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11 September 2018

Rosie Duffield escaped censure. But for Labour MPs, the damage is done

Corbyn’s refusal to defend his MPs against party activists, particularly in cases linked to the party’s handling of anti-Semitism, does not look good.

By Patrick Maguire

Another day, another move against a Labour MP at the grassroots: Rosie Duffield, the still newish member for Canterbury, has narrowly escaped censure by her local members for speaking out over the party’s anti-Semitism row.

Activists in Duffield’s seat – which, don’t forget, she won for Labour for the first time ever with a barely-there majority of 187 last June – had tabled a motion seeking to discipline their MP for, among other things, “groundlessly” suggesting the party had a problem with anti-Semitism and attending the Jewish Labour Movement’s conference last week. She is the fifth MP to face action from her local party in recent months.

While it wasn’t quite an attempt at full-fat deselection, for most Labour MPs, the difference is immaterial. Duffield is among the most popular members of the 2017 intake, as the many dozens of tweets from colleagues from the shadow cabinet down in her support testify. And even though her local party u-turned last night, at Westminster, the damage has already been done. Unsurprisingly, most of Duffield’s colleagues blame Jeremy Corbyn, which will impact on his relationship with them.

In what was pre-emptively spun as an olive branch to his critics, the Labour leader was expected to tell MPs at last night’s testy PLP meeting – I wrote a full account last night, if you’re into that sort of thing – that he understood how it felt to be subject to a no confidence motion, and that wanted the party to remain a “broad church” and take the fight to the Tories.

Engagement on that latter point is what Corbyn’s critics have been asking for. However, his conciliatory message was overshadowed by his failure to deliver his speech as it was briefed to journalists, and his refusal to intervene to prevent disciplinary action against Duffield in Canterbury (his spokesman said it was “not his place” to do so).

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As uncomfortable as it might be for Labour MPs, the answer to that question was always going to be no, and, frankly, was anybody asking him that question when local members were moving against Frank Field and Kate Hoey? The position of Corbyn and his allies has always been that these decisions are for local members alone, even when they are questionable decisions that the leadership could do without.

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Concede on that and you risk jeopardising a fundamental plank of the Corbyn project. But the problem for the leadership is that not intervening in cases like Duffield’s – which are inextricably linked with its handling of anti-Semitism – does not look good. Party members in Canterbury have solved this particular problem for them. But they have only really hit the snooze button: other MPs like Duffield will have similar experiences, and the same argument between Corbyn and the PLP will ensue.

With an ugly few days at conference looming large on the horizon, it is precisely this sort of unlikely cause célèbre that will lead to a split.