06.15.2017
  • UK

It Nearly Didn’t Happen

Two years ago today Jeremy Corbyn made it onto the Labour leadership ballot — with seconds to spare.

Jeremy Corbyn and his three opponents during the 2015 leadership contest. John Clyde

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Deadline day: Monday June 15, 2015. To claim a place in the Labour leadership election, Jeremy Corbyn needed thirty-five MPs to nominate him by noon. This was the most difficult stage of the contest — it had been designed to be so. The nomination threshold was intended precisely to prevent someone like Corbyn joining the field.

By the end of the previous week Corbyn had secured eighteen backers. A further seventeen MPs would have to submit their signed nomination forms in person to the office of the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP), nestled in the lower cloister off Westminster Hall. As most were returning to parliament that morning from a weekend in their constituencies, one delayed train could scupper Corbyn’s chances.

As he waited outside the office to count in the nominators, the attention of Corbyn’s close ally Jon Lansman turned to Tom Watson, with whom he was friendly. Lansman’s priority was not to get Watson to nominate Corbyn, although that would have been nice. Rather, he was interested in the influence that Watson could wield as a party operator (or, as the press would have it, “fixer,” “bruiser,” or “low-rent 1970s mafia grunt”).

“We wanted him to firm up our support, to make sure they actually delivered,” Lansman explains. In return Watson would be able to count on the nominations of some Corbyn backers for his deputy leadership campaign.

According to Lansman, over the phone Watson said: “If you’re going to get me to make sure people nominate you, I want to be absolutely sure you’re not lying to me about how much support you’ve got, and if I find out you’ve been lying to me I’ll take away two nominations for every one I’ve given you.” Lansman was told to share the names of Corbyn’s promised nominators with Watson’s right-hand woman Alicia Kennedy, a formidable force.

But before he could speak to her Lansman had to leave Westminster and head to Hammersmith Hospital. He was due to be a kidney donor at the end of the month and had to give blood. With time short before the midday deadline, Lansman was forced to multitask from the hospital. As he tells it: “I was having blood taken out of my right arm and I was having to text with my left hand — and I’m right handed — text Alicia the names [of Corbyn’s nominators] . . . I came out of the hospital after they’d closed me up and I texted Tom to say: ‘The things I fucking do for socialism. It was like Alicia was taking more blood out of my left arm than they were taking out of my right!’ He found this very funny and rang me back when I was on the bus.”

Pacing the Flagstones

Back outside the PLP office, John McDonnell had taken charge armed with a clipboard containing a list of the MPs who had promised to nominate. By 11 AM he had ticked off eight names to bring Corbyn’s total to twenty-six. Still short of nine names with one hour to go, McDonnell and three others from Corbyn’s team anxiously “paced the flagstones of Westminster Hall outside the Labour Party’s parliamentary office. Eyes down and oblivious to the groups of sightseers on guided tours, they fired off texts and emails to Labour MPs” — according to Morning Star reporter Luke James, who was on the spot.

Then, at 11:15 AM, out of the blue, appeared Margaret Beckett, the former foreign secretary, to nominate Corbyn. It was a complete surprise. Beckett later agreed with an interviewer that she was a “moron” and said of her decision: “I probably regard it as one of the biggest political mistakes I’ve ever made.”

With around twenty minutes to go Corbyn was up to thirty names — including Jon Cruddas, Rushanara Ali, and Sadiq Khan, who, in common with the other MPs vying to be Labour’s candidate for London mayor, was keen to ingratiate himself with Corbyn supporters.

As the clock ticked down the office began to get crowded. Lansman was back from hospital. Cat Smith arrived, straight off the train from her Lancashire constituency. But where were the nominators? For a worrying few minutes the forward march of Labour MPs seemed to have halted. “Corbyn’s team hit the phones again, scrambling for the numbers of MPs who said they would lend their support if the left candidate was on the line,” observed James.

