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Jeremy Corbyn looks to rebuild team following re-election as Labour leader

Published 24/09/2016

Jeremy Corbyn is hot favourite to retain the Labour Party leadership
Jeremy Corbyn is hot favourite to retain the Labour Party leadership

Jeremy Corbyn has been meeting key Labour MPs as he seeks to rebuild his frontbench team in the wake of his emphatic re-election as leader.

The veteran left-winger's decisive 62%-38% victory over challenger Owen Smith has strengthened his personal mandate and dramatically reduced the prospect of further attempts to unseat him in the near future.

Proposals to restore elections to the shadow cabinet in a bid to smooth the way for the return of moderates who quit in June made no progress at a meeting of the party's ruling National Executive Committee.

Mr Corbyn, who has set his face against the changes, remained tight-lipped as he emerged from the hour-long meeting in Liverpool, where Labour's annual conference begins on Sunday.

Deputy leader Tom Watson, who failed to secure NEC support for the reform earlier this week, said only that they had "started talking".

Mr Corbyn issued a plea for party unity after being confirmed in his position, and aides said he had spent part of the day talking with MPs including Parliamentary Labour Party chair John Cryer and popular backbencher Jess Phillips, who chairs the women's PLP.

Mr Corbyn issued a call for Labour MPs to "work together and respect the democratic choice that's been made". But critics said he should extend an olive branch by allowing MPs to elect the shadow cabinet and stamping out any threat of de-selections for MPs perceived as disloyal.

Mr Smith, who quit as shadow work and pensions secretary to fight for the leadership, said he would "reflect carefully" on what role he could play in Labour's future, but urged moderate MPs not to split the party. But Labour peer Lord Mitchell indicated he will make good on his threat to quit the party if Mr Corbyn remained.

Mr Corbyn said both he and his challenger were part of the "same Labour family" as he appealed for unity after receiving 313,209 of the votes cast, compared with 193,229 for Mr Smith.

He acknowledged he had a responsibility to take action to unite Labour, but added: "It is also the responsibility of the whole party - Members of Parliament, councillors, party members and our wonderful supporters across the country - to work together and respect the democratic choice that's been made."

Echoing the maiden speech of former Labour MP Jo Cox, who was killed earlier this year, Mr Corbyn said: "Always remember in our party, we have much more in common than that which divides us."

The Islington North MP defeated his challenger in all three sections of the 500,000-strong electorate - full members, supporters from affiliated organisations like the unions, and registered supporters who paid a £25 fee to vote.

But an opinion poll suggested that Mr Smith won a large majority (63%-37%) among those who were members before last year's general election defeat, in a clear sign of the shift to the left which has accompanied the trebling in Labour ranks to 550,000 over the past year.

The Pontypridd MP - who has ruled out a return to the shadow cabinet - said it was clear that the party had "changed" under Mr Corbyn's leadership. But he set his face firmly against a split, saying: "I call on those party members disappointed by the result and tempted to look elsewhere to stay with Labour, and to stay involved."

It fell to Mr Corbyn to heal divisions within the party and turn round its "dire" opinion poll ratings, said Mr Smith. "Jeremy has won this contest. He now has to win the country, and he will have my support in trying to do so."

Mr Corbyn insisted the party was already coming together, with "lots of MPs" signalling their support.

But he refused to support calls to rule out the de-selection of MPs, telling the BBC: "It is not my decision who is selected for a place or not. I am not a leader who imposes things on constituencies."

Union leader Len McCluskey of Unite, one of Mr Corbyn's key backers, said the party's MPs should now listen to its members and stop the "sniping, plotting and corridor coups". But Labour MP Wayne David, who resigned from the front bench during the June revolt against Mr Corbyn, said: "Jeremy's rhetoric was of unity and olive branches today. The acid test, however, is what that means in practice."

Another ex-shadow cabinet minister Lisa Nandy warned that Mr Corbyn - who visited a community cafe to cook with local children following his victory - needed to understand the scale of the challenge Labour was facing with the lowest level of support in opposition since 1935.

"If don't start taking this seriously we will not win again. What the exit polls show is that the party is very divided," she told BBC Radio 4's The World At One. Mr Smith had "won convincingly among the more established membership ... the activists and councillors who were going out knocking on doors."

Close Corbyn lieutenant Diane Abbott questioned the motives of MPs demanding a return to shadow cabinet elections, warning that party members would not accept "internecine warfare". Ms Abbott hinted critics of Mr Corbyn could now face a backlash from their constituency parties if they refused to fall into line.

"If you look at some of Jeremy's fiercest opponents in the party, their local parties nominated Jeremy. What MPs have to do is start listening to party members," she said.

Mr Watson said: "The most important thing is that both candidates said they want to bring the party back together, they want unity. I think we are looking at an early general election and that must now be our sole focus - taking on Theresa May and the Tories."

Former leader Ed Miliband - who introduced the electoral system which delivered Mr Corbyn's victory - called on the party "to unite and to focus on the country".

Liberal Democrat supporters circulated messages on social media with the hashtags #leavelabour and #joinlibdems, while newly-elected Ukip leader Diane James said the result gave her party an opportunity to become the "opposition in waiting".

Greens urged Mr Corbyn to enter talks on a "grassroots-led progressive alliance" to fight Tories at the next election, in an apparent call for an electoral pact.

But Conservative Party chairman Sir Patrick McLoughlin said: "Labour are too divided, distracted and incompetent to build a country that works for everyone.

"Instead of learning lessons from the past, they have engaged in a bitter power struggle that will continue even after they've picked a leader."

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