Corbyn failed to engage with MPs. The next leader must not make the same mistake
Jeremy Corbyn promised a ‘new kind of politics’ that would democratise our party, but simply did not engage with the party’s internal democratic structures. The next leader must be more welcoming of scrutiny, writes Neil Coyle MP
After three years’ service I have stepped down from Labour’s Parliamentary Committee. It is not the most widely known body in Westminster, but it has traditionally played a crucial role in scrutinising the leadership of the Labour Party, both in government and in opposition.
The committee meets every Wednesday when Parliament is in session and is overseen by the Chair of the PLP. The leader, deputy leader, general secretary, the leaders or shadow leaders of both Houses and chief whips in both chambers are required to attend and provide reports.
Six backbenchers are elected to hold the leadership to account. David Hanson told me that in five years as Blair’s PPS, he did not remember him missing the committee once. That was as prime minister when, it is fair to say, there is greater pressure on the diary.
Sadly, its function has been undermined by the outgoing leader whose attendance has been closer to 20% and who has failed to act on many expressed concerns. Corbyn’s team even set up meetings with other backbenchers at the same time as the committee meetings to avoid our questions.
Over the last few years the committee’s role should have been crucial. It has certainly been stressful. We have collectively tried to secure action on problems facing the party. Bullying has been raised multiple times, including after Frank Field’s departure from Labour. Had the committee’s concerns been addressed, other MPs may not have felt the need to leave.
Tackling antisemitism has practically been a standing item on the agenda. If our concerns had been addressed and an independent, fair process had been implemented when first raised, the EHRC investigation may not have been necessary.
A lack of openness and resistance to scrutiny has occurred in the last few years that did not previously exist. We have been denied access to information requested and the leadership collectively have failed to routinely attend or provide answers to questions. The leadership that promised a ‘new kind of politics’ that would democratise our party simply did not engage with the party’s internal democratic structures.
Staffing matters have been a particular bugbear. Labour should be beyond reproach on employment issues but the General Secretary denied having any say over changes to the national membership team based in Newcastle even though she wrote to them just before Christmas about job losses.
The loss of good Labour MPs could also have been avoided. We raised concerns consistently about Jeremy Corbyn’s lack of popularity and voters’ hardening attitudes. We warned that Labour would lose and that an early election should be avoided. I read out emails from people resigning their party membership because of Corbyn. I recall suggesting to Jeremy that he could step aside whilst membership was high, his successor anointed and his policy agenda secure. All concerns were systematically ignored. We even met with election strategists who refused to acknowledge the issue. Voters made their conclusion very clear in December and I hope the party is now examining how they failed to address concerns.
In December 43% of voters said it was Labour’s leadership which prevented them from voting for us and 37% of voters who ditched Labour between 2017 and 2019 specifically cited Corbyn. The diehards who still give Corbyn 10/10 are ignoring voters’ genuine views and risk taking us beyond the wilderness and into the abyss.
It is fair to say that Corbyn didn’t ‘win the argument’ with the Parliamentary Committee I served on. When he could be bothered to turn up, he was ‘present but not involved’. The committee will now go forward under new leadership and I hope its role and status is restored. The new Leader must be more welcoming of scrutiny and act on legitimate concerns; failure to do so will prolong Johnson’s term in Downing Street.
Neil Coyle is Labour MP for Bermondsey & Old Southwark
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