Labour MPs have slammed claims by Shami Chakrabarti that the Copeland by-election defeat was due to party “neglect” of its heartlands.
Backbenchers used a meeting of the weekly Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) in the Commons on Monday night to criticise the Shadow Attorney General for blaming previous leaders for the loss to the Tories.
MPs ridiculed Baroness Chakrabarti’s refusal on the Andrew Marr Show to apportion any blame for the defeat to Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership.
Some backbenchers also hit out after a photograph was circulated among MPs, showing the Labour peer and Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott drinking in a Parliamentary bar during the PLP meeting.
MPs were upset that few members of the Shadow Cabinet turned up for the weekly meeting to hear the debrief by campaign managers of last week’s by-elections in Copeland and Stoke-on-Trent Central.
Although Corbyn had sent his apologies for not attending, some of those present had wanted him to personally account for the historic lost of the Cumbrian seat.
Tory Trudy Harrison won Copeland in the first by-election gain by a governing party for decades.
On the Marr Show on Sunday, Chakrabarti refused to say that Corbyn shared any responsibility for the defeat, even though the Labour leader himself had done so.
But furious MPs also believed she sought to blame the result in part on Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, as well as the outgoing local MP Jamie Reed, who quit to work for the nearby Sellafield nuclear waste plant.
Chakrabarti told the BBC that Copeland was “one of those constituencies that was neglected by my own party over some years”.
Several MPs seized on the remark in the PLP meeting, with some pointing out she had only joined Labour a few months ago, and then in order to become an unelected peer.
One MP told HuffPost UK: “The reason we were so furious was because she and others have essentially adopted the Tory/UKIP attack that Labour neglected Copeland and other Labour areas.
“All sides of the party were upset about that. It was pandemonium.”
MPs such as Roberta Blackman-Woods and Pat McFadden wondered why the party was not putting on the media MPs who were prepared to defend Labour’s record in office.
“But the elephant in the room was Corbyn himself,” one MP said, pointing out that this weekend their canvassing on the doorstep saw many Labour voters complain, unprompted, about the party leader.
Iflord South MP Mike Gapes recounted that a lifelong Labour voter who normally discusses ‘potholes’ was now saying he would never back the party as long as Corbyn was leader.
Newly elected Stoke-on-Trent Central MP Gareth Snell was cheered as he arrived at the meeting, with many MPs delighted that the party had seen off the threat posed by UKIP leader Paul Nuttall.
Stoke-On-Trent Central organiser Jack Dromey ran through his own campaign, before Copeland campaign manager and national elections coordinator Andrew Gwynne detailed the campaign in Cumbria.
Chakrabarti had used the Marr Show to blame the Copeland defeat on everything from the poor weather to Labour voters traditionally not having cars to ‘apocryphal’ media reports about Corbyn’s stance on nuclear power.
Labour backbencher Lillian Greenwood read out Chakrabarti’s long list of reasons for the Copeland defeat, but prompted laughter when she added: “Is there anything missing from that list?”
But irritation with Chakrabarti spilled over when MPs circulated a photo of her and Abbott meeting in the Pugin Room in Parliament, just minutes away from the committee corridor where the PLP was being held.
Labour MP Neil Coyle was furious at what he saw as a lack of respect for the PLP meeting.
He said that Abbott and Chakrabarti having a drink in a nearby bar was “an insult “to party workers, to Gwynne and to all the party members “who worked bloody hard in Copeland and know exactly why we lost”.
Another MP, a former minister under Gordon Brown, left the meeting saying it was “fucking ridiculous” so few of the Shadow Cabinet had attended.
After the meeting, Graham Jones, the MP for Haslingden and Hyndburn, said: “It’s disappointing that it appears Shami and Diane are in the Pugin Room. Shami had a lot to say at the weekend, it’s a shame she didn’t have a lot to say in the meeting.
“Perhaps if she had turned up she could have explained her comments. When it was revealed where she was, people felt it wasn’t in order.
“There’s a degree of frustration because she’s not elected and she speaks like someone who is elected. She has no authority from any electorate and people feel there’s a disconnect, and those of us who have the views of voters to take on board and consider.”
Dromey told the meeting that he would offer no “false alibis” for the fact that Labour’s vote dropped in Stoke, even though it won the seat.
He said that none of the canvass returns picked up Labour ‘division’ in Parliament as a reason for not voting Labour.
Dromey added that Tony Blair’s speech - attacking Corbyn the weekend before polling day for creating a ‘deblilated Labour party’ - had negligible impact on the voters.
Just four out of 4,000 canvass returns in the 48 hours after the speech had a negative mention of Blair, he told MPs.
After the meeting a senior Labour source said that MPs had made their feelings clear.
“There was a general mood from the PLP that all members of the PLP should be out there defending the achievements of the last Labour government and defending what Labour achieved in seats such as Stoke and Copeland - that is part of what we need to be saying.”
Corybn loyalists such as Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell insist that Copeland was a ‘unique’ case because of the local reliance on the nuclear industry and perceptions that Labour was not backing a new power plant.
But he has also blamed Blair’s intervention, as well as Labour’s record and divisions among MPs for contributing to the defeat.