Chris McLaughlin examines the battle for the heart and soul of the Labour party
A senior Labour MP on his way to the ‘hustings’ at which the leadership candidates were to make their bids to parliamentary colleagues, rubbed his head in consternation. “All we can do now is expect the unexpected. I would not be surprised if an MP turned up stark naked, painted from head to toe in blue and announcing they were standing for the party leadership.”
It neatly summarised the despair among a large contingent of Labour MPs at the increasingly bizarre series of events which followed from the first, furtive ripple of mutiny against Jeremy Corbyn to the full-blown leadership challenge and coup d’etat and the prospect of an irreversible split between the party in Parliament and that in the country.
According to another MP, it was not so much an organised plot – “in which case it would have been handled much better” – as a spontaneous eruption of frustration. That it came from, and was fuelled by, the refuseniks who abandoned their frontbench posts and who never accepted the election of Corbyn as leader suggests otherwise, time being bided for the opportunity to strike. But a plot needs a plan and there either wasn’t one, or it was badly executed. The end game was and is the ousting of Corbyn. How to do it effectively was never thought through.
“There was no grid for achieving the aim swiftly and cleanly,” said a Corbyn critic intending to vote for the challenger with most support in the Parliamentary Labour Party. “It quickly became a stand-off; what else did they think Jeremy would do. He was defeated by his peers, publicly humiliated, yet he had nowhere to run. They should have remembered the ancient saying about always leaving your defeated enemy a bridge to retreat over. Instead of a negotiated exit we got ossification.”
Some former Corbyn supporters believed he could have retreated with honour having paved a new direction for the party in terms of policies, most notably the abandonment of any vestige of support for austerity measures. Corbynism without Corbyn. This was the position being advocated by deputy leader Tom Watson. There were even noises off, with Peter Mandelson appearing to admit that New Labour got it wrong in its zeal for globalisation. So much had the party changed under Corbyn’s leadership: he should be proud of his legacy. And go.
But Corbyn was determined to remain loyal to the democratically expressed wish of a reinvigorated membership. He privately ran through all the options and discussed them in greater detail than with anybody else with his Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell – “the brains behind the Corbyn operation”. McDonnell shored up his resolve to stay on and a prospective challenge shifted from an inevitability to a reality.
The growing hostility was reflected at the special meeting of the party’s National Executive Committee (NEC) at which, by secret ballot and against available legal advice, Corbyn was ruled eligible to have his name on the ballot paper without the need to seek nominations from MPs. As Angela Eagle ruefully observed at the PLP hustings meeting amid suggestions that she or Owen Smith should stand aside if they had fewer nominations: Jeremy’s the one on the ballot with the lowest number of nominations.
The NEC met on 15 July amid reports of threats and intimidation of MPs and party members, highlighted by a brick being reportedly thrown through Eagle’s constituency office window. The implication was that the threats – of death and rape – were being made by Corbyn supporters. It is not known how many have been officially reported to either party officers or the police. Hyperbole was running high. A formal letter of opinion from the Unite union, setting out the legal liabilities of keeping Corbyn off the ballot and in particular the position of general secretary Iain McNicol, was branded by one Tribune source as: “The nastiest thing I have seen in two decades in politics. It warned Iain that he could lose his house and everything. In fact, he played it by the book.” The Unite letter was intended to illuminate the gravity of the decision before the NEC.
The party’s own legal advice had been kept in a locked safe until the start of the meeting. Only McNicol had had an opportunity to digest its recommendation that Corbyn need not be put on the ballot paper. The lawyer James Goudie QC, also brought conflicting legal advice. It became clear to NEC members that on this critical issue, the Labour Party rulebook is a mess.
An attempt by Corbyn supporters to allow their legal counsel, the noted QC Michael Mansfield to give an opinion, was voted down. MPs Andy Burnham and Debbie Abrahams were allowed to address the meeting on behalf of the shadow cabinet, proposing the engagement of an independent mediator to avoid a contest and a 48-hour postponement of any decisions. This was met with scepticism from those who feared it would be futile, suspicion about why the move had been left till after a challenge had been mounted and practical objections: 32 of the 33 members were present, arriving on crutches, from interrupted holiday or unscheduled time off work. It was agreed that any decisions made that day would hold but, “to give peace one last chance”, would not come into effect for 48 hours in case an eleventh-hour solution came along. It didn’t.
By17 votes to 15 the meeting agreed to secret ballots ostensibly, as in the banning of party meetings, to protect members from further intimidation and threats. After addressing the meeting and in the face of cited precedent a somewhat reluctant Corbyn left the room while his fate was debated.
Legal opinion was replaced by political wrangling. Corbyn was allowed back in to vote in spite of fears that, if he was included by a margin of just his own vote the legitimacy of the ballot would be called into question. Instead the meeting voted 18-14 that the leader should be automatically on the ballot paper. Some members voted in favour because they believed to leave Corbyn off would be seen, in the words of one, as “a stitch-up”. Corbyn again left the meeting while the controversial decisions to block registered supporters from voting unless they paid £25 rather than £3, disenfranchising those with less than six month membership and banning all meetings were taken. Legal attempts by Corbyn supporters to overturn the change ran into the sand and were rejected by party officials who ruled that the issue could not be revisited.
The focus turned to the vote. With Corbyn entering the race as a clear frontrunner, calculations among his opponents were being made on the fact that his leadership was secured with “only (sic)” 49 per cent of fully-fledged, fully-paid-up members. If the Corbynistas could be kept out and new members signed up in support of a challenger there might be a chance of unseating him, or at least dramatically reducing his legitimacy.
An organisation calling itself Save Labour set up street stalls and paid for newspaper advertising urging people to pay the £25 and vote to remove Corbyn. The funding remains mysterious but unconfirmed reports suggested the former party donor Lord Sainsbury was a leading light in its formation. The Corbyn camp responded late in the day – a day, in fact, before registration of supporters was due to close – with a full-page Guardian ad with a message from Corbyn saying: “I’d rather be fighting the Tories” and citing some of Labour’s victories in fighting Tory party policies since he took over the leadership.
As the threat of an historic split looms larger, Corbyn said: “I want to continue to lead a party providing effective opposition … I want to get back to work.”
It may be some time before he, or someone else, gets an unhindered crack at that.