1. SIDING WITH ROSIE
Last night’s meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) ended up being a fraught affair as Jeremy Corbyn was quizzed by his MPs on what they see as intimidating conduct of colleagues who speak out against anti-semitism. Corbyn was his usual calm self, but his backbenchers became increasingly irritated at his refusal to speak out to defend MPs like Joan Ryan and, we learned yesterday, Rosie Duffield.
Duffield is Labour’s first ever MP in Canterbury, but some activists in her local party think she had made the cardinal error of turning up to the Board of Deputies of British Jews protest in Parliament Square earlier this year. In a motion of censure, her critics claimed the protest had “groundlessly” accused the party of systemic anti-semitism. Moreover, Duffield had compounded her error by telling a Jewish Labour Movement meeting that MPs could go ‘on strike’ if the party kept a code of conduct that many Jewish people found offensive.
The whole row was defused late last night when the Canterbury party’s secretary revealed the motion’s backers (a ‘tiny minority’) had withdrawn it. This was after leading Left figures like Owen Jones gave Duffield their backing, as well as Twitter love from senior Shadow Cabinet figures like Angela Rayner. Corbyn’s spokesman made clear after the PLP that he had said “it’s not his place to be involved in the democratic decisions of different parts of the Labour party”. He did however speak “against any kind of intimidation or malpractice in meetings”.
Corbyn’s failure to publicly back Duffield was greeted with dismay by many MPs. Siobhan McDonagh told us waiting hacks afterwards that the party leader had a responsibility to protect his young female MPs from abuse, adding “I simply say that as a human being and not as a politician”. Corbyn has become popular with members precisely because he brings ‘human’ qualities of compassion and empathy to the job, yet it’s clear his MPs think his rigid belief in ‘democratic rights’ of members has clouded his judgement in the case of Duffield. They believe he could have publicly dispelled the inaccuracies in the Canterbury motion, backed the Jewish Labour Movement and supported a young single mother who had won a true blue seat on a strong anti-austerity platform. Read my full report HERE.
Meanwhile, Tom Watson has turned down the ‘graveyard’ speaking slot handed to him at conference, and asked for Labour’s MEPs leader to get the platform time instead. After a year of not doing anything to stand in Corbyn’s way, the Deputy Labour leader has been back to his more assertive self in recent weeks, not least on anti-semitism. He will speak at a fringe meeting instead, in what promises to be a key moment in Liverpool. But will it be as electric as when he was mobbed on the fringe in 2016, having just warned his leader to be proud of New Labour’s achievements?
What didn’t get as much attention last night were concerns expressed to Corbyn about any plans to introduce mandatory reselection of MPs. PLP chair John Cryer suggested such a move would be divisive, one source says. Momentum is pushing instead for more ‘open’ selections (see its latest video last night), replacing the current trigger ballot system that allows MPs to avoid a challenge if they have 50% of their local party’s support.
John McDonnell told me last week he liked the current system and saw no need for the open selection plan. But here’s a thing. On the Today programme this morning he said “I can see need for reform” and that “the existing system…maybe slightly reformed”. Some activists will see that as a green light for changing the 50% threshold to 66%, a rule change that will be pitched as a ‘compromise’ to avoid mandatory re-selection or fully open selections. For some MPs it won’t be seen a compromise. It will be the beginning of the end.
2. UNDEAD OR ALIVE?
‘Operation Save Theresa’ seems well underway in Brussels as the EU27 move to avoid a chaotic no-deal Brexit that could follow a UK Parliamentary stalemate or even a general election. Chief negotiator Michel Barnier is the one throwing the lifebelt, while also somehow affecting a gallic shrug that it’s up to May to save herself from drowning in a seat of her own troubles.
Labour MP Stephen Kinnock claimed last week that Barnier had told him of the Chequers plan, “les propositions sont mortes” (the proposals are dead). Asked about that in Slovenia yesterday, the Frenchman replied: “I never said that, I don’t think that. It is not my feeling.” Kinnock will have to live with his inaccurate precis, but Remainers and Brexiteers alike think Barnier is playing a dangerous game, combining apparent emollience with intransigence. And whenever Barnier sounds happy or friendly, the default of many Leavers is to become very suspicious indeed.
