Jeremy Corbyn has warned that two crunch by-elections are “on a knife-edge” and hit out at the media after a new poll gave the Tories a huge lead.
The Labour leader addressed the weekly Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) meeting with a plea to work for every vote in the Copeland and Stoke Central by-elections on Thursday.
But as former Shadow Cabinet minister Lisa Nandy warned that Labour’s membership was “increasingly unrepresentative of the country as a whole”, MPs also challenged him over an ICM/Guardian poll giving the Conservatives an 18-point lead.
The survey found that the Tories were on 44%, up two points, while Labour were on 26%, down one. UKIP were on 13% and the Liberal Democrats on 8%.
When challenged by former Shadow Chancellor Chris Leslie to explain the huge poll lead, Corbyn replied: “Of course I understand what’s going on and the problems we have had in the media.”
But he added that “we do a lot better on social media”, one source told HuffPost UK.
Party sources added after the meeting that Labour was still recovering from the damage caused by the the attempted ‘coup’ and “dissension” by Labour MPs themselves.
Corbyn invited the PLP to get involved in building an election strategy, but was also told by backbencher Neil Coyle that the main problem on the doorstep was the leader himself. “We need honesty,” Coyle said. “The one thing that keeps coming up on the doorstep, the reason they’re not voting Labour, is Jeremy Corbyn”.
The Labour leader kept his calm and thanked the Bermondsey MP for his offer to get involved, adding the party needed all the help it could get from the PLP.
Corbyn tried to rally support for the two by-elections in Copeland and Stoke-on-Trent Central, both of which were held by Labour until MPs Jamie Reed and Tristram Hunt stepped down.
In Copeland, Labour is defending a 2,500 majority from a big Tory challenge, whereas in Stoke, which it held with a 5,000 majority, it faces a threat from UKIP leader Paul Nuttall.
“His message was that the by-elections are on a knife-edge and we need to fight for every vote,” a senior Labour source said.
Asked about the 18-point lead, the source said: “There is concern in the party at the opinion polls and has been for several months. That’s been the case since the leadership challenge last summer.
“In the last round of elections in the May, Labour was ahead of the Tories by one point.
“After the leadership challenge and the dissension in the Labour party that fell back. And obviously since the change of Tory leadership the Tories have been in a stronger position but we are confident that won’t continue.
“Labour’s position will improve in the polls and the Tories will fall back. We are in a period where that kind of gap won’t last.”
The party source predicted that Tory splits over Europe, as well as falling living standards, would steadily erode the Conservatives’ poll lead.
“As soon as the Government’s negotiating position over Brexit goes to Brussels, it will be confronted by the reality of 27 coutries briefing against it. And the internal dissension in the Tory party will be exacerbated by that and by the response from the rest of Europe.
“And the expectation must be that living standards in the country will start to fall back as inflation picks up and real wages don’t keep pace with that. For all those reasons, the kind of gap we are looking at at the moment won’t last.”
The PLP meeting saw several MPs express their worries over the party’s direction and message, but HuffPost was told it was “not as charged” as heated PLP gatherings last summer.
Corbyn was asked by John Mann for Labour’s message on the economy and was told that the vision was for a high-growth, high-investment country which was not a tax haven.
New elections coordinator Ian Lavery announced that the party would now try to tailor different messages for different regions of England, although backbencher Chris Bryant said that varying campaigns in each seat could undermine a ‘national’ strategy.
Tottenham MP David Lammy complained that he had received a disciplinary letter from the whips for rebelling on the Brexit bill, suggesting his local constituency party could use it to try to deselect him.
But Shadow Chief Whip Nick Brown said that the letter was private and the only person who had made it public was Lammy himself on Twitter.
Other MPs complained that Barry Gardiner and Corbyn had voted to oppose the EU’s trade deal with Canada, but Brown admitted there had been a ‘mix-up’ over the whipping arrangements.
With Theresa May making a surprise trip to Stoke on Monday, Labour hopes that the Tory and UKIP vote will be split enough to let the party hang on.
In Copeland, which relies on nearby Sellafield nuclear waste plant for skilled jobs, insiders say the contest is much tighter, with some Labour voters unhappy about Corbyn’s previous remarks about nuclear power.
The latest poll marked a record low for Labour under Corbyn. According to ICM’s Martin Boon, only three other comparable polls have given the Tories a higher lead over Labour since 1983.
Two of those polls were just before the 1983 general election, when Margaret Thatcher crushed Michael Foot, and the other was in June 2008, when Gordon Brown’s was at his most unpopular.
The findings prompted a warning from left-wing author and columnist Owen Jones.
On Sunday, Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott blamed the polls on what she said was a “year” of “misrepresentation” of Corbyn by the media and some of his own MPs.
Asked about Copeland and Stoke, she told Sky News’ Sophy Ridge: “If we lost one or we lose both, the party will go forward - it has to go forward.
“For people who’ve been opposed to Jeremy from the very beginning – I’m not one of them – I think we have to move forward.
“The point about the polls is you’ve had nearly a year of a sustained campaign against Jeremy and the Labour party, both in the media and sadly a few of our MPs,” she added.
“I think, as we move beyond what has been almost a year of misrepresentation of Jeremy’s position, I think if you move beyond that and the more people get to see him and hear him, whether it’s in the media or at campaigning events, I’m confident the polls will improve.”
Corbyn has won two landslide victories Labour leadership elections since 2015 and MPs critical of his lack of broad public appeal are keeping a low profile in a bid to avoid being blamed for his poor poll ratings.
Former Prime Minister Tony Blair said last week that a “debilitated” Labour Party had “facilitated” Brexit by failing to campaign more strongly to oppose it.
In a blog for HuffPost UK, former Shadow Energy Secretary Lisa Nandy made what appeared to be a veiled attack on both Blair and Corbyn for failing to respond to Labour voters who had voted to leave the EU in large numbers.
Nandy said that the party had neglected the small towns across England and Wales that were vital for any Parliamentary majority.
“This poses a profound challenge for Labour whose membership is increasingly unrepresentative of the country as a whole,” she wrote.
“This has got worse in recent months, with new members more likely to come from cities, often home owners in well-paid jobs.
“With five times more members in Islington than a town like Wigan, there is a risk that Labour’s perspective will be skewed away from the needs and aspirations of people in towns across the country.”