Jeremy Corbyn has said he cannot envisage the circumstances in which he would campaign against Britain staying in Europe as he battled to maintain shadow cabinet unity across a range of policy issues.
In a round of television interviews following his first appearance at prime minister’s question time, Labour’s new leader sought to clarify his positions following public disagreements over welfare policy, the singing of the national anthem and Northern Ireland, as well as Europe.
Asked if he could see a situation in which Labour campaigned for a British exit from the European Union if the prime minister negotiated a bad deal, Corbyn said in a BBC interview: “No, I don’t see that position because I think we are going to be working with trade unions and social groups all across Europe as well as social groups in this country.
“What I was opposed to is the idea David Cameron could give to give up workers’ rights and environmental rights. Europe has an interesting twin track up until Maastricht, signed in 1992, there was a growth in the social Europe. Post-Maastricht, it has been a free market approach. I want to see something different”.
Labour under Ed Miliband supported the UK’s continued membership of Europe, but Corbyn’s policy has been less clear. One former shadow cabinet member voiced concerns that “Corbyn is going to set an impossible bar for a successful negotiation and then next year when he feels stronger impose an anti-European policy. We need clarity now”.
Corbyn’s media round came after a novel, and largely successful performance at PMQs, which acted as a firebreak against early criticisms over his leadership style. He asked a series of low-key questions on housing, mental health and welfare drawn from nearly 40,000 emails and suggestions sent to him by the public. “Many told me they thought prime minister’s question time was too theatrical, that parliament was out of touch and too theatrical and they wanted things done differently, but above all they wanted their voice heard in parliament,” Corbyn said.
Some MPs believe voters will warm to the serious and untheatrical tone, but others feared the format would allow Cameron to evade scrutiny. The prime minister allowed himself to be drawn into Corbyn’s format, saying the event amounted to “a more genuine exercise in asking questions and answering questions”.
Corbyn also clarified his position on welfare, telling Channel 4 that he wanted the party to oppose the government’s benefits cap of £20,000 a year outside London, saying it had led to social cleansing in cities. But he accepted that welfare spending would have to be kept within the government envelope of £120bn.
He said: “The policy is that we work within the total budget of £120bn. My proposal, which the party will have to discuss – and they will – is that we should not impose the current benefit cap.” But he accepted he would have to “live with it” if his opposition to the cap was rejected by the party. “I am a democrat,” he said.
However, Owen Smith, the shadow work and pensions secretary, contradicted him, telling the Guardian that the question of opposing the whole benefits cap was not agreed and that it was only under review. “We remain in favour of a mechanism that allows us to have some constraints on how much families can draw down,” he said.
Also on Wednesday, the shadow Northern Ireland secretary, Vernon Coaker, disassociated himself from remarks by the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, honouring the heroism of leading figures in the IRA. Coaker has met senior figures in the Democratic Unionists party to promise a bipartisan approach will be retained despite the Irish Republican politics of Corbyn and McDonnell.
The Labour leader returned to the row about whether he should have sung the national anthem at a commemoration service for the Battle of Britain on Tuesday. He said that he would attend many similar events where he would “take part fully”. Corbyn’s aides said that this meant he would not repeat his decision not to sing God Save the Queen in public. Corbyn added: “Of course I love this country but I want this country to be a social country and a just country”.
He rejected suggestions that he was simply not up to the job. “I would not be doing this if I did not think I was able to do it,” he said. “I do have to cope and I will cope”.
Although Corbyn made clear he wanted to give party conference a greater role in deciding party policy, which would almost certainly see a shift to the left, he tried to give the impression he was a conciliator. He said: “I have been elected to lead the party. I want to take people with me. My whole default position is one of the discussion and persuasion. You are assuming I am going to dictate everything”.
In the short term, Corbyn faces a difficult piece of party management as the GMB union disclosed it would be tabling a motion to the Labour conference in a fortnight’s time that calls for the party to campaign to leave the EU if Cameron negotiates a watering down of any workers’ rights in the UK. The GMB motion is likely to be accepted for debate and suggests there will be a struggle between the pro-European and more Eurosceptic wings of the party.
Europe is probably the single issue that could lead to further resignations from the frontbench, or even resignations of the party whip, and Corbyn is clearly treading a delicate line to keep the party together.
He openly acknowledged the divisions, saying: “We are having discussions to sort this question out I want to see a socially coherent Europe and not a free market Europe. That is a developing position. It is not a problem there will be very clear statements coming out in the very near future.”
Corbyn started making appointments to his personal office, with of the recruitment as Labour’s head of policy and rebuttal of Neale Coleman, who played a key role at the Greater London authority during the successful London 2012 Olympics bid
This article was written by Patrick Wintour and Amelia Gentleman, for theguardian.com on Wednesday 16th September 2015 22.03 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010