Jeremy Corbyn must be “bolder and braver” in making the case for immigration in the UK if he is to win over Labour voters to the cause of remaining in the EU, according to the boss of one of Britain’s biggest unions.
Tim Roache, who took over as general secretary of the GMB earlier this year and is a key Corbyn backer, told the Guardian he was concerned the Labour leader was being “mealy mouthed” about the issue that he said was front and centre for many voters.
Urging Corbyn to show leadership, the union leader said: “We have to confront the real issues in the minds of working people, and whether we like it or not, that is immigration and the free movement of labour.
“I think Labour needs to be a bit more bold, it needs to be a bit more brave, in taking on the issues in working people’s minds, rather than keeping silent about them, and I think that’s what Labour’s done for too long.”
Immigration has been at the heart of the referendum debate, with senior pro-Brexit Conservatives including Priti Patel and Michael Gove signing a pledge on Tuesday to introduce an Australian-style points system to control who comes to Britain from the EU – a policy David Cameron said could “crash the economy”.
Corbyn will deliver a speech on Thursday in which he will focus on the EU’s role in underpinning workers’ rights, such as paid holiday and maternity leave. He will argue that Conservative advocates of a vote to leave would like to destroy the protections offered by the EU.
Speaking at the Institute of Engineering and Technology in London, Corbyn will say: “Several leave supporters have stated clearly they want to leave Europe to water down workers’ rights, to rip up the protections that protect work-life balance, that prevent discrimination and prevent exploitation and injustice.
“That is why we say, the threat to the British people is not the European Union – it is a Conservative government here in Britain, seeking to undermine the good things we have achieved in Europe and resisting changes that would benefit the ordinary people of Britain.”
Corbyn has refused to share a platform with the prime minister during the closely-fought referendum campaign, fearing it would tarnish Labour in the eyes of voters, after the party was punished for collaborating with the government in opposing Scottish independence.
His closest lieutenant, John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, criticised the new mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, for appearing alongside Cameron earlier this week.
But the Britain Stronger in Europe campaign, which is being closely coordinated from Downing Street, is keen for Corbyn’s voice to be heard amid fears that Labour voters could stay at home on 23 June, seeing the campaign as predominantly one about a divide in the Conservative party.
Roache said he would like to hear the Labour leader making the positive argument for immigration. “These people don’t come here to sit on their backsides and claim benefits, they come here to work,” he said. “It’s alright when people’s children are being taught by economic migrants, or when people’s parents are being looked after in hospital by economic migrants.”
A longstanding GMB staffer, who joined at the age of 17, Roache said he had supported Corbyn’s candidacy for the Labour leadership because he represented a different approach from other politicians in the party who no longer looked or sounded like the workers they professed to represent.
But he said that Corbyn must “put his head above the parapet” if he wants to win over a wider range of supporters, including within his own party.
In his interview, Roache also:
- Called for new laws to prevent unscrupulous employers using cut-price workers from other EU member states to undercut British staff.
- Insisted Corbyn must whip Labour MPs to back the renewal of Trident if the Conservatives call a vote on the issue over the summer.
- Warned that the party must be ready to fight a snap general election much sooner than 2020 if the EU referendum further destabilises the Conservative party.
The union boss criticised Labour MPs who have persistently and publicly criticised Corbyn’s leadership since he took over last year, saying some of them should “hang their heads in shame”. But he also sent a warning to the team around the Labour leader that they must avoid looking inward.
“He’s been under siege by his own people almost from the get go, and that’s very disappointing,” he said. “However, I think that’s probably created a bit of a bunker mentality, that is a bit concerning.”
Roache said it was impossible to avoid “personality politics” and the focus of the media on politicians’ appearance, which has seen Corbyn criticised in some parts of the press for his style of dress.
But the union leader said it was possible to overcome that, saying: “What Jeremy needs to do is not shave his beard off or put a tie on, he needs to reach out more; he needs to be a bit more confident, he needs to put his head above the parapet and say: ‘This is what I offer you if you get behind me.’ That’s the leadership experience that he needs to gain and he needs to gain pretty quickly.
“The GMB are behind him; but we do need to start seeing results,” he said, adding: “We need to start connecting with the public at large, in terms of what Labour stands for and what its messages are.”
Labour lost a net 18 council seats at last month’s local elections, and edged ahead of the Conservatives on share of the vote – a performance which was regarded with relief by some in Corbyn’s inner circle, but which raised questions about whether the party is on track to win a general election in 2020.
The GMB has 640,000 members and is the third-largest Labour-affiliated union. Roache, who succeeded Paul Kenny in the job of general secretary in March, was elected on a platform of modernising the GMB to reach out to younger workers in insecure, temporary jobs.
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