Of course, this is a negotiation. Many were struck by Barnier’s line that a deal on the terms of withdrawal could be settled within six to eight weeks. But he also made plain the EU’s red lines: “It is not possible to get freedom for goods without freedom for services, in particular for the movement of people”. I was more taken by his remark that Chequers was “useful because it clearly defines what the wishes are for the UK for future relations”. That sounded like a hint that May’s wishlist was fanciful but could be parked in vague terminology of the future framework paper that will accompany the separate withdrawal deal. Never forget the EU cares much more about the latter than the former. And don’t forget too that in strictly legislative terms, MPs will be voting on the withdrawal deal, not the future framework.
As for the Brexiteers, it became clear yesterday that they won’t now propose their own comprehensive alternative to Chequers and will instead table individual proposals on things like the Northern Irish ‘backstop’. Their critics think this is because splits among the Brexiteers mean they won’t all approve all the plans, but Iain Duncan Smith said yesterday he and others would be putting forward a “whole set of new ideas” in coming weeks - but it was up to ministers to mould them into a plan that would be approved by Parliament.
3. GIG MAC AND FRIES
John McDonnell’s refreshed media operation is paying dividends as he tries to push new policy announcements and calm internal party rows. At the TUC today he will unveil plans to give workers in the ‘gig economy’ and ‘McJobs’ the same rights as those in more secure employment, including sick pay. There are also intriguing plans to boost employee share ownership funds to persuade firms to set aside profits and turn them into shares for staff. Some MPs will be hoping this marks a shift from Karl Marx to John Lewis (or even ‘Marx & Sparks’?), but aides believe it’s a vote-winning agenda the party can unite behind.
It’s all about trying to restore the ‘balance’ between bosses and employees, with McDonnnell claiming worker rights are the worst since the Depression of the 1930s. Before he heads to Manchester for the TUC, the Shadow Chancellor has Treasury questions. And in yet another move to engage better with the media, he will take questions from reporters afterwards. We used to have this kind of Q&A with Ed Balls after every Budget and pre-Budget Report, but it’s the first time McDonnell will be doing it.
The Tories have hit back by pointing out the lowest paid have seen the fastest rise in pay for 20 years thanks to the introduction of the National Living Wage. And at 9.30am we will get the latest jobless figures, which have continued to show record high rates of employment or what ministers call ‘the jobs miracle’. Just who is getting those jobs, how many are in skilled or secure work, how many are full or part time, are where much of the debate lies. Theresa May will today focus on creating more jobs in the growing electric car industry with a £106m cash injection for low emission tech.
4. COP CORNER
Sajid Javid is to give his big speech to the Superintendents Conference in Leicester and it looks like he’ll try to calm the cops with a pledge that he will bid for more funds in the next government spending review. His words couldn’t be more timely as the new National Audit Office report (splashed by the Telegraph) warns that the 19% real terms cut in police finances since 2010 has left forces making fewer arrests, fewer breathyaliser tests and other pro-active policing.
Javid knows crime is rising up the political agenda and has shrewdly put former Police Federation chief Steve White in charge of a review to see how stretched the thin blue line now is. I recall back in 2015, White told the then Home Secretary, Theresa May, that the bobby on the beat was becoming an “endangered species” amid cuts to neighbourhood policing. May hit back that the Fed should ‘stop crying wolf’ and “this kind of scaremongering does nobody any good”. His appointment is evidence of Javid being his own man.
5. KNACKER’S YARD
One area where the ‘jobs miracle’ may have a bitter taste is on the High Street, as online shopping and other factors continue to slash thousands of posts in retail. Today’s Mirror front page says Debenham’s is the latest chain under threat after crisis managers were brought in. Up to 80 stores could close. The paper cites retail ‘guru’ Bill Grimsey, who has conducted independent review of the high street, saying: “Debenham’s is like House of Fraser. It’s knackered.”
Grimsey’s report in July didn’t get enough pick-up but it predicted that 40,000 retail jobs could disappear this year alone in the UK. Imagine those kinds of figures in say the steel or coal industries and the political outcry that would follow. One Tory activist writing for ConHome has asked the question ‘Is it time to let the High Street die?’ Charlotte Salomon writes: “Like a David Attenborough film crew observing some poor feral creature’s last moments, maybe we should just watch, and let our high streets die.” She suggests business rate and parking charges cuts would help some firms. But she also suggests that maybe all the impending vacant retail space should be used to tackle the housing crisis.
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