Jeremy Corbyn has admitted that Labour needs a clearer message on Brexit after a raft of his MPs warned the party was “haemorrhaging” votes to the pro-Remain Lib Dems and Greens.
At a heated meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) on Monday night, the Labour leader faced repeated questions on why the party’s leaflets for the Euro elections had fudged its support for a public vote on a Tory Brexit deal.
MP after MP got up to slam the damage being done by talks with the government, and warned that Labour faced an “existential threat” if it continued to be unclear about its position on quitting the EU.
Corbyn pledged he would take “immediate” action to respond to the concerns, though he insisted that his anti-austerity message offered a chance to unite the country in both Remain and Leave areas.
“I understand the need for a clear message. I don’t want to be in a position where our members don’t understand what we are saying, where our voters don’t understand what we are saying,” he said.
“We know we are under attack. The only way is to strengthen our message in an understandable, simpler way. I get that.”
The row came after yet another poll showed that Labour had slumped further, to just 16%, one point above the Lib Dems, in voting intention for the MEP elections due next Thursday. YouGov put Nigel Farage’s Brexit party on 34%, the Greens on 11% and the Tories just 10%.
Following a backlash among MPs and activists last month, Labour finally added the ‘option’ of a second referendum on its Euro election leaflets but critics have claimed the party is being outflanked by a clearer pro-EU message from rival parties.
In the PLP meeting, which lasted more than an hour and a half, Corbyn was told that morale was low on the doorstep and among local activists.
Stephen Doughty said that the party’s euro advertising campaign was woeful and Remain voters were heading in big numbers to the Lib Dems and Greens, and possibly even the Change UK party.
“Why is the Brexit Party surging? Because they’ve got a clear message...We have 4 sets of adverts, they have 36 ad streams.”
One MP told HuffPost UK: “Speaker after speaker was reporting haemorrhaging of Labour votes to pro PV [People’s Vote]/Remain parties, members resigning, asking why our strategy seems designed to lose us good MEPs and gift the elections to Farage and the far right.”
A string of MPs - including former deputy leader Dame Margaret Beckett, Paul Williams, Geraint Davies - and even some pro-Leave MPs asked why the party was taking part in “talks that are going nowhere”.
Ian Murray, former shadow Scottish secretary, warned Labour faced a wipeout if it stayed on the fence on the question of a referendum.
Murray said that the 2014 independence referendum, when Labour was seen to be on the same side as the Tories, had done serious and lasting damage to the party.
“If the UK goes the same way as Scotland, there will be none of us left because the dam will burst.”
Hove MP Peter Kyle told Corbyn that while much had changed in recent months, with poor local election results, three government Commons defeats and ministerial resignations, Labour’s policy was stuck on its 2017 manifesto pledge and on its 2018 conference fudge.
“Labour party policy on Brexit was set two years ago in the election and our conference resolution was nearly a year ago. But there has been so much change since.
“Everything has changed but our policy is identical. Jeremy, I urge you to simplify our policy, to make residents realise we are speaking with absolute sincerity. Everything has changed but our policy is identical.”
Wes Streeting also warned Corbyn that Labour’s message on Brexit lacks clarity and said the stakes were now high, with voters on the doorstep complaining that his leadership was “a bigger issue for us than Brexit”.
“We need clear leadership in order to win the next general election,” Streeting said.
Lloyd Russell-Moyle, MP for Kemptown, a key member of the ‘Love Corbyn/Hate Brexit’ campaign, let rip at the centralised control over the party’s message.
He claimed that the party’s HQ had “kiboshed” any attempt to allow regional or constituency Labour parties their own distinctive voice in euro elections leaflets.
The leftwinger added that he was furious that unions like Unison and Usdaw had been advised not push their pro-referendum message and that MEP candidates were still waiting for HQ approval to sign up to European socialist party pledges on poverty and education.
Corbyn repeated that the conference policy was to back his five ‘pillars’ for a Labour Brexit and said one of his priorities was to “face down the Tories on no-deal”.
“I appreciate there is a difficulty in very strong Remain constituencies like mine.
“I do understand the frustrations about campaign materials and the way in which they have been put to people. I’ve picked that up myself. I will be taking action immediately to make sure you get answers. I absolutely understand the frustration everyone expressed this evening.”
However, not all the speakers complained at the lack of a clear pro-referendum message, with John Mann warning again that Labour would be out of power for years if it lost traditional voters who voted Leave in 2016.
And several shadow ministers from pro-Leave seats in the north and midlands were privately irritated that they could not speak at the backbench meeting of MPs.
When asked about deputy leader Tom Watson’s claim that Labour was still the party of “Remain and reform”, a spokesman for Corbyn said after the meeting that his own words at the party’s European manifesto launch last week were the best guide to the position.
Corbyn said at the launch that the real divide in the UK was not between those who backed Leave or Remain but between “the many and the few”.