Jeremy Corbyn never really wanted the top job. And as we so often forget, his implausible ascent to the top of the Labour party almost fell at the first hurdle.
The Magic Number
On that sunny afternoon two years ago today, I took odds of 200/1, on the Betfair Exchange, for Corbyn to win the Labour leadership. It looked like a seriously misguided punt. He didn’t even have enough nominations to make the ballot. I, like every other punter who backed him, didn’t really expect him to win it, but had planned to lay the bet off at a shorter price, once his name hit the ballot paper.
That afternoon, Corbyn still required the support of another 13 MPs to reach the magic number of 35 nominations. For any backbench candidate, this is the most difficult stage of the contest – indeed, it had been designed this way to prevent the minorities from standing.
However, a lucky precedent had already been set. In 2010, David Miliband had lent some of his supporters to Diane Abbott, in order to ‘create a debate’ within the party. Back then, Miliband and his supporters had very little to fear.
Labour’s left-wing had been in terminal decline since the mid 1980s. In 2007, Michael Meacher failed to collect enough nominations to stand, as did John McDonnell.
McDonnell failed again to secure enough nominations to stand in 2010. When Diane Abbott forced her way on to the ballot that year, she received a pitiful 7.24% of the first-round votes.
This time, senior party figures John Prescott and Frank Field urged MPs to nominate Corbyn, even if they did not agree with his views. A senior figure from the right of the party told The Spectator:
‘The right of the party should have nothing to fear from Jeremy. It would be good for the left of the party to see just how few votes would be cast.’
Even the ever combative John McDonnell had been opposed to standing a ‘left’ candidate, feeling there there was no hope of gaining enough nominations.
10 days before the ballot was due to close, a small group of left wing MPs met, to decide who could potentially represent the left in the leadership contest. This group ncluded people such as Ronnie Campbell and Dennis Skinner, both in their 70s and 80s and new MPs such as Cat Smith and Clive Lewis.
McDonnell opened by putting his case forward, for not standing; ‘I’ve done it enough times, I’m not doing it again.’ Diane Abbott also ruled herself out, having ran in 2010. McDonnell turned to his long time comrade and demanded ‘It’s your turn Jeremy’. He replied cautiously ‘oh go on then’.
Corbyn has never looked back that moment. He had 18 initial backers, but would be up against a tight clock to find the further 17 MPs required.
Attention turned to Tom Watson, the party’s ‘fixer’, to lend some support. Watson was putting together his own campaign for the deputy leadership, and eventually relented to lend some in return for support once deputy. These extra 8 supporters brought his total to 26, but as Corbyn’s team approached the final day for nominations, he was still short by 9 names.
45 Minutes To Go
As the 12pm deadline approached on June 15th 2015, a chink of light emerged at the end of the dark tunnel. At 11.15am, Margaret Beckett came to the parliamentary office, and announced she would nominate Corbyn. It was a vote the team had not been working on, and it came as a complete shock to everybody.
Beckett later told an interviewer that she was a ‘moron’ for coming to that decision: ‘I probably regard it as one of the biggest political mistakes I’ve ever made.’ On Friday after the 2017 election she told David Dimbleby that ‘I have always seen myself as being on the soft left or centre left’ before adding ‘Corbyn has ran an infinitely better campaign’.
Back in 2015 it still looked ominous for Corbyn. Then, with 20 minutes remaining, Corbyn reached 30 names after Jon Cruddas, Rushanara Ali and Sadiq Khan nominated him.
Sadiq Khan, was keen to ascociate himself with elements of the left and would rely on Corbynite support when campaigning for London Mayoralty nomination.
As the clock ticked down to midday, McDonnell began to worry about the numbers. But then came the support of two more London MPs in Tulip Siddiq and Neil Coyle, both supporters of Mary Creagh, before she pulled out of the race.
Coyle would later pen a letter to the Guardian claiming ‘We helped put Corbyn on the ballot because we wanted a genuine debate within the Labour party. We didn’t expect to be debating things far from the priorities of most voters: unilateral nuclear disarmament, the Falkland Islands, the monarchy and all the rest.’
Tom Watson stuck around the office, telling McDonnell that he would nominate Corbyn – if it was absolutely necessary. Frustratingly, there were now enough MPs to put Corbyn onto the ballot, but none would be forthcoming until others had committed.
Then Gareth Thomas, came into the office with a nomination, and the Corbyn camp declared themselves on 33 nominations. They pleaded with the remaining members of PLP for just two more backers. What Mcdonnell had failed to realise , is that they were actually on 34 votes, and just needed a final one.
McDonnell recalled later.’ I was on my knees in tears begging them,’ He warned the MPs that party members would ‘not understand why Jeremy was excluded by just two votes’.
Then, with 2 minutes remaining, Gordon Marsden stepped up to nominate him. They had reached the target. Although his nomination was the 35th, the Corbyn team thought it was only the 34th.
Andrew Smith then handed over his form and was later credited as the man who put Corbyn on the ballot.
As the clock struck midday, Corbyn had pulled off his first major shock. He told the BBC:
I fully acknowledge and recognise that those colleagues who nominated me – MPs who nominated me – may not necessarily agree with me on the pitch I’m taking or my views on many things.