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‘We’re standing up for democracy in the party – for the members to choose the leader’

Shadow chancellor John McDonnell on the attempted coup against Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn

July 1, 2016
12 min read

Jeremy Corbyn speaks to students outside a London university this week. Photo: Steve Eason

When Jeremy got elected last year he got elected on 59.5 per cent of the vote – the highest mandate that any political leader of this country has ever received from their own membership. It was overwhelming in individual members, the affiliated group and also the new supporters. In every category he won.

When we got back to Parliament he tried, in his own quiet way (I’ve known Jeremy 35-40 years and he’s one of the most caring, compassionate people I’ve met), to work with people, put them together. He created a Shadow Cabinet of left, right and centre, he tried to hold it together. And when he did that he tried to work with the Parliamentary Labour Party all the way through. But there’s been a group within the PLP who consistently refused to accept his democratic mandate and consistently undermined him in every way they possibly could. To be frank, I don’t know how he’s borne it. I’m just so proud of him, to be honest, for what he’s done.

We knew at that time, that for some time they were plotting to see if they could have a coup at some stage. We knew that. We knew all the way along. The thing about it is they’re not particularly good at it. We had people in meetings where they were discussing who would be the candidate they would run, etc. And so we got intelligence on a regular basis.

False arguments about electability

And their first attempt was the Oldham by-election. What they tried to say was ‘It’s not political this, it’s not his policies we disagree with, it’s the fact that he can’t win elections.’ So the Oldham by-election was the first test. If he had lost the Oldham by-election that might have been the opportunity for some form of coup or to start the first stages. We went to Oldham. Jim McMahon was a fantastic candidate but what we got was the best of both worlds: a good local candidate and the Corbyn supporters’ enthusiasm. And we has a massive victory in Oldham. So they backed off.

So the next one was going to be the local government elections. That was the excuse for the next plot. We got to the local government elections and they said again ‘You can’t win an election with Corbyn’. We won every mayoral election we contested – every one. We won the seats in terms of local government, councils we were expected to lose, we won every one.

We reached in our first six months the highest level of support that Ed Miliband got all through his term of office. Now that was not something that we thought was wonderful but it was better than anyone thought possible. And in every parliamentary by-election that’s taken place, we’ve increased our majorities on every occasion.

When Jeremy took over as leader in September we were 14 points behind in the opinion polls. We are now ahead of the Tories in the opinion polls this week, even post-Brexit. And here’s the irony – it’s just extraordinary – on Monday the Parliamentary Labour Party meeting was one of the most disgraceful meetings I’ve ever attended. It was like a lynching without the rope. It was appalling. MP after MP got up calling on Jeremy to resign: ‘We can’t win elections under you.’ And here’s the irony, the first item on the agenda was to welcome the new Labour MP for Tooting who had doubled Labour’s majority.

I don’t accept that this is about Jeremy not being able to win elections. I know how tough it’s going to be to defeat the Tories but also we know that we’ve been building a solid base of support. Why? Because we’ve changed the political direction of this party within nine months. When we went into the last election we were austerity-lite. We had voted for tuition fees, we had voted for wars in Iraq, and all the rest of it. We transformed ourselves. We’re now an anti-austerity party, we’re now in favour of scrapping tuition fees, we’re in favour of building council houses again, we favour trade union rights and also, in the week before Chilcot is published, under Jeremy Corbyn we are now a party that will never again go on a military adventure that cost 500,000 lives as happened in Iraq under Blair. Never again.

That’s why they’re coming for Jeremy. This isn’t about electability. This is about policy and politics.

The referendum campaign

They told us that it was about the European referendum, because he hadn’t done enough. So let me just explain what happened on that because I’m gutted that we lost it. I’m sad that we lost it. But what happened way back in September was that Jeremy and I met with Angela Eagle and Hilary Benn and they said they wanted to run the European campaign and we said ‘fine’. But at that point in time we said that we need to agree the politics of this. We said that we can’t just go out there as simple Europhiles because, to be frank, there was a need for reform in Europe. And at that point in time they were trying to argue that we should unanimously support Cameron’s deal in Europe. We refused.

So we said ‘get on with the campaign and call us in when you need us, we will do all that we can to support’. Jeremy toured round this country – the stamina of the man is unbelievable. Thousands of miles, meeting after meeting. Both of us spoke in virtually every major city in the country. But we campaigned on the basis of ‘remain but reform’. And that is where most of the British population are. They agree that there needs to be reform. It was no use going out there just arguing that the European Union was perfect. It was remain and reform.

