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Impromptu in Corbynia - Islington Labour debates leadership race

Passion versus pragmatism on leader's home turf

Outside a dusty church hall, just minutes from leader Jeremy Corbyn’s Islington home, hundreds are queuing to get into a constituency Labour party meeting.

For many in the party, this would be seen as a success in itself – the very fact of a hundreds of turning out for a meeting in a dusty basement hall on a balmy evening more suited for the garden or the pub shows the progress that has been made. And all quite last minute too.

Since January, 1,600 people have joined the party in Islington North, a constituency with an electorate of about 68,000.

Due to the continuing controversy over who is and is not eligible to vote in the leadership election, new members were only informed of this meeting, in which the constituency party expresses its preference for Labour leader, the day before.

Nonetheless, the queue started to form 90 minutes before the meeting was due to start, and the 230-capacity room was filled well before the meeting: those too late to make it in were invited to cast their ballots outside. As the voting was explained, one woman asked, suspicion in her voice, how we knew the ballot boxes were empty, leading to the bizarre sight of party scrutineers carrying upside-down ballot boxes through the crowd so anyone who wanted to could check.

The meeting format is simple: advocates for Jeremy Corbyn and challenger Owen Smith are invited to make the case for their preferred leader in turn: first up is Alastair. Alastair tells us he left the Labour party in 1996, due to the policies of Tony Blair and before him Neil Kinnock. Blair’s new Labour had been “Margaret Thatcher’s greatest achievement”, he says, and Jeremy Corbyn offered a chance to overturn that. What’s more, Corbyn has opposed war in Syria, and he was against Trident. Huge applause.

Now it was time for a pro-Smith voice. Up rose Neale Coleman, until January, Jeremy Corbyn’s head of policy. Coleman put it plainly: having worked with Corbyn, he now felt he was not the right man to lead the country. Coleman urged the room to watch the Vice News documentary on Corbyn The Outsider, which Corbyn’s team had “stupidly” allowed to be made, to get a sense of the chaos inside Corbyn’s camp. Smith, he believed, was better placed to deliver a radical economic policy, in line with the ideas proposed by shadow chancellor John McDonnell. Failure to support Smith as leader would result in Labour’s greatest electoral defeat since 1931. Coleman sat down, to polite clapping.

On it went: a disability campaigner pointed to Smith’s abstention on the second reading of the Welfare Bill, (which was the party line at the time, but Smith has nonetheless said he regrets), and claimed that Smith had told a disabled person that he would not overturn disability cuts because it would mean looking weak in the media.

A pro-Smith speaker, Helena, said that Smith had led the fight to defend Personal Independence Payments, arguing “there is no right wing candidate in this debate”, and that it was not loyal to the party to continue supporting Corbyn’s leadership.

Back and forth, politely enough, the pro-Smith speakers generally clearing their throats with a “Jeremy’s a nice man, but...”, or “Jeremy’s a great constituency MP, but...”, while Corbyn supporters continued with talk of neoliberalism, the welfare bill, Trident. One speaker appeared to suggest that the entire parliamentary Labour party were neoliberal zealots, dead set against socialism.

Then a speaker rose to tackle the contention that Corbyn is “unelectable”. This, he said, was because no one was “electable” in Britain without the support of Rupert Murdoch and the Israeli ambassador. Half the room gasped; the chair visibly cringed, and ordered the speaker to proceed very carefully. The speaker contended that anyone who stood up for Palestinians was “smeared” as an anti-Semite. Everyone was very glad when he sat down.

A young Scottish man complained about Labour’s abysmal performance in the Scottish parliamentary elections. “We need to appeal to people beyond this room, beyond the M25.” “Rubbish” came the response.

Christian Wolmar, one-time London mayoral hopeful, said Corbyn had let working people down by not campaigning vigorously for a remain vote in the EU referendum: a woman who said she had headed the Islington North Stronger In campaign said it had been impossible to get Corbyn to work with her: he had joined her team only once, at 6pm on the night of the vote.

A young woman stood to say that a year ago she would never have thought of going to a political meeting. Now, thanks to Corbyn, all her family were Labour members. Kaya Comer-Schwartz, a Labour councillor, urged the party to rally behind Corbyn and stay united. A young Irish woman warned that Corbyn’s views on Northern Ireland were out of step with those of the majority of people on the island, and would be used against him.

A woman rose nervously to talk about anti-Semitism in the party, referring to the early speaker’s “Israeli ambassador” line. She found herself barracked by some of the audience for conflating anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism, others responded in support.

The chair was relieved to point out that was the last contribution of the evening. Ballots were taken, though going on a simple clapometer basis, the result was never in doubt. When it came later that night, Corbyn had beaten Smith, 266 to 100, for Islington North CLP’s supporting nomination.

Corbyn’s supporters are still passionate, and most of all defensive, about their man: attempts to pin responsibility for failures on him, even by people who knew him, were derided. Meanwhile, the Smith supporters more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger stance was not getting through, but it’s difficult to see what other approach could win over members. While last night’s meeting was carried out in comradely fashion for the most part, reconciliation seems very far away.

Padraig Reidy is the editor of Little Atoms. He is Director of Editorial at 89up and has written and ghostwritten for The Evening Standard, The Guardian, The Observer, The Irish Times, The Daily Telegraph, The New Statesman, The Sun, and The Irish Post.