Allies of Jeremy Corbyn are so nervous that he could face a leadership challenge by rebel Labour MPs that they are proposing a series of changes to party rules to ensure he is guaranteed a place on the ballot paper.
The rule changes have been tabled by the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy (CLPD) as rebels launch what is describe as an “Australian strategy” to mount a series of coups against the party leader in the way that the former Australian prime minister Julia Gillard was hounded from office.
There is concern among Corbyn supporters that a poor showing in elections in May could lead to attempts to unseat him. The leaders of the newly formed Labour movement Momentum have said they are ready to defend him against any challenge and plan to use their volunteer base to try to make a difference in marginal council seats.
Meanwhile, in a move to shore up Corbyn’s position, and to discourage the media from suggesting he could be “replaced in a coup”, the CLPD’s draft rules call for the leader to be placed on the ballot paper if he signals in writing his intention to stand in a fresh election.
Corbyn’s supporters in the CLPD also suggests that the rules should be changed to ensure that the left would effectively be guaranteed a place on the ballot if Corbyn stands down or is overthrown.
The draft rules propose a dramatic lowering of the nomination threshold in a leadership contest from 15% of Labour MPs and MEPs to 5%. Corbyn only just managed to meet the threshold last year – he secured the support of 36 out of the necessary 35 MPs – after a series of parliamentarians said they would “lend” him their vote to ensure that the left had a voice in the debate about the future of the Labour party.
The move to ensure Corbyn will be given a place on the ballot paper in the event of a leadership challenge comes as Labour MPs hoping to oust him sharpen their knives. One idea under consideration is being dubbed the “Australian strategy”, named after the relentless pushes (known as “spills”) against Gillard, who was eventually replaced by her predecessor, Kevin Rudd.
The draft rule changes, tabled by the veteran CLPD secretary and Labour national executive committee member Peter Willsman, highlight nerves among Corbyn supporters that the rebels could secure the numbers to mount a leadership challenge. There are concerns on the left that if 20% of Labour MPs – the required threshold – trigger a leadership ballot there is uncertainty in the current rules about whether Corbyn would be allowed to put his name on the ballot.
The two main changes proposed by Willsman would mean that if a leadership ballot is triggered, the leader (or deputy leader if a contest is held for that post) “will be automatically included on the ballot paper if they inform the general secretary in writing they wish to be a candidate in the election”.
In a note explaining the need for a change, Willsman wrote: “Unfortunately, the lack of precise clarity in the way the rule is written is exploited by hostile media speculation claiming that a challenge can be mounted against our current leader Jeremy Corbyn with him excluded from the ballot paper.
“Labour needs its rule book to be clear to ordinary people. Also, in the event of a leadership challenge, it would not help the party if it ends up in court having to argue over the meaning of our rules. Establishing clarity on this rule would discourage media stories that the leader can be replaced in a coup and assist the party in uniting to fight our political opponents. The purpose of this rule change is simply to tidy up the existing rule.”
If a vacancy arises for leader or deputy leader, any candidate hoping to stand for election “must be supported by 5% of the combined Commons members of the PLP and members of the EPLP [European parliamentary Labour party]. Nominations not attaining this threshold shall be null and void.” In his note, Willsman added that Corbyn only made the ballot in 2015, as Diane Abbott did in 2010, after Labour MPs lent them their vote. He writes that this is unlikely to happen again, which means that a candidate who could secure up to 60% of the membership vote (the size of Corbyn’s vote) could find it impossible to make the ballot.
Willsman wrote: “Since Jeremy’s election as leader, several MPs have indicated they will not again nominate to help widen the party’s choice. That potentially means, under the current rule, that a candidate who perhaps has the support of 5% of MPs and MEPs, but also would be the choice of 60% of Labour party members, affiliated supporters and registered supporters, could be denied a place on the ballot paper. It is undemocratic for MPs and MEPs to have powers to so tightly restrict the range of candidates running in a leadership election.”
The proposed changes, published on the CLPD website, are being distributed to constituency Labour parties (CLPs) with a note from Willsman encouraging them to submit them as a rule change for this year’s annual Labour conference.
He also proposes changes to make it easier for the left to table motions at the Labour conference after Corbyn failed in a bid to table a contemporary motion on Trident. He also proposes giving affiliated organisations and party branches a greater say in the selection of Labour MPs.
This article was written by Nicholas Watt Chief political correspondent, for theguardian.com on Tuesday 8th March 2016 17.19 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010