Labour MPs who want Jeremy Corbyn to be toppled are Conservative Party “sleeper” agents and the decision to suspend local party meetings in the face of threats to MPs is a “smear campaign” against the party leader, a rally organised to support him has heard.
On Wednesday evening Corbyn was the surprise guest an “emergency” event in central-London called to support his campaign to fight off the leadership challenge from former shadow cabinet minister Owen Smith.
Corbyn told the rally he did not want to “get in the gutter with anybody” during the campaign even if it got ugly.
Shadow justice secretary Richard Burgon said Labour MPs who wanted a new leader were not bothered if they “offend Labour Party members” because they want Corbyn supporters to leave the party.
While shadow health secretary Diane Abbott said Corbyn and his family had taken a “battering” from the media and “sadly from some Labour MPs”.
And Christine Shawcross, a member of Labour’s National Executive Committee (NEC), dismissed suggestions former Labour leadership candidate Angela Eagle had been threatened by Labour supporters who disagreed with her politics.
The audience of around 200 people booed mentions of Tony Blair, current Labour deputy leader Tom Watson, Eagle and Smith.
Former Labour MP Chris Williamson told the central-London rally, organised by Momentum and Labour Against Austerity, that sitting Labour MPs were like characters from a “spy drama”.
“What’s so sickening, so disgusting, is 172 MPs having been conspiring, conniving together to stop this incredibly popular, common-sense, sensible moderate, agenda from getting into the mainstream media because they have been focused on trying to undermine and destabilise Jeremy’s leadership from day one,” he said.
Williamson, who was MP for Derby North from 2010 until 2015, said it was “as if these people were put into the Labour Party by Lynton Crosby 30 years ago precisely for this moment when we get a socialist leader of the Labour Party, when the Tory party are in meltdown, when the country is in crisis, that is the moment to active the sleepers, to wreak as much havoc as they possibly can to let the Tories off the hook”.
He added: “Make no mistake. What these 172 Labour MPs have done is to declare civil war on the Labour Party membership.”
Crosby was David Cameron’s campaign strategist who was widely credited with masterminding the former prime minister’s surprise 2015 general election victory. Williamson’s comments were a reference to similar comparisons made in a column he wrote for The Morning Star.
The former MP added that Corbyn was a “great white knight [who] came to the rescue” following years of neoliberal consensus between Labour and the Conservative Party.
Williamson lost his seat in 2015 to the Conservatives by a narrow 41 votes - a loss he put down to leftwing voters switching to the Green Party. He told the rally if Corbyn had been leader rather than Ed Miliband he would have been reelected with “a thumping big majority”.
On Wednesday afternoon it was revealed some 183,000 people have applied to join Labour as registered supporters in a bid to vote in the party’s leadership election.
The contest is expected to be hard fought. The party suspended all local party meetings until the high-stakes campaign amid increased reports MPs facing abuse. Yesterday Eagle’s entire local party was suspended over allegations of homophobic bullying and abuse.
However Shawcross told the pro-Corbyn rally the decision taken by the NEC, of which she is a member, was wrong. “This business about how how dangerous these meetings are all of a sudden, this is a deliberate smear campaign against Jeremy Corbyn,” she said.
“Not only do we hear all about the death threats which are nothing to do with anyone in the Labour Party, you know, bricks through windows, which actually did not go through Angela Eagle’s constituency office window at all, it went through a shared stairwell in an office block which is used by five or six other organisations, that looks more like a bodged break in than anything else.”
Last week Eagle’s Wallasey office called in the police after a window in the building was smashed by a brick shortly after she announced her bid to replace Corbyn as leader. The former shadow business secretary stepped aside from the leadership race on Tuesday in order to support Smith.
This is a deliberate smear campaign against Jeremy Corbyn Labour NEC member Christine Shawcross
Shawcross questioned the motivation behind cancelling local meetings given the NEC had ruled there could be “exceptions”.
“You can have meetings to discuss annual conference business, if you’ve got a council by-election you can have meeting to organise for that, so what I want to know is, if people can get away from those meetings with their lives, why can’t you just have normal meetings?” she told the rally.
Burgon, a close ally of Corbyn, urged Labour members not to quit the party even if Smith won the leadership election. “What they are trying to do now is hold the Labour Party membership to ransom, that’s why they are saying Jeremy is elected the wont serve,” he said of MPs who were backing Smith.
“They are not bothered if they offend Labour Party members. Some of them want to offend Labour Party members. And the reason is quite clear, they want every single Labour Party member who supported us, who supported Jeremy Corbyn, to leave the Labour Party,” he said.
Burgon said Labour MPs who had passed a vote of no confidence in Corbyn did had hoped to put pressure on him to resign rather than stand in any contest - an approach he was was “the most undemocratic and offensive way possible” to change leader.
“These are threats designed to demoralise the Labour MPs who support Jeremy, there are threats designed to drive Labour Party members into the desperation of turning their back on what they want to support, which is anti-austerity leadership under Jeremy.”
He added: “I don’t believe socialists should give into threats, I don’t believe we should give into parliamentary bullies”.
On Thursday morning, Corbyn will formally launch his leadership campaign with a promise a crackdown on firms who fail to pay people equally.
The under-pressure leader will use a speech launching the defence of his leadership to confront “five ills head on”, listing them as inequality, neglect, insecurity, prejudice and discrimination.