Can anything repair Jeremy Corbyn’s relationship with his MPs? This evening’s meeting of the parliamentary Labour party offered further clues as to how exactly the leadership intends to contain the ongoing and worsening fallout from its handling of anti-Semitism accusations — a question that has taken on more urgency in the wake of last week’s BBC Panorama investigation into the controversy.
Opening a session that was unsurprisingly devoted in its entirety to the issue, John Cryer, the PLP chair, told MPs and peers that Corbyn will next Monday chair an extraordinary meeting of the shadow cabinet to discuss anti-Semitism, as well as facing the parliamentary party at its last meeting of the year. (His absence this evening was nonetheless met with some consternation.)
Judging from the tone of this evening’s meeting, Corbyn has a bruising day in store. Keir Starmer, who spoke on behalf of the shadow cabinet, challenged the leadership to “throw open the books” to the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s investigation into Labour, and implicitly criticised them for “circling the wagons”. Cryer, who because of his position seldom offers trenchant criticism of Corbyn and his team, said its response to the BBC documentary had been a “gross misjudgement”. Siobhan McDonagh said it had made her feel sick, a sentiment echoed by Louise Ellman.
Corbyn will be in for much worse next week, both around the shadow cabinet table and in Committee Room 14. That much is predictable. So why bother? As painful as the process will be, the leadership knows that the only way it will stand even half a chance of repairing relations with the PLP — and reclaiming the initiative on anti-Semitism — is by at least appearing receptive to dialogue with them.
That is why, as we revealed earlier this month, Corbyn chose to respond to the backlash over the brief readmission of Chris Williamson to Labour membership by reaching out with a promise of regular drop-in sessions for MPs to air their concerns about the party’s direction, as well as input into discussions over policy. Next Monday’s agenda is a decision taken in the same vein, and is as much about neutralising the common criticism that Corbyn is neither accessible nor willing to engage with his MPs on anti-Semitism, and much else besides, as it is actually about those things. But on tonight’s evidence, there is little sign that the PLP is ready to respond in kind.