In an extract from The Candidate: Jeremy Corbyn’s Improbable Path to Power, Alex Nunns describes a dramatic day in the attempted coup against Corbyn
There is only one intention: “to break him as a man.” That is the view of Diane Abbott as she watches her parliamentary colleagues take turns to spit venom at Jeremy Corbyn.
It is 27 June 2016, nine and a half months since Corbyn addressed his first Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) meeting as leader. MPs are determined to ensure this will be his last. There are so many of them crammed into Committee Room 14 in parliament this evening that Corbyn’s staff have to wait outside in the corridor. In the room it is hot and cramped. The MP Stephen Kinnock says it is “like being in a pressure cooker.” He is not just referring to the temperature.
The long-anticipated coup against Corbyn is in full swing. MP after MP stands up to attack their leader in “the most contemptuous terms possible, pausing only to text their abuse to journalists waiting outside,” according to Abbott.
“You are not fit to be prime minister,” the widely unknown Bridget Phillipson tells Corbyn.
“It’s time to be honest with yourself. You’re not a leader. You need to go for the sake of the party,” remarks Ivan Lewis.
“You are a critical threat to the future of the Labour Party,” chimes in Jamie Reed.
“You’re not uniting the party. You’ve got no vision. The only person who can break this logjam is you by resigning,” pronounces Chris Bryant.
“You’re not just letting the party down, but the whole country,” declares Labour’s only Scottish representative, Ian Murray. When he claims—without evidence—that his staff in Edinburgh have been “intimidated” by members of Momentum, another MP shouts “Scumbags!” Murray tells Corbyn to “call off the dogs.”
The branding of party members as dogs is echoed by Jess Phillips, who characteristically finds a way to make it all about her. “On social media I’ve been accused of taking Zionist money and other things,” she says. “These are your people. Ian’s asked you to call off your dogs. Yet you won’t do anything, you won’t resign.”
The tirade continues for over an hour. Nobody talks about Corbyn’s politics; everything is focused on his person. It is “a bloodbath, the worst I’ve ever seen,” comments one parliamentarian; “brutal,” says another. A non-Corbyn supporting MP has “never seen anything so horrible” and feels “reduced to tears.” Peter Mandelson, at the scene of the crime as ever, says there has been no meeting like it “in the history of the Labour Party.”
As the finale, Margaret Hodge and Ann Coffey propose a motion of no confidence in the leader, to be conducted the following day. “This is not just about the party members who gave you a mandate a year ago,” Hodge says. Indeed, MPs do not want it to be about them at all. Hodge explicitly belittles them, saying the number of members is dwarfed by the 9.3 million Labour voters whose interests MPs alone appear able to interpret. “I would urge you Jeremy to show the basic decency I know you have and step down,” she says. “By that simple act you will have made the most important contribution you can make to the Labour Party.” Hodge receives rousing applause.
With the meeting finally at an end, Corbyn leaves the claustrophobic environment of Committee Room 14, navigates the dark, gothic corridors of parliament, and emerges into the mid-summer evening sun. He can hear the roars and chants of a crowd across the road in Parliament Square. From one centre of power, a private gathering of a couple of hundred people in a closed room, he is heading to another, a public rally of thousands under the open skies.
As he crosses the road and approaches the square he attracts people to him like iron filings to a magnet. It requires a police cordon to move him through the throng. His destination is familiar. He is heading for the fire engine; the same vehicle from which he spoke in Camden in August 2015, called into service again as an improvised stage. The Fire Brigades Union has parked it on the side of Parliament Square from where Corbyn addressed the huge People's Assembly protest in the earliest days of the previous year’s campaign, when the idea of him leading the Labour Party seemed unthinkable. It still felt unbelievable three months later, even as he made his first public appearance as leader on the same spot, delivering a speech to the 'Refugees Welcome' demonstration.
Tonight's event is of a different character to any of those—more intense, more dramatic, and more focused. The ‘Keep Corbyn’ rally has been called with just 24 hours' notice. As one shadow cabinet minister after another resigned their post on Sunday 26 June it became clear that a coordinated action was underway and that the leader’s position would hang in the balance at tonight’s PLP meeting. The coup has been taking place in the anti-democratic arena of the TV studios. To change the narrative, to exert some power from below, it was essential to provide a physical demonstration of Corbyn’s support—and fast. When campaigner Marshajane Thompson called the event she expected a couple of thousand to turn out at best. There was double that even as the rally assembled at 6 p.m. and the number has since swelled with people arriving after work. Now the square is jam-packed. It has been announced from the stage that the police estimate 10,000 are here.
They have already listened to John McDonnell deliver the message they all came to hear. “Let me make it absolutely clear,” he said. “Jeremy Corbyn is not resigning, he’s...” His voice was drowned out by the crowd.
Now they are hearing from Dennis Skinner, who looks surprised to be there at all. His speech begins with the words: “Anyway, I didn't know about this until five minutes ago.” He is visibly taken aback at the warmth of the reception he receives. “I see the greatest crowd since the miners won in 1974,” he declares. “We’ve got a battle on to save Jeremy as the leader of the Labour Party and we’re going to win!”
The proclamation sparks a spontaneous rendition of “Cor-byn, Cor-byn, Cor-byn, Cor-byn”—not the most sophisticated chant ever, but catchy. As it continues, unbeknown to most of the crowd, Corbyn arrives at the back of the fire engine and begins to climb the steps up to the roof.
“By the time that we get to October,” Skinner continues, “Dodgy Dave will have gone and Jeremy Corbyn will be back!” As if on cue, the man himself appears into view. The roar from Parliament Square is deafening. Skinner looks round to see what is happening. The two men shake hands. Skinner continues to speak but no one can hear him. Everyone has their hands above their heads clapping. Some are visibly moved. It is a moment of real collective emotion.
To the onlooker it might look like cult-like devotion to a leader—that is certainly what some in the media will report. But that is not it. To be sure, people want to salute Corbyn's stamina and fortitude in circumstances that must be horrific for him as a human being. They want to bolster him after such a bruising experience with the PLP. But there is something more to it: the shared endeavour. His survival is necessary for their survival as a political force. When he refuses to let a small part of the Labour Party impose its will on the rest, he is defending the project that all those in Parliament Square and beyond came together to build just the previous summer.
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