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Jeremy Corbyn issues new unity plea ahead of expected victory in leadership poll

Published 23/09/2016

Jeremy Corbyn is expected to be re-elected as leader
Jeremy Corbyn is expected to be re-elected as leader

Jeremy Corbyn has issued a call for Labour MPs to unite, on the eve of his all but certain victory in the battle to retain his leadership.

The veteran left-winger is hot favourite to see off the challenge from rival Owen Smith when the results of the leadership election are announced in Liverpool on Saturday, with bookmaker William Hill giving him a 99% chance of success and an odds-on hope of improving on the 59.5% support he received when first elected a year ago.

In a video message to supporters, he said that internal critics had a "duty to unite", regardless of the margin of victory.

But senior moderate Caroline Flint said that Mr Corbyn needs to show he can listen to internal critics if he is to bring the party together, and warned of "warfare" if he allows talk of MP deselections to continue.

After private talks this week with senior MPs on Labour's moderate wing, Mr Corbyn is expected to seek to rebuild his frontbench team in the wake of the expected confirmation of his position.

The resignation of more than 40 frontbenchers in June left him unable to fill all his shadow ministerial posts, and reports have suggested that as many as 14 may be ready to return following the apparent failure of Mr Smith's bid to unseat him.

But others, including Hilary Benn, Yvette Cooper and Chuka Umunna are thought likely to focus on their bids to secure the chairs of influential parliamentary committees, which will allow them to take prominent roles scrutinising Theresa May's Government from outside Mr Corbyn's camp.

Labour's ruling National Executive Committee was due to meet after the result is announced, after putting off a decision earlier this week on proposals to restore elections to the shadow cabinet, which might have given some centrist MPs a route back into Mr Corbyn's top team.

It was not clear whether the issue will be settled over the course of the coming week's annual conference in Liverpool, with Mr Corbyn preferring a wider review of Labour's democratic structures to give more decision-making power to the membership.

In his video message, Mr Corbyn said: "This isn't and never has been about me. It's about all of us. Whatever the result, whatever the margin, we all have a duty to unite, cherish and build out movement."

Rejecting the claims of critics that he is more interested in consolidating the left's hold over Labour than in winning power, Mr Corbyn insisted that the wave of enthusiasm which drove his second leadership campaign - just a year after he was first elected - would boost the party's hopes in the general election scheduled for 2020.

With 40,000 volunteers signing up to take part in his leadership campaign and membership numbers swelling to more than half a million, Mr Corbyn said Labour would be able to deliver "a new kind of general election campaign - the biggest, best and most visible we have ever run".

Admitting that the leadership contest had been "robust and at times difficult", he insisted the debate had nonetheless been "respectful" and the party was agreed on key issues like opposing austerity.

"Now let's turn our agreement into unity, our passion into action and our ideas into reality," he said. "We must win the next general election so Labour can rebuild and transform Britain so no-one and no community is left behind. We can and must do that together."

Former minister Ms Flint said that Labour MPs should "be constructive and work hard to support the Labour front bench" if Mr Corbyn is re-elected.

But she added: "Jeremy also has to do some things as well. I think he has to make sure that talk about deselecting MPs is stopped because that will only lead to warfare, not unity.

"I think after Saturday, what's very important is Jeremy can show he can unite the party and I hope he will demonstrate that he is prepared to listen to not only those that supported him, but also those that didn't, because all of us have it in our interest to form an effective opposition to hold the Government to account, and I hope he'll show leadership by reaching out."

The scale of Labour's challenge was laid bare by a poll suggesting that more than half its supporters who voted to leave the European Union could now back other parties at a general election, according to a new poll.

Just 48% of 2015 Labour voters who backed Brexit will continue to support the party, while 9% will switch to Tories and 8% go to Ukip the YouGov poll for The Times found. A quarter said they were unsure what they will do.

On overall voting intentions, the YouGov poll put the Conservatives on 39% and Labour on 30%. Ukip polled 13%, while the Lib Dems polled 8% in the wake of their conference at the weekend.

Trade union boss Dave Prentis, general secretary of Unison, said there was "little chance" of winning voters back if internal conflict continued, warning that Labour " looks as far away from power and changing the country for the better than at any point in my lifetime".

"Endless internal rows, rumours and attacks are pushing us further from government."

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