The two rivals for the Labour leadership have set out their positions on the opening weekend of their campaigns, with the rhetoric of both men suggesting that it will be a bloody fight.
Jeremy Corbyn told an audience in Salford that he symbolised a break from Labour’s past of equivocating about helping the most vulnerable in society, while rejecting the concerns of 80% of his fellow MPs who say that they have lost confidence in his leadership.
He also insisted there was no place for abuse in the Labour party, after 44 women MPs wrote to him to urge him to take action over the bullying and intimidation they faced.
“We have to be very disciplined. As I have made it very, very clear many times before, I don’t do any personal abuse of anybody at any time. None of that has any place in our party or our movement,” he said.
“I know people are angry about actions that have been taken but where we have disagreement in our party we settle it through democratic means - no coups, no intimidation, no abuse.”
Speaking on the same platform, his ally Richard Burgon, the shadow justice secretary, said: “I am not, and others are not, going to stand by and see every single one of you portrayed as the striking miners were, as thugs, brick-throwers, bullies and misogynists,” he said to cheers from the packed audience at the Lowry theatre.
In a lower-key event in Catford, south London, Owen Smith spoke to some 100 women alongside a former deputy leader of the Labour party, Harriet Harman. He vowed to root out the misogyny that he claimed had become rife during the nine months of Corbyn’s reign.
Smith said Labour was “teetering on the brink of extinction” and that the political arena had become a “bear pit” since Corbyn’s election last September. “It is under Jeremy… that we have seen an upsurge in the volume of misogynistic and antisemitic abuse, and all sorts of utterly unacceptable abuse on the internet and in person,” he said.
“It is just unacceptable. My wife stood recently for a community councillor position in our village in south Wales and was subject to a torrent of online abuse. A community council position. What are we doing? What are we doing as a country when women can be discouraged from putting their name forward because of the sense … that they are entering a bear pit?”
Smith said he would form a task force to tackle the rise in thuggery and sexism. “It’s not enough for a leader to just offer warm words, we need action,” he said. “Which is why if I am elected, in the first week I’ll … put in place a high-level task force to bring forward firm recommendations for rooting out misogyny. It will be made up of women from across our movement, young members, councillors, longstanding activists, MPs.”
Smith faces a challenge in persuading Labour members that he should replace Corbyn less than a year after his election. The latest Opinium/Observer poll shows 54% of Labour supporters saying they back Corbyn to win the leadership against 22% who prefer Smith.
While a majority of Labour supporters (54%) say they approve of Corbyn’s performance as leader, against 26% who disapprove, just 16% of all voters think he would make the best PM, against 51% who say they would prefer Theresa May.
Writing for the Observer, former Labour home secretary David Blunkett warns that the party will be “finished” if large numbers of those voting in the contest take the view that “this is about Jeremy” rather than Labour’s electability and the future of the country.
“In this surreal moment, with the capture of the Labour party by those whose whole life and raison d’être is opposition (even to the policies of the party they lead), enter left-stage, Momentum, we face annihilation,” he said. “Here we have the vanguard. Not, of course, the proletariat but the middle class, often educated, potentially protected from the consequences of their actions, sometimes in comfortable retirement.”
Blunkett criticises Corbyn for failing to do more to stamp out thuggery and intimidation among those who back him. He writes: “Jeremy is not one of those, and most of those following him are not either. But willing or otherwise, they condone and therefore carry responsibility for not taking on those forces.”
At his speech in Salford yesterday, Corbyn appeared to appeal to his supporters to calm their behaviour, although he also made another swipe at the MPs who want him out. “We have to be disciplined,” Corbyn said. “I make it clear today, as I have made it clear many times before. I don’t do personal abuse. I don’t respond to personal abuse. It has no place in our party.
“I know some people are angry at the actions of some MPs, but where we have disagreement in the Labour party we settle it through democratic means. Not coups, not intimidation, and not abuse.”
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