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14 September 2015

Corbyn refuses to back EU membership at muted PLP meeting

Labour leader did not receive the traditional welcome for a newly-elected head.

By George Eaton

There was none of the desk-banging that one might expect a newly-elected Labour leader to be greeted with when Jeremy Corbyn addressed the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) for the first time tonight. Instead, Corbyn was greeted by a painful silence. This, of course, is unsurprising. Though he won the leadership election by a landslide (59.9 per cent), Corbyn did so with the support of just 14 MPs. The best that he could manage was some moderate applause when he praised Harriet Harman, Ed Miliband and the defeated candidates.

The most notable moment came when Corbyn was asked about EU membership and refused to guarantee to campaign to stay in. This contradicts shadow foreign secretary Hilary Benn’s earlier assertion on the Today programme that “We will be campaigning to remain in the European Union in all circumstances.” Corbyn said he had concerns over the UK’s commitment to the social chapter and the working time directive and did not want to give David Cameron a “blank cheque” during his renegotiation. Asked whether he would wear a poppy for Remembrance Day, Corbyn said he attended memorial events in his constituency and noted that some choose to pay respect by wearing a white poppy (suggesting he may do so). 

He also announced that the party had gained 28,000 full members since he took over, and declared that his three priorities would be housing, next May’s elections in Wales and Scotland, and securing a Labour government in 2020. He pledged that he and Tom Watson would spend at least a day a month in Scotland in the run-up to the Holyrood contest (which seems rather on the low side). Corbyn also reinforced his commitment not to back the return of mandatory reselection, which some on the left hope to use to purge his opponents. But the Tories’ coming boundary changes could mean many MPs automatically face selection battles. 

As before, Corbyn emphasised his desire to “debate” the most contentious issues, such as Trident and Nato, and there were few unambiguously hostile questions. But it is clear from tonight’s reception that backbenchers are not going to suddenly embrace his leadership – he is on probation. 

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