Jeremy Corbyn arrived at the first meeting of the parliamentary Labour Party after a nightmarish recess marred by the row over anti-Semitism and talk of an imminent split primed to deliver a conciliatory message to his critics.
The Labour leader, journalists were briefed, would attempt to ease tensions over moves to censure and deselect MPs with an upbeat, self-deprecating appeal for unity.
“The Labour Party has always been a broad church and I’m determined it remains so,” he was expected to say. “We will always have some differences of opinion and we must protect the right of criticism and debate but our first and overwhelming priority is to deliver for the people we represent and remove this Conservative government from office. We must focus on that priority and turn our fire outwards.”
In what his spokesman later described as a “lighthearted” reference to the PLP’s 2016 motion of no confidence in Corbyn and a reminder that even he was subject to democratic accountability, he was expected to add: “I know what it feels like to be the target of a no confidence vote, but it would be wrong for me to intervene in the democratic rights of any part of the Labour Party.”
That refusal to intervene on behalf of MPs facing deselection is consistent with what Corbyn and his allies have always said: that such decisions are up to the grassroots alone. But it was bound to enrage Corbynsceptics in the PLP, who see such lines as tacit licence for unrest at the grassroots to continue unabated, and so indeed it did.
The fractious mood was compounded by the fact that Rosie Duffield, elected Labour’s first ever MP for Canterbury last year, had just hours before been censured by her local party for attending a demonstration against anti-Semitism. And far from soothing tensions, as had been intended, the mood was deeply toxic. One member of the shadow cabinet indicated that he was not surprised.
MPs complained that Corbyn’s speech bore little resemblance to the sections that were pre-briefed. He did not deliver the second line, on his own experience of confidence votes and his inability to intervene (his spokesman suggested that such deviations in delivery are normal, adding: “Jeremy tends to say something and then move off”).
That point was instead illustrated for his critics by his failure to answer repeated demands from Alex Sobel, another 2017 intake MP, to visit Canterbury to support Duffield. He instead told members of an earlier visit to Canterbury and the constituency’s affection for its MP. “It’s not his role to become involved in the decisions of local CLPs,” his spokesman said. “It’s not his place as leader of the Labour party.”
For some, that is as good as tacit support for manoeuvres against her. Corbyn’s spokesman said it was “not his place” to intervene, adding that the Labour leader believed all grassroots meetings should be held with “respect”.
That was not enough for Siobhan McDonagh, the Mitcham and Morden MP, and Joan Ryan, the Enfield North MP who was subject to a motion of no confidence last week, who made their displeasure clear to Corbyn’s spokesman after the meeting.
McDonagh said: “Rosie Duffield has been an MP for 18 months. She is a young woman who is facing a disciplinary meeting on Wednesday.
“It is incumbent on all of us who have been around a lot longer to make sure that meeting is conducted in a proper and respectful way to both the members and to Rosie.
“And the idea that the leader of our party has no responsibility for that is completely wrong. And I simply say that as a human being and not as a politician.”
The row over Duffield – who Labour MPs are rallying around this evening – is particularly difficult for Corbyn as it marks the convergence of two distinct but nonetheless linked internal rows: anti-Semitism and party democracy. His contradictory messaging on each leaves him in a tight and perhaps inescapable bind.
As his spokesman said after the PLP meeting, he has made clear his commitment to “eradicating” anti-Semitism from within Labour. But he has made equally clear his respect for the democratic rights of local party members.
That Duffield’s CLP has moved to censure her for attending the Jewish Labour Movement’s conference and a “demonstration organised to groundlessly accuse the party of systematic anti-semitism” throws up a conflict. By his own metric, Corbyn cannot intervene but will arguably only exacerbate the row over anti-Semitism – and further corrode his relationship with the PLP – by not doing so.