Soon after he walked into the NEC meeting, Jeremy Corbyn knew that his ten-month leadership of the Labour Party was on the line.
Stepping out of the lift on the 8th floor of the Victoria Street office block that hosts Labour’s HQ, he could sense the tension on the faces of those gathered to greet him.
Inside the nondescript meeting room, Deputy leader Tom Watson and general secretary Iain McNicol looked sombre, while others simply avoided his gaze.
Corbyn had arrived politically bloodied, but unbowed. Despite mass resignations by his Shadow Cabinet and frontbench, and that vote of no confidence by 75% of his MPs, he had retained a Zen-like calm.
Buoyed by text messages and emails from supporters, he was prepared for a tough session. He and his team knew the numbers on the 33-strong NEC were tight, yet were quietly confident they had a slim majority. GMB veteran Mary Turner, a possible sceptic, was too ill to attend. All of the pro-Corbyn members had managed to make the hastily arranged meeting.
But within the first ten minutes of the meeting, things began to look more difficult than expected.
The very first vote was on whether decisions to come should be conducted by a secret ballot, rather than a show-of-hands.
Team Corbyn had been braced for this move, but had believed it would not get enough support. Two female members of the NEC, worried about the vandalism of Angela Eagle’s constituency office, were clearly concerned that a public vote would result in more potential abuse, online and in person.
Alice Perry, an Islington councillor and one of the local government reps on the NEC, detailed how party staff were spat at during a weekend party meeting in Brighton. She added that she and others had received death threats and rape threats. And Perry said it was time the leadership and Momentum took real action to stamp out the intimidation by those using their name.
Another local government rep Ann Lucas said her home window had been smashed. MP Shabana Mahmood said she’d been made to fear for her life. NEC member Johanna Baxter revealed how her personal mobile number had been put online by critics. Corbyn, Unite’s Jennie Formby and Jon Trickett all came up to the women during a break in the meeting to express their concern at the intimidation.
The secret ballot plan was passed by 17 votes to 15 - by a show of hands.
Baxter was in tears later when she recalled that Corbyn himself had voted against the secret ballot idea. "The thing that really upset me was that the Labour party leader voted against the proposal to have a secret ballot to protect colleagues.
"Jeremy has spoken consistently against bullying behaviour and I applaud him for that and I respect him for that.
"But when it came to the vote to protect colleagues taking an extremely difficult decision that would determine the voter of our party, he voted against the single thing he could have done to protect those colleagues."
Earlier, Andy Burnham and Debbie Abrahams surprised the NEC by turning up, despite not being members. They claimed to be speaking on behalf of the Shadow Cabinet and called for the meeting to be suspended. Burnham, who warned that there could be legal action unless the NEC called off its meeting, was heckled by some on the NEC.
Veteran NEC member Ann Black argued for compromise. The NEC accepted the request, voting by 20 votes to 12 that ‘the NEC agrees to a 48 hour negotiation period before commencing the leadership election timetable’.
Corbyn had been in the room for the vote, but he faced more bad news to add to the secret ballot decision. NEC chairman Paddy Lillis, a rep for shopworkers’ union Usdaw, said he felt the party leader should not be present for the coming discussion and vote on his leadership.
The chairman was challenged by other union delegates. But perhaps sensing the mood, Corbyn agreed to leave. Things were looking stickier than he or his supporters had anticipated.
At this point, the Labour leader decided to make a statement and the NEC agreed he could say his piece before being asked to leave.
Corbyn said he’d rung Angela Eagle and discussed the shock news that her local office window had been smashed with a brick. He said he condemned the vandalism, but also said he had himself received a string of threats, and letters of abuse every day in recent weeks.
In what seemed like a valedictory to some present, he then set out his anti-austerity agenda one more time. He was then asked by Lillis to leave. Contrary to some reports, he did not stage a ‘sit-in’. But after being asked a second time by Lillis to absent himself from the meeting, he calmly left, closed the door behind him and went to wait in a nearby room.
With Corbyn out of the meeting, Andy Kerr, the deputy general secretary of the CWU, the postal workers’ union, said he wanted putting on record that the party was acting against its own rules.
Kerr also said that anyone sitting on the NEC who had signed nomination papers for Eagle, should also be removed from the meeting. Some felt he was targeting MPs like Shabana Mahmood, but the issue was academic as the chairman ruled it out of order.
The real debate then began, with Lillis stating that there would be a vote on a simple motion on whether Jeremy Corbyn should be allowed on a leadership ballot paper without any nominations required from MPs or MEPs. ‘Agree or disagree’ were the options.
At this point, party general secretary McNicol - whom leftwing MP Dennis Skinner had accused of working on behalf of disgruntled former Shadow Cabinet ministers - said he had the legal advice on the issue.
McNicol then distributed to the NEC three written legal opinions with varying viewpoints. The first was from GRM Law, a firm that carries out property and constitutional work for the party. It concluded that nominations would be needed by a sitting leader.
The next was by Mark Henderson, who had concluded that Corbyn should automatically go on the ballot. The other was a previously-unseen legal opinion by James Goudie QC, which advised the opposite. Unite delegates distributed their own legal opinion from Michael Mansfield QC.
In a move that sparked protests from some present, McNicol invited only Goudie to present his case to the room. Unite and other union delegates objected, calling for Henderson to be allowed to present his case too. A vote was held, and pro-Corbyn supporters lost again.
