With more members of Corbyn’s frontbench considering resigning – shadow Welsh secretary Jo Stevens became the first to quit the shadow cabinet on Friday – the rebellion is now spreading among local party members, who are furious at his support for Theresa May’s plans for triggering the article 50 process.
On Saturday night a highly critical open letter to the Labour leader, circulating on Facebook, had been signed by almost 2,000 members in constituency parties across the country, around half of whom are believed to have voted for Corbyn as leader. The letter, organised by a group called Labour Against Brexit, accuses Corbyn of a “betrayal of your socialist values” and of backing a policy that will hurt working people.
One of the organisers, Jonathan Proctor of the North Tyneside constituency Labour party, told the Observer that the motive was not to destabilise Corbyn, but to stand up for Labour principles and values. He said the response from members since its launch on Friday had been overwhelming.
The letter is the first real sign of grassroots unrest against Corbyn in his own power bases in the constituency parties. It makes clear that his support had been based on a belief that he would create a more democratic party that would be true to Labour values, including supporting EU membership.
“In short, we are the grassroots that you have always been keen to represent,” it states. “All of us share core Labour values of equality and opportunity for all, and we share a belief in fighting for social justice. And while we may differ in our beliefs and feelings with regards to your leadership, we are nevertheless united in our belief that you and your leadership team have made the wrong call on the party’s policy on Brexit.”
It adds: “Additionally, many of us voted for you as our leader because of your desire to make the Labour party more democratic, with policy being set by members. At Labour party conference 2016, it was resolved that ‘Unless the final [Brexit] settlement proves to be acceptable, then the option of retaining EU membership should be retained. The final settlement should therefore be subject to approval, through parliament and potentially through a general election or referendum.’ We believe that this exemplar of democracy within the party should no longer be ignored. Let us speak with one voice, as democratically made by our members.”
Corbyn has been struggling to hold the party together after saying that Labour MPs would be subject to a three-line whip, instructing them to vote in favour of the parliamentary bill to trigger the Brexit process, which will be debated in the Commons for the first time on Tuesday and Wednesday.
Tulip Siddiq, the MP for Hampstead and Kilburn, has left her frontbench post, and two whips, Thangam Debbonaire and Jeff Smith, have said they will not vote for the bill. Another shadow cabinet member, Rachel Maskell, is said by colleagues to be considering resigning, and Clive Lewis, regarded as close to Corbyn early in his leadership, now says he will vote against the bill at third reading unless there are a series of safeguards.
Writing on his Facebook page, Lewis says these must ensure that the UK commits to having “the closest relationship to Europe and the single market as is possible, protect worker rights, have proper report-back mechanisms on the negotiations, and have final say over the eventual negotiated deal”. He adds: “If the government does not accept these amendments, I will vote against triggering article 50 at the third and final vote.”
In the Brexit referendum last year, an estimated 65% of Labour voters backed remaining in the European Union, but roughly two-thirds of the constituencies with Labour MPs in place voted, overall, to leave. One of the biggest votes for Brexit came in Stoke, where 69.4% of people voted for Brexit.
With Corbyn’s party facing a crucial byelection in Stoke-on-Trent Central on 23 February, caused by the resignation of Tristram Hunt, and another the same day in Copeland in Cumbria, Labour MPs believe Corbyn’s decision to impose a three-line whip is driven in part by fear of being defeated by Ukip. The anti-EU party’s new leader, Paul Nuttall, is standing in the Stoke seat and is expected to run Labour close in one of it traditional strongholds.
The official Labour line is that while it understands that many Labour MPs – particularly in seats that voted Remain – are torn over Brexit, the outcome of the referendum was clear, and the “will of the people” should not be obstructed.
David Lammy, the Labour MP for Tottenham, said there was also anger with Corbyn over the decision to impose a three-line whip on a “timeable motion” that would cut the debate on the bill to five days. Labour members are quitting the party in droves as a result. Referring to Corbyn’s handling of the issue, he said: “It is shockingly bad politics. Everyone understands Labour voters are split down the middle over Brexit – north and south, middle class and working class, young and old – but so too are the Tories.
“By taking a side and not allowing MPs to vote with their conscience, Labour’s leadership is forcing an exodus of Remain voters and members. A hard Brexit of the type that the Tories are set on pursuing will hurt Labour supporters and people in Labour areas, so of course there is real concern among colleagues.”
A shadow cabinet member told the Observer: “This is not easy for Jeremy and I feel sorry for him. But the way it has been handled is corroding our support. It is falling away fast.”
Alex Salmond, the SNP’s international affairs and Europe spokesman, said Labour was “running scared of Ukip and failing to do its constitutional duty of holding the government to account”. He added: “The referendum happened as a result of Tory fear of Ukip, and now it is bulldozed through without proper opposition because of Labour’s fear of Ukip.”
Chris Leslie, Labour MP for Nottingham East, who will vote against the bill, said Corbyn was losing support over the issue and asked why he had not put the matter to consultation in the wider party. “There is a very noticeable change of mood among many members who joined recently to support Jeremy. It is surprising, given that he backs giving the membership a say and did so over military action in Syria, that he does not do the same over article 50.”
Author: Toby Helm