POLITICS

Jeremy Corbyn Allies 'Sabotaged' Labour's In Campaign On The EU Referendum, Critics Claim

Pro-EU messages deleted from speeches, events avoided

25/06/2016 17:56 | Updated 26 June 2016
Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire

Jeremy Corbyn’s close allies undermined and even "sabotaged" Labour’s campaign to keep the UK in the European Union, party sources have claimed.

A series of documents passed to HuffPostUK allege that the leader’s inner circle, as well as Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, were agnostic at best and hostile at worst to the pro-EU campaign in the referendum.

Within hours of the vote, Labour MPs were openly blaming Corbyn for the huge Brexit vote in the party’s heartlands, and a motion of no confidence in his leadership is set to be voted on next week.

Now Remain campaigners say that pro-EU lines in Corbyn speeches were cut, his diary was scheduled to avoid Labour In events and any attempts to work with Tony Blair, Peter Mandelson and Gordon Brown were overruled.

Furious In campaigners lashed out, claiming that the party leaders’ diary was deliberately light on pro-EU events and that he refused to campaign actively until the very final stages of the Brexit debate. 

Key decisions on planning and messaging were delayed or changed, making it impossible for Labour's official In campaign to function smoothly, it is alleged.

A Labour spokesman dismissed the criticisms, declaring that Corbyn was the only frontline politician who could heal a divided country, adding the referendum result showed "Jeremy's views were in tune with the people".

Corbyn was on Saturday accused at a gay pride event of being responsible for the Brexit defeat, but he said "I did all I could".

Ian West/PA Wire
John McDonnell

Sources in the Shadow Cabinet and insiders in the party’s campaigns structure suggest that Corbyn and McDonnell’s own personal scepticism about Brussels ran counter to party policy, which was to vigorously back a Remain vote.

Corbyn had spent years criticising the EU as an undemocratic organisation which put corporate interests and neoliberal economics before the needs of citizens. He voted against Common market membership in 1975, and against the Maastricht Treaty and the Lisbon Treaty as an MP.

During the last leadership hustings in July, he told HuffPost UK he wouldn’t “rule out” campaigning for a Leave vote if David Cameron failed to secure workers’ rights, environmental protections or the social chapter.

But Labour’s official policy position was that it would campaign for a Remain vote. Shadow Cabinet sources said that tensions began at Labour’s party conference last September, soon after Corbyn’s election.

On September 15, Lord Falconer warned he would quit from the Shadow Cabinet if Labour took a Leave position. That day, McDonnell said Labour would reserve its position on the referendum until Cameron had concluded his ‘renegotiation’ with EU leaders.

Handout via Getty Images
Angela Eagle in ITV's EU debate

In a bid to avoid a split, Corbyn, McDonnell, Hilary Benn and Angela Eagle held a crunch meeting September 16. Eagle said McDonnell’s approach would make the party “irrelevant” in the EU debate for months, while Benn too persuaded Corbyn that he could not wait to declare for Remain.

Corbyn agreed, and signed off a statement to all Labour MPs that “Labour will be campaigning in the referendum for the UK to stay in the European Union”. That position was then endorsed by a vote of the party conference.

But some of those around Corbyn were still not keen on him proactively and publicly campaigning for an In vote, sources claim.

Remain campaigners point to a string of sceptical remarks about the EU from those close to the party leadership.

BBC
Seumas Milne, Kevin Slocombe and Jeremy Corbyn hear Cameron resign

Communications and Strategy Director Seumas Milne had written as recently as last July that “many progressive people in Britain, previously attracted to what seemed its cooperative internationalism, are moving towards voting no in the planned in-out referendum in the face of its brutal authoritarianism towards Greece.”

In an interview with Croydon Radio in 2015, Andrew Fisher - now Corbyn’s policy director - said he was “agnostic” about the EU given some directives which could halt denationalisation of some public services.

James Meadway, a part-time economic adviser to McDonnell, had written in the Counterfire website last year that “In our own referendum, on British membership of the EU, the left must vote No.”

Senior party sources claim that the leader’s office refused to focus on or plan for the EU referendum until after the May local elections, and refused to allow Corbyn to welcome Cameron’s renegotiation deal in any way in February.

Corbyn was encouraged by staff to avoid participating in LabourIN events, TV debates or any ‘StrongerIn’ events. Instead of working on a common position, an “alternative narrative” was developed in which Corbyn would criticise the EU’s weaknesses and call for reform.

The phrase ‘That’s why I am campaigning to remain in the EU’ was deleted from numerous leader speeches and interventions in the long and short campaigns outside of the LabourIN campaign, despite calls from other parts of the Party to him to get involved.

Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP
Alan Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn

Corbyn’s allies signed off a planned visit to Turkey early in the ‘short campaign’, to talk about “open borders”.  After opposition from other parts of the party, it was eventually vetoed.

The leader’s office declined to cooperate with other parts and wings of the Labour Party in making the case to remain, including any cooperation with former leaders Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.  It also vetoed repeated attempts to get him to make a video explaining why he was campaigning to remain.

