Jez we did: the day Labour was hit by a political earthquake

Jeremy Corbyn At Stand

After a startled-looking Jeremy Corbyn fought his way through supporters cheering “Jez we can” and waving placards saying “I voted Jeremy”, he was escorted immediately up to the third floor of the QEII Centre in Westminster.

In what was named the “candidates room”, just before 10am, he was joined first by Liz Kendall, then by Yvette Cooper and finally by Andy Burnham.

All four were told to hand over their phones and iPads to party officials, and for 40 agonising minutes had to chat among themselves, locked away with no contact with the outside world. Each had been told they could bring one person with them, their campaign manager or agent. Corbyn’s agent, the MP John McDonnell, said the conversation roamed freely as butterflies multiplied in their stomachs. “We talked about the campaign and about our families. It was incredibly friendly.”

But having seen each other at 35 hustings since June, and often travelled together on trains, the small talk was a strain.

Then, at 10.40am, party general secretary Iain McNicol entered the room, clasping a folder holding the results. Everyone took deep breaths. “Wow!” said McDonnell as McNicol revealed that Corbyn had won almost 60% of first preference votes and just under 50% of those of full party members.

It was a stunning outcome for Corbyn, and a terrible one for every one of his challengers. The leftwinger Corbyn, the man seen as a no-hoper three months ago, had trounced his rivals among the three sections eligible to vote: the full members, registered supporters and affiliated supporters. “Afterwards we all just hugged each other,” McDonnell said.

Corbyn accepted the congratulations of the others calmly, but said he was stunned, particularly by the support for him from full members. Among this group, he secured just under 50% of the total vote, more than double the number polled by his nearest rival, Burnham. “I was predicted to be struggling in the membership but we didn’t struggle in the end,” Corbyn told the Observer later. “It is a huge mandate and I think that is what is important about this. It is a mandate for the issues that I have put forward during the election and a mandate for new democracy in the party.”

Down in the hall, party delegates and the press were waiting. First Jim Kennedy, chairman of Labour’s national executive council, came on stage to announce the figures for the deputy leadership, won after three rounds of voting by Tom Watson. But the result everyone really wanted was the leadership contest. Watson’s acceptance speech kept everyone on edge, but also contained hints about what was coming next. “To those who say we cannot win the next election in 2020 I say watch this space! To the Tories I say watch your backs! People are sick of the old politics. Even some in our own party are sick of the old way of doing things,” Watson said.

It sounded like Corbyn had done it, triumphing over those who were associated with Labour’s old politics, like Burnham and Cooper. Corbyn’s aides were not told the result in advance but picked up signals as rumours swept the hall. They, and not the press helpers for Burnham or Cooper or Kendall, were being taken aside to be briefed by staff in the building about what to do afterwards, and where.

“It was pretty clear to me we had done it,” said one Corbyn aide. “We kind of knew it. We were being organised and the others weren’t.” McNicol then came on stage.

The figures for Burnham were disappointing, for Cooper even more so, and for Kendall tiny. It was Corbyn by a mile. Roars went up in parts of the hall, but in other corners and rows people sat stony-faced. One MP from the right of the party looked at his shoes and grimaced. A Labour-supporting journalist just shook his head over and over. Some delegates leapt to their feet and their shouts of “Jez we did” replaced the campaign theme of “Jez we can”.

Corbyn’s acceptance speech was well received but lacked the polish of his recent predecessors as Labour leader. A long section was committed to thanking the unions for their support. History was made without much fanfare, rather like the whole Corbyn campaign and the man himself. There was no stirring rhetoric. Corbyn promised to lead a party that was “more inclusive, more democratic” and said his campaign had re-energised a young generation of people who had been written off as non-political.

John Prescott stayed behind, leaning back in a chair, trying to digest the result. There was no sign of former Labour leaders, no Tony Blair, Gordon Brown or Ed Miliband. Union leaders were triumphant. Dave Prentis of Unison said Labour, having turned left, now had a hope of winning once more. “Jeremy has rejuvenated us again with a message of hope.” Leslie McCallum, a delegate from Unite, said Corbyn could win the next election for Labour because “people take to him”. “He talks to them and he says he can’t get everything right but he will do his best and people think he’s the kind of person they can understand.”

Corbyn had arrived as hot favourite but his people knew the critics would cast doubt on his victory if his vote was too concentrated among new £3 members and affiliates encouraged to join by the unions. It wasn’t. It was a victory across the whole party. “That is the important thing,” said one union official. “That is the stunning thing. He won in the entire party.”

Those who had said that they would refuse to serve in his frontbench team may have to think again because he is the party’s genuine choice. Some clearly are already doing so.

Former minister and arch-Blairite Liam Byrne indicated when he arrived at the conference that he would serve if asked. That would be a big tent indeed.

Corbyn summed up the result, saying it was: “Amazing. It is the start of something very different in the Labour party.”

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Toby Helm, for The Observer on Saturday 12th September 2015 21.02 Europe/London

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