The motion that “the NEC should invite further legal opinion from Michael Mansfield QC and Mark Henderson” was defeated by 19 votes to 13. At this point, some Corbynistas began to think it was not their evening. Goudie’s presentation was legalistic and ‘a bit boring’, one said.
Downstairs, the office took a delivery of four crates of sandwiches for sustenance. Sadly, the ‘beer and sandwiches’ of the 1970s Labour Governments was not repeated as no alcohol was touched during the marathon session.
There was another procedural wrangle, however. Unite delegates said that Corbyn should be allowed into the room to vote, but the NEC said it would first have to stage a secret ballot on whether he was eligible to vote for himself. By the narrowest margin of the evening, 16 votes to 15, the NEC decided Corbyn could indeed vote.
More debate then followed, but things took a turn for the better for the Corbynistas when Keith Vaz, the veteran Labour MP who also sits on the NEC, spoke up. To the surprise of some, Vaz said ‘if my leader asks me to support him, I will’.
Vaz was referring to the possibility of the party leader being forced to require 51 MPs and MEPs’ nominations, stressing that he would lend Corbyn his vote to get on the ballot paper.
Corbyn was still outside the room, accompanied by his wife. One source said that at times he looked ‘visibly shaken’ by the reports of intimidation and threats.
Ann Lucas attacked Momentum activists excesses, declaring that the group was like Militant and should be expelled.
Leftwing NEC member Pete Willsman said at one point “I want the party to split, so we can get rid of the Blairites!”
And then Dennis Skinner intervened. He said: “It’s not Momentum you have to worry about. It’s these MPs who are all members of Progress [the ‘Blairite’ modernising group]. That’s the problem in this party. That’s the attack on democracy!”
The full debate of the leadership legal issue was then debated, with each of the 32 members present making a mini-speech. Margaret Beckett had a particularly long contribution, one present said.
After nearly two hours of debate, and five hours into the meeting overall, chairman Lillis called for the vote to be taken.
Ballot papers were distributed, and Corbyn was allowed back in. He voted, standing up as he filled out his ballot paper, before leaving the room again.
Lillis then read out the historic results: 18 votes in favour, 14 votes against. Jeremy Corbyn was automatically on the leadership election ballot.
Union delegates cheered the announcement and banged their tables as it was read out. Leftwinger Pete Willsman couldn’t contain his excitement, one onlooker said.
Corbyn was sent word of the news and he appeared at the doorway of the meeting room, walked in and was greeted with applause. He smiled that characteristically modest smile, before walking out again.
Within seconds, a press release was drafted to avoid the news leaking out, Corbyn then headed down the lift and into the early summer evening to greet the waiting media with his triumph. Another NEC member, Andi Fox, had to leave the marathon meeting too, to get home care for her disabled husband.
Up on the 8th floor, there was one last twist. Finally getting to the main item on the agenda, the NEC discussed a special paper on the leadership timetable and rules.
The NEC voted to freeze the membership eligibility for the contest to January 12, ruling out at a stroke more than 130,000 new members. A short window for ‘registered supporters’, who paid a fee of £25, would open between 18-20 July.
Corbyn supporters countered with amendments of their own, proposing a June 24 cut-off date (the day after the Brexit vote) and a seven-day sign-up period for registered supporters. The NEC heard of how the lack of a freeze date last year had created a huge logistical headache for the party’s Oversight Panel.
Reports of Tories signing up 10 members at a time were common. One NEC member related how local Tories and Lib Dems had taunted them that they had signed up as ‘£3 supporters’ last year - and the party had done nothing about it.
The plan to extend the sign-up period to a week was defeated by a show of hands with 16 votes to 10. The plan to change the freeze date to June 24 was tied, with 14 votes for and against, and as a result fell.
A final vote to charge £25 for registered supporter status to take part in the election was held. It was won by 15 votes to 12.
A timetable for the election was agreed, with a PLP hustings on 18 July and round-the-country hustings over several weeks. The final ballot will close on September 21 and the winner announced in time for the party conference.
A special paper on the leadership contest was discussed and agreed. Passed to HuffPostUK, it included special protection to prevent further intimidation and violence of MPs and members.
“All normal party meetings at CLPs [Constituency Labour Parties] and branch level shall be suspended until the completion of the leadership election,” it ruled.
Only meetings for supporting leadership nominations, campaign planning meetings for by-elections or elected mayors, plus others agreed by the general secretary, will be allowed.
After eight rounds of voting and nearly five and a half hours, it was all over.
When the leader’s office team back in Parliament got the news by text, there was fist-pumping, cheering and hugging. A football chant of ‘Watson, Watson, what’s the score?!’ went up. Bottles of lager and wine were cracked open.
Corbyn himself, meanwhile, had been hugged by wellwishers over the metal barricades set up outside the Labour HQ on the street. He headed off to his Commons office to make a victory video, declaring ‘I’m on the ballot paper!’
He then travelled to Kentish Town for a ‘JC4PM’ rally, where he was greeted like a rock star. His jacket off, he was hugged by Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell.
Both of them knew the fight was on, again. But this time, they believe they can win an even bigger mandate.
On the eve of a new Tory Prime Minister being installed, Corbyn’s critics had hoped this was the beginning of the end of his Labour leadership. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, it may just turn out to be the end of the beginning.
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