Margaret Hodge and Ann Coffey have written to the chair of the parliamentary Labour party, John Cryer, asking for “urgent consideration” of their leader’s position after MPs were left stunned by the country’s vote to leave the EU in defiance of the party’s official position.
MPs from across the political spectrum said they were ready to back the move that would first trigger a show of hands at a PLP meeting this Monday, or next, before a secret ballot. Other coup plans are also thought to be in train, as devastated MPs accuse their leader of running a lacklustre campaign.
But a Labour spokesman hit back, describing the move as “self-indulgent” in the face of Britain making a “momentous decision”.
And leaders of Britain’s biggest trade unions also moved to quell a leadership challenge with a letter that said there was a Tory leadership crisis, and this was time for “politicians to come together for the common good”. The group, including Len McCluskey, Dave Prentis and Tim Roache, wrote that Labour needed to offer unity and focus on jobs and workers’ rights.
On Friday, Corbyn faced his top team during a “sombre and serious” shadow cabinet meeting that started at 10am and lasted for almost three hours. A number of frontbenchers questioned whether Labour had done enough in its heartlands to bring out its traditional vote. Some voiced their frustration at their leader’s decision not to enter the fray earlier. The leader did not respond to repeated requests to put forward new proposals on immigration, although he will make a speech on Saturday to address the issue.
Some MPs are determined to oust the leader, with one saying it would be damaging to go into a general election under his leadership. But there is a big divide in the party, with some potential leadership hopefuls warning that it would be better to let Corbyn lose an election before he is challenged. They fear that any coup attempt would fail.
Meanwhile, the leader’s allies said he was relaxed and confident. They insist his sceptical tone throughout the referendum, and refusal to share a platform with the prime minister, more closely reflected the public’s feelings than the “rah-rah Europe” approach of some of his colleagues.
But the party is reeling from the fact that voters in areas that have traditionally voted Labour, including those in Sunderland, South Tyneside and Swansea, swung heavily behind Brexit.
Corbyn, a long-time Eurosceptic, defended his conduct in the campaign amid criticisms that he offered no more than lukewarm support for remain, blaming government austerity cuts for alienating voters.
“A lot of the message that has come back from this is that many communities are fed up with cuts, they are fed up with economic dislocation and feel very angry at the way they have been betrayed and marginalised by successive governments in very poor areas of the country,” he said. “The point I was making was there were good things that had come from Europe in working conditions and environmental protections but there were other issues that had not been addressed properly.”
Some remain-supporting sources within the party accused the leader’s closest team, including aides Andrew Fisher, Seumas Milne and James Meadway, of trying to sabotage the party’s EU efforts. In a series of documents handed to the Guardian, including copies of Corbyn’s agenda throughout the campaign period, they illustrate that he had limited EU events, and claim he dropped pro-EU sections from speeches.
One said an early request for a meeting between the leader and chair of Labour In For Britain, Alan Johnson, took months to set up, while another said Fisher wrote an early speech that was more negative than positive about the EU.
A further source on the Labour campaign argued that shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, vetoed planned interventions by the shadow chief secretary, Seema Malhotra, warning about the impact on sterling, although others said that was because they simply wanted to avoid “project fear”.
And an insider in the leader’s office said Meadway once said openly that he thought McDonnell should be campaigning for Brexit and encouraged him to avoid Labour In For Britain events. Milne was accused of removing pro-EU lines from a speech at the offices of energy company Ecotricity in the south-west, and of failing to provide pro-EU quotes for journalists.
John Mann, the MP for Bassetlaw who came out to back leave in the final weeks of the campaign, said the party was paying the price for ignoring the concerns of working-class people on issues such as immigration. “Labour has gone wrong by not being in touch with its voters, I’ve been saying this for the last 10 years in relation to immigration and free movement of labour,” he said.
Hodge told the Guardian she thought union leaders had shown themselves to be out of touch with the views of their own members. “This has been a tumultuous referendum which has been a test of leadership,” she said. “Jeremy has failed that test. There will be a series of incredibly important decisions and negotiations with the EU over the next few year. Are we really saying that we send Jeremy Corbyn on our behalf? Does he have the necessary qualities? There is probably going to be a general election within a year. Do we want Jeremy Corbyn to lead us in to that election?”
A source close to the leader said: “Jeremy Corbyn and his team worked hard for the Labour in campaign. Jeremy made numerous appearance, countless speeches and a host of statements and ended up being the politician closest to the tone of the nation. The motivation of individuals making the allegations is questionable.”
This article was written by Anushka Asthana and Rajeev Syal, for theguardian.com on Friday 24th June 2016 17.42 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010