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Get used to party polls on Labour policy, Jeremy Corbyn tells critics

Published 21/12/2015

Jeremy Corbyn prepares to mark his first 100 days as Labour leader
Jeremy Corbyn prepares to mark his first 100 days as Labour leader

Jeremy Corbyn has warned critics they had "better get used" to party members having a bigger influence over policy, as he suggested he could use a grassroots poll to bolster support for his opposition to Trident.

But he admitted the party was not yet equipped to adequately assess replies after criticism of the leadership's use of an email survey to try to sway the vote on air strikes in Syria.

Mr Corbyn's defiant stance - in an interview with HuffPost UK to mark his first 100 days as Labour leader - came as his most senior shadow cabinet colleague said the party would not make "policy by plebiscite".

Shadow first secretary of state and shadow business secretary Angela Eagle said the party needed "forward-looking policies" and hit back at the leader's criticism of MPs who applauded Hilary Benn's Commons speech backing air strikes and declined to back Mr Corbyn as the best person to fight the 2020 general election.

The Labour leader also courted controversy with a criticism of Allied bombing raids on Dresden at the end of the Second World War in 1945.

He did not rule out a return to the Labour fold for maverick left-winger George Galloway.

Mr Corbyn's staunch opposition to the renewal of the UK's nuclear deterrent and his vow he would not launch a strike if he was prime minister put him out of step with the majority of Labour's MPs.

A review of the policy is being led by shadow defence secretary Maria Eagle - but critics were angered by Mr Corbyn's decision to hand a key role on the panel to the anti-Trident Ken Livingstone.

Asked if he could also go directly to members and supporters, he said: "Yeah. I've done that on the Syria vote.

"In 36 hours we got 80,000 replies. There may have been more later. We sampled them and we got overwhelming opposition to bombing.

"I hope that had an influence on what Labour MPs were thinking, I hope that had an influence on public opinion. I don't apologise for that, I think it's the right thing to do. It's something I will do again."

The published analysis of a sample of responses - which opponents complained was not reliable - failed to prevent more than 60 MPs voting in favour of air strikes, giving the Government a clear mandate to start bombing Islamic State (IS) targets.

"I'll be quite honest about it, we have a management problem with dealing with responses," Mr Corbyn conceded - saying that at one point the party had a six-figure backlog of emails.

"There is a problem of engagement but to have a problem of engagement with those numbers of people is surely a good thing. And that's what we're working on.

"This is what social media unleashes and I think politics better get used to the idea it is here to stay."

Mr Corbyn said he had no plans to change selection rules to open the option of more moderate MPs being forced out as candidates in 2020 by local activists - but added he was "not a dictator" if that is what the party wanted to do.

Ms Eagle - who as shadow first secretary of state deputises for Mr Corbyn and is also chairwoman of the party's National Policy Forum - told the BBC: "We don't make policy by plebiscite because there are very few policies that have clear black and white, yes or no answers in a complex world.

"What we need to have is debate and decision-making after everybody has been listened to, democratically arrived at through the policy processes.

"I am determined to deliver a much better version of that than we've had in the past."

The Dresden bombings, which left 25,000 civilians dead and razed much of the German city to the ground, remain a contentious issue, with the Archbishop of Canterbury forced to insist earlier this year that his expression of "regret and deep sorrow" was not an apology.

"What I read of it, it wasn't a military target," Mr Corbyn said.

"I think there are obviously huge debates about that and whilst one doesn't want to necessarily reopen all the old sores all the time, surely bombing civilian targets is never a good idea? You can't punish a population, you've got to win them round in the end."

Asked to name a moral conflict British forces had been involved in, he mentioned the naval blockade to stop the slave trade in the 19th century.

Ilford North MP Wes Streeting said: "I thought that email consultation on Syria was a good example of what phony consultation looks like, as an email was sent out to party members with the open text box."

He told BBC Radio 4's World At One: "Although the response was fantastic - which is in itself encouraging - there is no way that Jeremy or even the entire complement of Labour Party staff could have gone through those emails in time for the vote."

Mr Streeting said although he voted against bombing Syria and believed a majority of Labour activists were also opposed, the consultation had not carried much weight with MPs.

"I think it was such a big and complicated issue that having that sort of consultation on that issue, it may make members feel like they are more involved in policy making, but I would argue that it didn't really lead to them having much influence over the decision at all."

Mr Streeting said the test for Mr Corbyn would be whether he can "help Labour win the general election".

"One of the things that does concern me is that the polling seems to show that on so many issues Labour has moved further away from the public since the general election when we need to move closer to the public."

Mr Streeting said local and mayoral elections next year would be an "important barometer" of Mr Corbyn's leadership.

"But the Labour Party is not just a protest movement, it is a party that wants to be in government," he added.

"Jeremy has got to show that he has got what it takes to form the next government as a Labour prime minister."

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