And now the candidate himself joined the party, still dressed in his cycling gear, fresh from doing media interviews in which he said — endearingly, given the intensity of the moment — that he would have preferred it if Harriet Harman had stayed on as interim leader for a year or two to oversee a policy debate. With just over ten minutes to go and a dearth of new nominations it began to look like that would indeed have been the better option.

Breakthrough

But then came a breakthrough. Tulip Siddiq and Neil Coyle, both supporters of the Blairite candidate Mary Creagh until she pulled out of the race, made their way into the PLP office and transferred their endorsements, having been lobbied heavily on social media. Clive Efford, the “soft left” MP, also added his name to the list.

More parliamentarians filtered into the increasingly crowded cloister. Tom Watson was hanging around, but said he would only nominate Corbyn if it was absolutely necessary. Former cabinet minister Andrew Smith was there, as was the independent-minded Roger Godsiff, Gordon Marsden, and Gareth Thomas. Rushing in with just a few minutes to go was Ian Murray, the shadow secretary of state for Scotland and Labour’s last-surviving representative north of the border (making him pretty much unsackable whomever he nominated).

The trouble was all of them were members of the reluctant squad, refusing to commit until Corbyn was within one name of the target. The minutes were ticking down and they were all just standing there. The situation was absurd, like something from the mind of Lewis Carroll. There were enough MPs in the office to carry Corbyn comfortably onto the ballot, but none would help until the others helped.

Suddenly the mayoral candidate, Gareth Thomas, relented and submitted his form. The Corbyn camp declared themselves on thirty-three nominations and pleaded for just two more backers. Extraordinarily, in all the confusion they had failed to realize that they were actually on thirty-four. Unaware of the true situation, the remaining MPs refused to budge.

Shadow cabinet minister Jon Trickett and Harry Fletcher from the Corbyn campaign arrived to check on events and were struck by the “theater” of what they saw. Watson and others were in the outer section of the office. Through a doorway was the chapter house, a small polygonal room that served as the office’s inner sanctum. This was where signed nomination papers had to be deposited, and so this was where Marsden, Godsiff, Murray, and Andrew Smith were stood, with McDonnell, Lansman, and Cat Smith alongside trying every technique of persuasion.

Desperate Measures

With three minutes to go the tension for Team Corbyn was almost unbearable. Desperate times call for desperate measures. Outside the office Corbyn stopped the passing Conservative MP Stewart Jackson. “Fancy joining Labour for three pounds?” he asked with a laugh.

In the inner office, McDonnell’s impassioned entreaties were failing to melt the hearts of the MPs. Fearing that it was not going to happen, Lansman left the room to try to fetch Watson. He found him stood in the outer office engrossed in his phone” texting some of the MPs in the inner office, just a few meters away.

“He was sweating,” recalls Lansman. “He was texting people in the inner office to try and make sure that they nominated because he had guaranteed that he would if he had to.” A frantic Lansman told Watson: “But they’re not doing it! You’ve got to come in and do it!”

“I think you’ve got it. Don’t worry, they’ll do it,” he remembers Watson saying.

With seconds to go McDonnell put his dignity to the sword and literally got down on his knees to beg the four reluctant MPs. “Whether you support Jeremy or not, this is in the interests of democracy,” he remembers telling them. “Party members want to be able to vote for a candidate of their choice. We’ve all got a responsibility here!”

“I admit it, I was on my knees in tears begging them,” McDonnell recalled later. “It was all a bit emotional. It was!” He warned the MPs that members would “not understand or forgive if Jeremy was excluded by just two votes.”

“It got to ten seconds before the close of nominations,” McDonnell recounted, probably exaggerating slightly, “and two of them cracked.” Gordon Marsden was first to step forward. His nomination was the thirty-fifth, but everyone present thought it was the thirty-fourth. Andrew Smith then handed over his form and (wrongly) went down as the man who put Corbyn on the ballot. As Big Ben struck twelve, McDonnell came out into the cloister and said: “They’ve done it!”

The preceding is an excerpt from Alex Nunns’s book The Candidate: Jeremy Corbyn’s Improbable Path to Power.