but its arrival throws everyone’s behaviour into sharp relief. A woman screams for help as she is pursued by an unseen aggressor, prompting everyone around her to become more than usually engrossed in their phones. Charity workers ask commuters whether they would like to save a human life, only to be given the brush-off. Christian’s relationship with poverty is squeamish. He buys a sandwich for a homeless woman. “No onions,” she says. “Pick them out yourself,” he snaps, incredulous to find that beggars can also be choosers.

His downfall, which starts after he hatches a cockamamie scheme to retrieve his stolen wallet and phone by leafleting the housing estate where he believes the thieves are hiding, is the thread on which the film’s provocative episodes are hung. Each one, such as the gallery chef flying into a rage because no one wants to hear about his balsamic reduction, shows how little distance there is between the civilised and the primitive. A series of simian guest stars, real and pretend, make cameo appearances to hammer home the point that we are all still animals, no matter how many private views we attend. These include the performance artist Oleg (Terry Notary), whose confrontational appearance imitating an ape at a black-tie dinner – not just scene-stealing but film-stealing – exposes the instincts of the herd to conform, even if that means ignoring violence taking place at the next table.

That sequence crystallises ideas that in other parts of the film feel distinctly wishy-washy. Jibes about pretentious artists (a cameo from Dominic West) or crass advertising executives smack of the contrived bugbears of clickbait columnists – what next, jokes about quinoa served on slates? And a section of the film about a bad-taste campaign to promote the neon square will seem penetrating only to viewers who have never considered that ad agencies might stir up controversy for publicity purposes.

Östlund is sharper when he focuses on the discord beneath everyday social interactions, using sound and camerawork to disrupt supposedly simple scenes. He prefers when shooting a conversation, for instance, to linger too long on one participant, rather than cutting back and forth between them, so that we begin to interrogate and mistrust the face we’re looking at. Stand-offs between Christian and the journalist Anne (Elisabeth Moss), including an excruciating argument over a condom, show this technique at its most blissfully torturous.

He is a director who is never more comfortable than when he is making audiences squirm, as he did in Force Majeure, in which a man neglects his family but not his phone when fleeing danger. But the situation in The Square, which escalates to the point where Christian must ignore a child’s suffering in order to safeguard his own existence, would have greater moral force if the film showed any interest in its poorer characters as something other than lightning rods for middle-class complacency.

The Square is undeniably entertaining, though its lasting use may be to demonstrate that movies can have the same effect as popping a coin in the collecting tin. Having seen the film, you can rest easy knowing you’ve already given. You’ve done your guilt for this week.

The Square (15)
dir: Ruben Östlund

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Putin’s spy game