Jeremy Corbyn and the other candidates at a Labour leadership hustings in 2015. Photo: Jason Harris
Deadline day: Monday 15 June 2015. To claim a place in the Labour leadership election, Jeremy Corbyn needed 35 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 18 backers. A further 17 MPs would have to submit their signed nomination forms in person to the office of the Parliamentary Labour Party, 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.’
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 11am he had ticked off eight names to bring Corbyn’s total to 26. 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 11.15am, 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 20 minutes to go Corbyn was up to 30 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 10 minutes to go and a dearth of new nominations it began to look like that would indeed have been the better option.
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 33 nominations and pleaded for just two more backers. Extraordinarily, in all the confusion they had failed to realise that they were actually on 34. 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 ‘theatre’ 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.
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 £3?’ 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 metres 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 10 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 35th, but everyone present thought it was the 34th. Andrew Smith then handed over his form and (wrongly) went down as the man who put Corbyn on the ballot. As Big Ben struck 12, McDonnell came out into the cloister and said: ‘They’ve done it!’
The Candidate, by Alex Nunns, is out now.
When fire safety has become a privilege for the rich, it’s time to stop austerity and fund emergency mass works to raise standards immediately, writes Jane Shallice
The election result has irreversibly changed political discourse in the UK, writes James Fox
In commemoration of the 30th anniversary of Bernie Grant's election to parliament, Ayo Wallace explores the life and legacy of his radical representation of Tottenham's black communities.
Across Britain, hundreds of thousands of people have now taken part in mass rallies for Corbyn's Labour. Eli Regan soaks up the atmosphere in Warrington
The under-30s could be decisive in the general election. Frances Grahl meets young people hit by Tory austerity and looks at what's driving their support for Labour
“To them it’s just another number, someone else being sent back. But when you’ve got three children being left without their dad … it’s quite major,” writes Rebecca Omonira-Okeykanmi.
Hundreds of people surrounded the fences this weekend. Hera Lorandos spoke to women who have suffered inside.
Grassroots posters giving an alternative take on the general election
Laying out the case for Labour's leadership of a Progressive Alliance, Jeremy Gilbert argues that far from posing a threat to the Left, the Progressive Alliance offers a golden opportunity to end Tory rule and build a 21st century government committed to social justice
The Greens have stood down in Brighton Kemptown to clear the way for Labour, and the Lib Dems won’t stand in Brighton’s other seat, Green-held Pavilion. Davy Jones, who would have been the Green candidate in Kemptown, says this shows the way forward
Jeremy Corbyn is no longer the leader of the opposition – he has become the People’s Prime Minister
While Theresa May hides away, Corbyn stands with the people in our hours of need, writes Tom Walker
In the aftermath of this disaster, we must fight to restore respect and democracy for council tenants
Glyn Robbins says it's time to put residents, not private firms, back at the centre of decision-making over their housing
After Grenfell: ending the murderous war on our protections
Under cover of 'cutting red tape', the government has been slashing safety standards. It's time for it to stop, writes Christine Berry
Why the Grenfell Tower fire means everything must change
The fire was a man-made atrocity, says Faiza Shaheen – we must redesign our economic system so it can never happen again
Forcing MPs to take an oath of allegiance to the monarchy undermines democracy
As long as being an MP means pledging loyalty to an unelected head of state, our parliamentary system will remain undemocratic, writes Kate Flood
7 reasons why Labour can win the next election
From the rise of Grime for Corbyn to the reduced power of the tabloids, Will Murray looks at the reasons to be optimistic for Labour's chances next time
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 25 June
On June 25th, the fourth of Red Pepper Race Section's Open Editorial Meetings will celebrate the launch of our new black writers' issue - Empire Will Eat Itself.
After two years of attacks on Corbyn supporters, where are the apologies?
In the aftermath of this spectacular election result, some issues in the Labour Party need addressing, argues Seema Chandwani
If Corbyn’s Labour wins, it will be Attlee v Churchill all over again
Jack Witek argues that a Labour victory is no longer unthinkable – and it would mean the biggest shake-up since 1945
On the life of Robin Murray, visionary economist
Hilary Wainwright pays tribute to the life and legacy of Robin Murray, one of the key figures of the New Left whose vision of a modern socialism lies at the heart of the Labour manifesto.
Letter from the US: Dear rest of the world, I’m just as confused as you are
Kate Harveston apologises for the rise of Trump, but promises to make it up to us somehow
The myth of ‘stability’ with Theresa May
Settit Beyene looks at the truth behind the prime minister's favourite soundbite
Civic strike paralyses Colombia’s principle pacific port
An alliance of community organisations are fighting ’to live with dignity’ in the face of military repression. Patrick Kane and Seb Ordoñez report.
Greece’s heavy load
While the UK left is divided over how to respond to Brexit, the people of Greece continue to groan under the burden of EU-backed austerity. Jane Shallice reports
On the narcissism of small differences
In an interview with the TNI's Nick Buxton, social scientist and activist Susan George reflects on the French Presidential Elections.
Why Corbyn’s ‘unpopularity’ is exaggerated: Polls show he’s more popular than most other parties’ leaders – and on the up
Headlines about Jeremy Corbyn’s poor approval ratings in polls don’t tell the whole story, writes Alex Nunns
Job vacancy: Red Pepper is looking for a political organiser
Closing date for applications: postponed, see below
The media wants to demoralise Corbyn’s supporters – don’t let them succeed
Michael Calderbank looks at the results of yesterday's local elections
In light of Dunkirk: What have we learned from the (lack of) response in Calais?
Amy Corcoran and Sam Walton ask who helps refugees when it matters – and who stands on the sidelines
Osborne’s first day at work – activists to pulp Evening Standards for renewable energy
This isn’t just a stunt. A new worker’s cooperative is set to employ people on a real living wage in a recycling scheme that is heavily trolling George Osborne. Jenny Nelson writes
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 24 May
On May 24th, we’ll be holding the third of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.
Our activism will be intersectional, or it will be bullshit…
Reflecting on a year in the environmental and anti-racist movements, Plane Stupid activist, Ali Tamlit, calls for a renewed focus on the dangers of power and privilege and the means to overcome them.
West Yorkshire calls for devolution of politics
When communities feel that power is exercised by a remote elite, anger and alienation will grow. But genuine regional democracy offers a positive alternative, argue the Same Skies Collective
How to resist the exploitation of digital gig workers
For the first time in history, we have a mass migration of labour without an actual migration of workers. Mark Graham and Alex Wood explore the consequences
The Digital Liberties cross-party campaign
Access to the internet should be considered as vital as access to power and water writes Sophia Drakopoulou
#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part III: a discussion of power and privilege
In the final article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr gives a few pointers on how to be a good ally
Event: Take Back Control Croydon
Ken Loach, Dawn Foster & Soweto Kinch to speak in Croydon at the first event of a UK-wide series organised by The World Transformed and local activists
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 19 April
On April 19th, we’ll be holding the second of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.
Changing our attitude to Climate Change
Paul Allen of the Centre for Alternative Technology spells out what we need to do to break through the inaction over climate change
Introducing Trump’s Inner Circle
Donald Trump’s key allies are as alarming as the man himself