Senior Labour MPs are calling on Jeremy Corbyn to “step up his efforts” in the campaign to keep the UK in the European Union amid mounting concern in the party that he is failing to argue the case with sufficient passion.
The group, led by Chris Leslie, the former shadow chancellor, serve a warning that if the Brexit camp wins the referendum on 23 June, Corbyn will be held partly responsible as people on the losing side will ask whether the party leaders “did enough to pull their weight”.
Writing in the Observer, Leslie and the former culture secretary, Ben Bradshaw, along with the former frontbench spokeswoman on Europe, Emma Reynolds, and Labour MP Adrian Bailey, say Corbyn needs to campaign “relentlessly for our EU membership with passion and without equivocation” from now until the vote takes place.
They describe as “worrying” the finding in last weekend’s Opinium/Observer poll that only 47% of people could identify Corbyn as being in favour of continued membership, even though Labour is a solidly pro-EU party. This compares with the 78% who knew David Cameron wanted the country to remain in the EU.
The group imply that elements of the Labour party could use a vote for Brexit as a reason to turn on Corbyn. “If we remain in the European Union, this will be down in no small part to the votes of Labour supporters, something for which our party can legitimately take much of the credit,” they say.
“But if the British public vote to leave the EU, we will only have ourselves to blame – and many will naturally ask whether leaders of our main political parties did enough to pull their weight.
“The fate of our country’s future isn’t just in the hands of the prime minister, but also [in the hands of] the leader of the Labour party. We need Jeremy to convey that urgency and set out with force the issues at stake. The time is now for Labour’s leadership to stand up and not to stand by.”
Many Labour MPs believe Corbyn, who voted against continued membership of the European Community in 1975 when he was a councillor in Haringey, north London, still has serious reservations and fails to speak with passion about the EU because he is sympathetic to the longstanding view on the left that it is too much of a “rich man’s club”.
Labour sources said last night that Corbyn will make a major intervention in the EU debate towards the end of this week, reiterating his view that UK membership is important, and coupling this with messages that it needs to become more democratic and do more to strengthen workers’ rights. They denied that he had been too quiet in the debate so far. “We would say he has given these speeches already,” said one.
The four Labour MPs say, however, that the odd intervention will not be enough and that the issue should be the “overriding priority for our political leadership” between now and referendum day. At times during the campaign for the party leadership last summer Corbyn appeared less than enthusiastic about the EU.
More recently, Labour eurosceptics have taunted him for abandoning what they say is his “natural and historic” opposition to the EU, after he made it clear he would support the Remain camp.
Labour MP Kate Hoey said in January: “We were joined on many occasions over the last 20-odd years in the lobby when we were doing our bit to oppose the various treaties and issues which were furthering EU domination of our country. Jeremy was always with us and John McDonnell was always with us.”
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