There has been a recent modern invention by the Greeks. It’s called democracy. What we’re standing for in this period now is democracy in the party

We also said, to be frank, as soon as you start appearing on platforms with Tories, Farage and Boris Johnson ironically will call you ‘the establishment’. And that’s exactly what happened in Scotland and that is exactly what happened in Northern cities in particular across this country. So we believed that the tactics of the campaign were wrong. Nevertheless we worked really hard. But when the result came out they wanted a scapegoat, they wanted to blame Jeremy. They wanted to use this as the excuse for the coup.

The plot unfolds

And what happened I’ll briefly tell you. On Saturday night last Jeremy was contacted by a sympathetic journalist. He had been briefed that Hilary Benn was going round the Shadow Cabinet urging people to urge Jeremy to stand down or threaten resignation. Jeremy contacted him and asked if it was true. Would he be happy for a statement to be put out saying it was an error or that Hilary withdraws from his actions? He refused. What else could he do but ask him to stand down? There was no other option.

What we then discovered, because they just leak like I don’t know what, was that there was a plan that what would happen is group after group of individuals, frontbenchers, would resign, in batches. Because it was to destabilise. It was on the basis that one group resigned – we could accommodate that, settle down for a few hours – and then another group would resign. It went on like that.

So what Jeremy had to do was to put together another Shadow Cabinet and that’s what we’ve done. And we’ve brought in, yes, lots of the new young people into the Shadow Cabinet. I tell you, listening to some of their speeches this week has been thrilling and they are the heroes and heroines of this movement.

Finally, let me just say where we’re at now because we’re getting to the point where it becomes farcical. What they did, to try and divide me and Jeremy, they briefed the media that I was trying to challenge him. And today Tom Watson has given an interview saying its John McDonnell who’s forcing him to stay. You can’t have it both ways.

So what I’ve said today is, straightforwardly, if Jeremy wants to remain the leader of the Labour Party I will support him wholeheartedly, I will chair his campaign committee again. It’s his decision and he’s made that decision. He’s staying.

I think this is a tragedy what’s going on now. At a time when, to be frank, our country’s facing some of the severest economic problems we’ve had in a generation as a result of the referendum, when the Tories are in disarray and this is virtually no government there whatsoever, this is the time the Labour Party should have held together and stepped up its campaigning. Parliamentary pomposity this is not. This is not just for the sake of the party. It’s for the sake of our country and the people we represent because they’re the ones that will be hit the hardest as a result of this result from the European referendum and the economic instability.

What we’ve said is Jeremy is staying. If someone wants to challenge him, fine. I spoke to Tom Watson and said if a candidate comes forward let’s have a democratic election of the leader, but let’s do it as comrades, as friends, it doesn’t have to be like this. We should be able to act amicably in this party and not in the way that people have treated Jeremy in the Parliamentary Labour Party.

They’re falling out among themselves as to who should be the candidate. It looks as though Angela Eagle, we’re told by the BBC, will announce she will become a candidate tomorrow [this turned out to be delayed -ed]. Fine, fine. I’ve said we will convene an urgent NEC, have a short leadership campaign timetable in order to match the Tories and get our leader in place so that we can then challenge the Tories and if there is a general election then we’re ready to go with the leader.

Debate as comrades and hold together

But, above all else, now at the moment, what we need people to do, whichever position they come from, is just to hold together in the party, just basically to treat each other with some common decency.

So where we’re at at the moment is that we think there will be a candidate coming forward, the NEC will set up the timetable for the leadership election and we’ll have what we’ve always wanted really, a democratic debate. Jeremy will stand again and tour round the country setting out his policies and we’ll hope that he gets re-elected.

We’d welcome it – if you’re not a member of the Labour Party at the moment, we need you to join. If you are a member of the Labour Party let me just say this. What we’re witnessing at the moment is a very British coup. If we don’t face this down what will be the point of being a Labour Party member, voting for a leader that you want and then having the Labour Party MPs exercise a veto? That is unacceptable.

There has been a recent modern invention by the Greeks. It’s called democracy. What we’re standing for in this period now is democracy in the party – the ability of rank and file members of the Labour party to choose the leader that they want and the policies that they want. And if we lost that, if we allow this coup to destroy Jeremy Corbyn, they destroy our party. I am not going to allow that to happen and I hope that you don’t.

So I’m urging you, pleading with you now, as we go through this period, let’s be comradely to whoever comes forward in the other campaign and let’s stand firm in the interests of democracy. And I appeal to you to support the person who actually did get democratically elected nine months ago, who transformed our policies into becoming a socialist party once again, and right the way round the country gave people hope of a new form of politics, caring and compassionate but socialist above all else.

So I say to you, if this election comes, stand with me and support Jeremy Corbyn. Solidarity.

This speech was given by John McDonnell on Wednesday at a Stand Up for Labour event in West London. Recording and transcript by David Pavett, first published on Left Futures.

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