The first meeting of the parliamentary Labour party since the party’s disastrous election defeat began with a round of applause. Only it wasn’t for Jeremy Corbyn. Instead MPs clapped in tribute to those colleagues who had lost their seats in the party’s worst election showing since 1935. The reaction the beleaguered Labour leader received was mixed at best – with the session, which ran on for over two hours, dominated by angry outbursts from surviving MPs.
Addressing MPs, Corbyn apologised for his role in the result:
‘I am very sorry for the result for which I take responsibility. I will continue to lead the party until a new leader is elected. I want us to have the smoothest possible transition for the sake of the party as a whole and for those Labour mayors and councillors who are up for re-election in May. Whoever the next leader is, they will need the party to come together for those elections and to oppose Boris Johnson’s Conservatives.’
He went on to suggest Brexit was the key factor in the election result – saying that despite Labour’s best efforts to move the conversation to domestic issues, Brexit dominated: ‘We must now listen to those lifelong Labour voters who we’ve lost. I believe that Brexit was a major – although not the only – reason for their loss of trust in us’. With regards to the party’s path in the short term, Corbyn said that all Labour MPs ought to vote against the government Withdrawal Agreement Bill when it comes before the house on Friday.
However, his comments failed to impress the bulk of MPs present – with attendees complaining that Corbyn’s apology had failed to grasp the scale of the defeat. The most positive intervention came from newly elected Corbyn ally Claudia Webbe. She insisted to MPs that there was ‘a lot to celebrate’ – pointing to the number of BAME candidates elected and defending the leadership. However, when she did eventually acknowledge ‘the reality is we lost the election’, her comments were met with groans from worn down MPs.
When it came to criticism of Corbyn, the critique was wide-ranging. Labour MP Rachel Reeves said the main problem in the party’s campaign was not Brexit but Corbyn – ‘the biggest drag on our vote was you’ – along with manifesto and policy pledges that made the party come across as ‘economically illiterate’. Labour MPs also complained that the party had mishandled its resources and failed to provide MPs in the so-called red wall with enough support to retain their seats. Jess Phillips read out a text from Melanie Onn who lost her seat of Great Grimsby to the Tories. Attendees say Liz Kendall – the former leadership contender – complained that the organisation had been so bad that her team had ran out of stickers. Stella Creasy – accompanied by her three-week old baby – complained that nowhere in the election post-mortem had Scotland been mentioned when the party had been left with just one MP north of the border.
One MP in the meeting described the general atmosphere as one of ‘fury’. Departing the meeting, another attendee sighed in frustration: ‘We lost the f—ing election’. Speaking after the meeting Margaret Hodge said that it was as though the top table – including Jeremy Corbyn – had suffered amnesia. Another Labour MP complained that it was as though – to borrow a phrase from Theresa May – ‘nothing had changed’.
However, despite the anguish, not one MP called directly on Corbyn to go immediately. The focus instead is on ensuring that the leadership contest that will commence in the new year is a fair fight. Margaret Beckett said the focus ought to be on picking a leader who could win rather than protecting Corbyn’s legacy. But this meeting failed to ease concerns about the contest. When Jennie Formby told MPs there would be ‘proper vetting’ of new members ahead of the leadership contest, her comments were met with laughter. As one MP lamented on leaving: ‘We’ve got a long way to go’.