The party leader came under fire at a heated meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) in the Commons on Monday night, as backbenchers criticised his handling of the Euro elections campaign, anti-Semitism and even sexual harassment cases.
Marie Rimmer, usually a staunch ally of Corbyn, was greeted with cheers and whistles after she told him directly that even his loyal supporters - particularly young people - were now turning away from the party over the lack of a clear policy for a new ‘public vote’ on Brexit.
“People who have worked for you for years are turning away from you. The leadership’s not there,” she said, according to several sources. “If there was a general election, we wouldn’t win it.”
Rimmer added that during the Euro elections, when millions of Labour voters backed the Lib Dems and Greens for their clearer policy on a referendum, she had herself struggled to vote for her own party. “It wasn’t easy for me to vote Labour,” she said. “We need a final vote on any deal.”
Commons Public Accounts Committee chairwoman Meg Hillier also let her frustration boil over, telling Corbyn that Labour members and activists were furious at how shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry had been treated for speaking up on the night of the Euro election results.
On results night, Thornberry had said the party got a “kicking” because “we went into an election where the most important issue was ‘what was our view on leaving the European Union’ and we were not clear about it”.
Hillier attacked weekend newspaper briefings that had suggested Thornberry could be moved from her post and replaced by Diane Abbott.
Thornberry was also last week replaced by Rebecca Long-Bailey in her usual role of deputising for Corbyn during Prime Minister’s Questions.
“We need a strong, clear vision on Europe and we haven’t got it,” Hillier said. “Members welcomed Emily’s clarity on Brexit and support her.” She added that members from all wings of the party, as well as former members, were very angry at how Thornberry had been treated.
One MP said after the meeting that the briefings against Thornberry by allies of Corbyn were “bully boy tactics”. “This is bullying, aren’t we supposed to be against that?”
Another MP asked Corbyn “Where’s the leadership?”, while left-winger Lloyd Russell-Moyle suggested that the leader’s own staff should not be above criticism for the failure of policy messaging in the Euro election campaign.
James Frith, who represents a strong pro-Leave seat in Bury, spoke up for the first time in the meeting to tell Corbyn: “Your clear leadership delivered my win in 2017. We need clear leadership from you now - for a final say public vote and Remain.”
Peter Kyle, who led moves to get parliament to back a ‘confirmatory ballot’ on any Brexit deal, told his leader: “Jeremy, we need to know: do you have a plan, a strategy to lead us out of the mire?”
The packed meeting was the first chance MPs have had to confront Corbyn over the party’s third place in the MEP elections earlier this month, coming behind both the Brexit Party and the Liberal Democrats, and since its backwards drift in last month’s local elections.
Although other MPs in Leave seats, including Helen Jones and Caroline Flint, spoke out against deterring Labour supporters with a fresh referendum, Corbyn moved to reassure the PLP that he was taking on board the calls for a clearer policy.
Even PLP chairman Jon Cryer criticised the party’s auto-expulsion rules that saw former No.10 aide Alastair Campbell expelled for admitting voting Lib Dem, while cases of antisemitism took a long time.
Corbyn said the leadership had to listen to members to “evolve” the policy and revealed that the shadow cabinet would discuss the matter on Tuesday.
In his speech to the gathering, Corbyn said Labour would work on a cross-party basis to block a no-deal exit, and “to break the Brexit deadlock we need to go back to the people”. He said the route was for either a general election or a public vote on any deal agreed by parliament.
The Labour leader also came under strong attack from Ruth Smeeth, as she pointed to a string of candidates at council, MEP and MP level who had been caught up in anti-Semitism.
“You are allowing institutional anti-Jewish racism on your watch,” Smeeth said.
At the start of the meeting, newly-elected Peterborough MP Lisa Forbes gave a full apology for her previous conduct, including a ‘like’ of a Facebook post that referred to “Zionist slave masters”.
She said she had contacted Jewish groups on Friday and intended to meet the Jewish Labour Movement, Jewish Leadership Council and Board of Deputies to make amends.
Corbyn defended the party’s new processes in dealing with anti-Semitism, saying: “I’m absolutely convinced this party must be, is, and will always be, an anti-racist party. That obviously includes anti-Semitism.”
He was interrupted by backbencher Wes Streeting, who pointed out he had said nothing about the Equalities and Human Rights Commission formally investigating the party for its anti-Semitic problem.
A clearly irritated Corbyn said “I will try to answer the question, OK?”
Jess Phillips, chair of the women’s PLP, said that in harassment cases within the party “people get protected” if they are seen as close to the party leader - a claim Corbyn swiftly rejected.
After the meeting, a spokesman for the Labour leader confirmed Brexit policy would be discussed by the shadow cabinet on Tuesday.
“The PLP is generally quite a robust meeting. The PLP is very passionate about lots of issues not just about Brexit...that’s what we would expect.”
“We are reflecting on the results and consulting on how we should go forward on Brexit. It will be discussed again in shadow cabinet tomorrow.
Labour party members and affiliates will be discussing it and it will no doubt be addressed at the Labour party conference this autumn.”