One Labour campaign source said that the head of the LabourIn campaign, Alan Johnson, asked for a meeting with Corbyn in April and was told by his team that the only available date would be July.

Corbyn’s first speech on the EU was written by Andrew Fisher, but it immediately caused concerns within his own office because it contained more criticism than praise for the EU. Some insiders strongly deny Fisher is 'anti-EU' in any way.

But focus groups at the start of the campaign had shown that voters felt Corbyn’s speeches on Europe looked like he was being told to back the Remain case rather than really believing it.

Lauren Hurley/PA Wire
Shadow Chief Secretary Seema Malhotra

In the first week of the campaign, the Shadow Treasury team vetoed a story developed by Labour’s policy team for Shadow Chief Secretary Seema Malhotra, which warned of the effect of Brexit on the value of sterling. It is understood that the McDonnell team didn’t want to help Osborne’s ‘Project Fear’, something Corbyn himself later openly criticised.

Those close to the Shadow Chancellor felt that the independence referendum in Scotland had shown how Project Fear went down badly with Labour voters. McDonnell's Economic Advisory Council (EAC) would have felt the sterling crisis idea was counter-productive too, one source said.

McDonnell preferred to point to ‘Tory cuts’ that would take place after Brexit, a message that his team felt was more consistent with Labour’s anti-austerity narrative.

One particular flashpoint came when Corbyn’s team promised to include significant pro-Remain content in a keynote speech Corbyn was due to give at green energy firm Ecotricity in mid-May. The speech was in the “EU grid” and was flagged as a big EU intervention to the press. But all pro-EU content ended up being removed by Milne, insiders say.

A film to be shown at Corbyn’s final speech on the eve of poll was edited on the request of the leader’s office to remove references by Deputy Leader Tom Watson to Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, Peter Mandelson, it is claimed.

On the Sunday before polling day the leader’s office broke promises to let Sunday newspaper journalists have pro-EU comments ahead of Corbyn’s appearance on the BBCs Andrew Marr show.

HuffPost
Corbyn's EU 'grid', leaked to HuffPostUK

Insiders claim there were three reasons why Corbyn reluctantly agreed to campaign on Europe.  The first was that trade union leaders, corralled by Alan Johnson, had finally agreed on a unified pro-Remain stance.

The second was polling showing that the middle-class, university-educated, left-wing, young people who had voted for Corbyn to be Leader were emphatically pro-EU.

Finally, it was made clear to Corbyn by supporters in the Whips Office that if he failed to do more and if Brexit actually happened, his leadership might be challenged by angry MPs.

It is alleged that Corbyn’s aides refused to allow LabourIN and senior Labour colleagues to discuss or address concerns around immigration, writing them off as ‘xenophobia’, ‘prejudice’ or ‘racism’ at every turn.

Instead, Corbyn focused on the dangers of TTIP, the EU-US trade deal, even though his team were shown evidence that this message would hinder the campaign and would not persuade core Labour voters.

HuffPost
Corbyn's EU planner was light on events, critics say

His team also encouraged the leader to avoid LabourIN campaign events and focus on Trade Union meetings and rallies instead.

And his EU planning diary - leaked to HuffPost - as a result was ‘light’ on EU events. MPs felt there were days where Corbyn did nothing at all on the campaign, while Cameron was out on the stump nearly every single day. Some were surprised he took a holiday in the middle of the campaign itself.

Polling shows that large numbers of Labour voters had no idea if the party was for or against Brexit.

Corbyn allies counter the criticism by saying that he was more in tune with Labour voters’ worries about the EU than many of his own MPs and that his ‘reluctant Remainer’ stance was in tune with much of the nation.

They say he stuck to the party policy of campaigning for In, making visits across the country.

A party spokesman said: "These criticisms are laughable and the motives of the people making the claims are obviously questionable.

"Jeremy and his team worked hard to get out his message and lead the Labour In campaign.  The results of the referendum show that Jeremy's views were in tune with the people, and he is the only politician who can now heal the divides". 

Other sources hit back at claims that Johnson had been snubbed. The leadership says it has emails proving Corbyn offeed a meeting with Johnson two days after he first asked, followed by fortnightly meetings.

Gareth Fuller/PA Wire
Alan Johnson

One Labour source also hit back at the critics. "There’s criticism of the fact that Labour In campaign were too inexperienced and there were mistakes in their campaign. The truth is they weren't very good.

"And that there are criticisms that the Labour election machine, its ground campaign, hasn’t been particularly effective for some time, as two general election defeats showed."

Another Labour insider suggested Alan Johnson had not done enough in the campaign. "'Where's Alan?' That was a phrase you heard that a lot."

Sources in the official Britain Stronger in Europe campaign also hit out at Labour's contribution to the overall effort.

One source told the Guardian: “It was unprofessional. They had no stories, no day-to-day content, no messaging. It was partly they were inexperienced, but some of the Corbyn team just did not seem to care."

Corbyn himself today pointed to the online campaign to stop blaming him for Brexit, as party members rallied to his defence and countered the MPs' threat to his leadership.

He said he would not be resigning.

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