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Change or die, moderates warn Labour Party

Published 25/09/2016

Jeremy Corbyn says he will give more decision-making power to rank-and-file Labour members
Jeremy Corbyn says he will give more decision-making power to rank-and-file Labour members

A string of Labour moderates have lined up to warn that the party could die if it does not change.

The warnings came a day after Jeremy Corbyn's re-election as leader, as an ICM opinion poll for The Sun on Sunday put Labour on 26% - its worst standing since 2009 and 15 points adrift of the Conservatives on 41%.

Delegates at the party's annual conference in Liverpool waited to see whether any of the MPs who walked out of Mr Corbyn's shadow cabinet in June would respond to his calls for unity by agreeing to return to the frontbench.

Mr Corbyn has said he wants to offer an olive branch to his critics after strengthening his mandate with a 62%-38% victory over challenger Owen Smith.

But he has set his face against their key demand for MPs to elect the shadow cabinet, and the ruling National Executive Committee kicked the issue into the long grass by agreeing to consider the issue at an awayday on November 22 - long after a possible reshuffle is likely to take place.

Mr Corbyn said he believed the "vast majority" of Labour MPs would be safe from deselection in the upcoming shake-up of constituency boundaries, but stopped shortly of promising they will be able to stand.

Candidate selection will be a matter for "democratic discussion" by local activists, he said, while his close ally Diane Abbott said the leadership would not intervene in the decisions of constituency parties - some of which have threatened to remove Corbyn critics, like Angela Eagle in Wallasey.

Mr Corbyn has been in talks with key backbench figures but has yet to announce any appointments to fill numerous holes in his frontbench team, and shadow chancellor John McDonnell said there may be no changes before MPs return to Westminster next month. Meanwhile, Labour peer Lord Mitchell quit the party, saying it was "very difficult" for Jews who support Israel to remain members after Corbyn's re-election.

Defiant moderates attended a packed rally of the Labour First movement to hear warnings that the party's future existence is at risk as well as pleas for centrists to stay and fight rather than quit or defect in protest at Mr Corbyn's re-election. As numbers overfilled the venue, speakers went outside to address crowds spilling out onto the street.

Former shadow cabinet minister Vernon Coaker warned: "The political terms of trade in this country are changing. The Labour Party has to change. Our policies have to change.

"If we don't change we will die."

Hilary Benn, who was sacked as shadow foreign secretary by Mr Corbyn, told the gathering: "Don't be disheartened because in the end the values that bind us together will win."

And Ms Eagle, who mounted a brief challenge for the leadership after the revolt within the party's ranks at Parliament, was given a standing ovation as she said she had received 47,000 pieces of abuse simply for changing her Facebook photo.

Labour MP Ruth Smeeth, who has been targeted with death threats, said: "If I'm not going anywhere, not one of you gets to go anywhere because we are staying and we are fighting."

At a fringe meeting within the conference, former shadow energy secretary Lisa Nandy warned that traditional supporters were "moving away" from the party, which risked following the old Liberals into irrelevance if it "stands still while the world around (it) changes".

And London Mayor Sadiq Khan told the Sunday Times: "We know from history - the Gang of Four in the 1980s - that when the Labour Party splits, we are out of power for a generation. Now it is far more serious than that. If the Labour Party splits, it could be the end of the Labour Party."

Meanwhile, the Labour leader attended a rally of the Momentum organisation set up by his supporters, which is holding a parallel festival near the Liverpool conference with events including film screenings, debates and "poems for Corbyn".

Mr Corbyn told supporters of the World Transformed event that their discussions were "absolutely central and mainstream" to the conference.

Speaking to BBC1's Andrew Marr Show, Mr Corbyn insisted the party was "quite united" on policy, and said it was time to "move on" from the bruising exchanges of the leadership contest.

Asked whether he wanted sitting MPs to be reinstated in the upcoming redrawing of boundaries, or if he would prefer a set of candidates with views closer to his own, Mr Corbyn said: "Listen, I wish them well.

"The relationship between an MP and their constituency is a complex one, not necessary a policy tick-box exercise. It's also the relationships, the community, the effectiveness of representation.

"Let's have a democratic discussion and, I think, the vast majority of MPs will have no problem whatsoever."

Shadow chancellor John McDonnell suggested that supporters of Mr Corbyn could come to influence the Parliamentary Labour Party even without the threat of sitting MPs facing reselection.

He told the Momentum event that the mass movement of new members who had joined Labour were already starting to make their presence felt at local level, which "has caused some elements of consternation because people are anxious about the change".

Mr McDonnell added: "You will see it at Parliamentary Labour Party level. This isn't about reselection or anything like that, that's not a threat.

"But you will see that permeate."

That could be as existing MPs "come to terms with this mass movement that they are now part of - many of them will embrace what's happened" while "over time you will see the representation change as a result of that mass movement coming along".

Former shadow chancellor Ed Balls said the party will survive but could end up like a pressure group.

He told a conference fringe: "I think the Labour Party will survive but I don't know whether the Labour Party will survive as a party which can realistically attempt to be in government."

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