Since becoming leader, Jeremy Corbyn has endured plenty of attacks at the weekly Parliamentary Labour Party meeting. Tonight, he returned fire, demanding that MPs “stop the sniping and name-calling and unite to take on the Tories”.
“Jeremy faced down his critics,” a spokesman said afterwards, declaring that “a clear line in the sand has been drawn”. He added: “The mainstream of the PLP asserted itself, there was clear support for a more united approach as being necessary for Jeremy’s leadership, for the Labour Party as a whole … There is unhappiness and frustration that a small minority in the PLP has been driving a campaign against the Labour leadership”.
One shadow minister said of the account given to journalists: “Was Seumas [Milne] speaking from Baghdad Airport with a beret and fake ‘tache on?” Another told me: “What is interesting for me is that he chose to make the ‘sniping’ the story. This wasn’t a leader with an eye on how to get the best results in May, this was a leader looking to establish someone else to blame when it all goes wrong.”
A backbencher said: “Corbyn and his tiny band of supporters lectured us on loyalty and moaned about critics in the PLP. Quite ironic from someone who opposed every leader in history and voted against us more often than Cameron. It’s obviously better to be united but I’ve knocked on thousands of doors and no one has ever said they’re not going to vote because of something that was said at the PLP Lots of people have told me they’re not going to vote Labour because of him.”
Corbyn’s critics concede that he was “better-prepared” than on previous occasions, with MPs Rebecca Long Bailey, Ian Lavery, David Anderson and Louise Haigh defending him. Kevin Barron and Angela Rayner reminded colleagues at the start that the meeting was private and that exchanges should not be leaked (a request ignored).
But while this was not the most bruising session Corbyn has faced, he still came under sharp criticism, most notably over his support for decriminalisation of the sex industry. There was loud applause for Fiona MacTaggart after she told Corbyn that prostitution was “not a trade” but “exploitation”. An “emotional and upset” Sharon Hodgson said that sex work was not “productive”, declaring that “the only ‘product’ of the ‘sex trade’ is an orgasm for a man. That’s not productive, thats not ‘work'”. Stella Creasy noted that 50 per cent of women enter the industry under the age of 18 with substance abuse problems, asking whether they could really be said to “choose” this path. When Corbyn later responded by suggesting that the UK needed to “learn the lessons of Germany and the Netherlands”, MacTaggart “smashed her feet” into a table and cried “No we don’t!” The leader was “really taken aback by that” a former shadow cabinet minister told me. But Dawn Butler, the chair of the women’s PLP, came to Corbyn’s defence, supporting a campaign by the English Collective of Prostitutes to end the penalisation of sex workers.
Wes Streeting told Corbyn that while disunity hurt the party, he was to blame for the rifts over Trident and the Falkland Islands (a war which “ended the year before I was born”). Ian Austin noted that Corbyn had the worst poll ratings of any opposition leader and dryly asked when he expected matters to improve. Liz Kendall said Labour should be aiming to gain more than 400 council seats if it was to make genuine progress (it is forecast to become the first opposition since 1982 to lose seats in a non-general election year). One MP thought it significant that having last week suggested that he was “confident” about the elections, Corbyn tonight warned that they would be “challenging” in Scotland, Wales and England.
Former shadow Europe minister Emma Reynolds asked him when he would make a speech on the EU referendum (a spokesman promised a “significant” address “in due course”), while Barry Sheerman exclaimed that “Without the Labour machinery to get the vote out, we [Remain] will lose!” He added: “Jeremy, I beg you, get out there and show some passion to win the referendum.”
As MPs continue to discuss a possible leadership challenge this summer, tonight showed how Corbyn and his allies intend to assert themselves (which some will see as a sign of weakness). But while critics reject the suggestion that they are marginalised (“If we are, why is he attacking us?” one asked), they acknowledge that patronage and a desire for unity means that the PLP is far from the insurrectionary force that many imagine.