There is a very real chance that Labour MPs might try and replace party leader Jeremy Corbyn this year.
The idea that Labour MPs will turn on the leader is not a new one. There are 230 Labour MPs of which only 36 nominated Corbyn for the leadership and only half of those ended up actually voting for him.
On the day Corbyn became leader Business Insider understands senior Labour staff and MPs were already debating how long they should give Corbyn before challenging him. Timescales of between 12 and 18 months were banded around in the pubs outside the Queen Elizabeth II center where Corbyn was inaugurated.
Now that six months have passed, things are getting more serious and the details of a plot are actually being discussed. Here is everything we know so far about a possible coup.
The meetings every Monday evening of the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP), which are a chance for backbench MPs to challenge Corbyn have been getting increasingly fractious. No one is supposed to say exactly what happened in the meetings, but it’s got to the point where just about every single thing that is said is being reported to the press.
This Monday, the prospect of a coup actually came up.
According to the Guardian Ronnie Campbell, who is on the left of the party, told the meeting that “so-called Blairites” are planning a coup and it has to stop. This is apparently what he said about Labour MPs who think they are a “potential prime minister.”
“They are going down a disastrous path, they haven’t got a clue … If they think they can get rid of Jeremy Corbyn, get someone in, and win the next election they are living in cloud-cuckoo land. What you going to do? You put in Dan Jarvis or Chuka Umunna or whoever. They will say what they say the last time and the time before that … They have got as much chance as the man on the moon.”
Campbell finished off by joking that the coup plotters are going around saying: “I’m Spartacus, no I’m Spartacus, no I’m Spartacus.”
Corbyn’s allies are expecting a coup
Campbell might have been light-hearted about a coup, but some of Corbyn’s allies are taking things very seriously.
Corbyn became leader because he was in the right place at the right time, his supporters on the left know that if he gets pushed out they could spend decades in the wilderness again. A recent post by the small Trotskyist group Socialist Action warns that a coup needs to be preemptively blocked.
It’s really important what Socialist Action is thinking because of its links to Corbyn. Socialist Action figure Simon Fletcher is Corbyn’s chief-of-staff and other Socialist Action-linked people such as John Ross and Kate Hudson are closely affiliated with Corbyn.
Socialist Action says “the priority is to remove the possibility of a coup against Corbyn.” They say that the rules need to be changed so that Corbyn is guaranteed to be on the ballot paper if he is challenged.
Hillary Benn, Tom Watson, and Dan Jarvis could all feasibly mount a leadership challenge against Corbyn. But it’s Jarvis who is really scaring Corbyn’s supporters. The MP and former British Army Major declined to take part in the 2015 leadership election because he wanted to be able to spend more time with his children following the death of his wife. Bookmakers Paddy Power have him at 4/1 to be the next Labour leader.
An article in the Corbyn-friendly communist newspaper The Morning Star, reacted to Jarvis receiving a donation from a supporter by suggesting the money was for a “war chest” which would fund a coup. The Morning Star even quoted a “source close to Mr Corbyn” who claimed “we know they’re going to come for Jeremy at some point.”
Changing the rules
The Morning Star and Socialist Action are right. Corbyn is the main draw for many Labour members and they would easily reelect him if he was on the ballot.
The thing is, no one is completely sure where Corbyn would automatically get on the ballot if someone calls a leadership contest. No one thought that a current leader would have problems getting the nominations to run again as leader, so the rules aren’t clear on the issue.
Corbyn’s allies are moving swiftly to try and change things. On Tuesday Peter Willsman, who sits on Labour’s National Executive Committee (NEC) put forward a draft motion to guarantee that any Labour leader who receives a challenge will be given a place on the ballot. He also put forward a draft motion which would reduce the percentage of support from MPs and MEPs that a someone needs to get on the ballot from 15% to 5%.
Momentum, the grassroots organisation who support Corbyn, are bullish about their changes if there is a coup. The group’s leader Jon Lansman told The Guardian on Tuesday they will campaign again for Corbyn if he is required to run again.
“We absolutely have the machinery to run another leadership campaign if we have to and we are absolutely equipped to do that. And we will if necessary and I am confident we will win it.”
A Labour source who was heavily involved in Corbyn’s leadership campaign told Business Insider “it would be crackers” for anyone to challenge Corbyn now.
“Corbyn has the huge backing of the membership so either he’d romp home in a leadership election or the attempt would be stillborn. Either way, those who led the coup attempt would be seen by the membership as anti-democratic elitists, which would damage their careers.”
It’s all about the timing
If a coup is to be successful, it needs to be timed perfectly.
The key date is Labour’s annual conference on September 25 – 28. The current rules say that if someone wants to challenge Corbyn they need to do it “prior to the annual session of Party conference.”
A lot depends on whether the NEC approves Willsman’s draft motion when they meet in July and allows the party conference to vote on it. If the NEC does approve it, the day before conference would be the latest a coup could be attempted. But, the closer to conference that a coup was launched, the more it would be seen as a cynical attempt to circumnavigate the membership.
It’s a tight balancing act, but they have to make a move at some point. “The plp needs to realise that if doesn’t [move] it’s over for good,” one Labour source tells Business Insider.
The death of the party
If Corbyn’s supporters are scared of a coup, many in Labour are fearful of something they would consider much worse than losing a party leader — they really think that the radical left will be able to take over the party for ever if they don’t act.
Business Insider has spoken to several moderate Labour sources who are really scared of the second proposal put forward by Willsman to reduce the leadership nomination threshold to 5%. This would mean that once Corbyn goes, someone like John McDonnell or Clive Lewis could easily get themselves on the ballot and secure the leadership with the help of the membership.
And they say the problem will get worse if Corbyn makes it all the way to the 2020 general election, Labour sources fear a lot of moderate MPs will lose their seat, turning the PLP into something they call a “miniature PLP” which would be much further to the left politically than it currently is.
“We’re screwed if it [a coup] doesn’t happen,” one Labour source says.
There needs to be a trigger
Coup plotters might be able to force Corbyn out of a leadership race but they know they risk looking spiteful and could end up causing further damage to the party. They need something to justify removing Corbyn, and the fact he polls badly with the general public won’t be enough.
The obvious trigger for a coup would be if Labour fares poorly in the UK local elections in May. If this happens they can persuasively argue that Corbyn is losing support for Labour in his first year of opposition, he is not the man to lead Labour to victory in 2020.
It’s important to remember that Corbyn’s support among the Labour membership isn’t just from left-wing radicals. He managed to win over many moderate members as well, it’s not inconceivable that he could lose their support if Labour get destroyed in May.
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