A potential left-wing candidate for the Labour leadership has come under fire after claiming that Brexit, and not Jeremy Corbyn’s policies, was to blame for the party’s landslide defeat in last month’s election.
Party chair Ian Lavery said Labour had to earn its “right to exist” by rebuilding the trust of its traditional voters in the wake of the 12 December rout, when it shed 59 seats as Boris Johnson romped to an 80-seat majority.
But centrist MP Neil Coyle said it was time for Mr Lavery to answer questions about his own role in the debacle, accusing him of failing to take the necessary action to tackle antisemitism and prevent party splits, and of breaking a three-line whip as chair in order to vote against a second Brexit referendum.
A leadership bid would give Labour members the chance to ask Mr Lavery “why his term as party chair has left him questioning whether Labour – a party in government just nine years ago – now has any right to exist”, Mr Coyle told The Independent.
The row came after former MP Ruth Smeeth, the parliamentary chair of the Jewish Labour Movement, said that no member of Mr Corbyn’s shadow cabinet deserved to succeed him and called on Labour members to vote instead for backbench candidates such as Jess Phillips, Lisa Nandy, Dan Jarvis or Yvette Cooper who spoke out against antisemitism in the party’s ranks.
Writing in The Jewish Chronicle, Ms Smeeth – who lost her seat last month – said: “No currently serving member of the shadow cabinet deserves our vote.
“They have been timid when we needed strength. They have allowed racism in the Labour Party to be … normalised. They have failed us when we needed them most. They enabled Mr Corbyn and his friends to make us a target.”
In the latest salvo in the increasingly bitter battle to succeed Corbyn, Mr Lavery used an article in the Daily Mirror to warn against a return to what he termed the “bland centrism” of pre-2015 leaders such as Ed Miliband.
The Wansbeck MP has said he is “seriously considering” throwing his hat into the ring for the leadership contest due to get under way formally later this month.
His entry would risk splitting the left-wing vote with Rebecca Long Bailey, who has so far been viewed as the “continuity Corbyn” candidate.
Mr Lavery left no doubt in his article that he would stick to the programme – set out by Mr Corbyn – of nationalisations and tax hikes for corporations and the rich.
He said that the offer of a second referendum on Brexit was to blame for driving voters away, and accused the “architects of our defeat” of attempting to rewrite history.
“To survive, we must understand why we lost and articulate a bold vision for the future,” wrote Mr Lavery.
“It seems ridiculous to point out it was not our policies that led to defeat.
“For some, that would be a neat conclusion allowing them to return to a bland centrism of 2015. But it isn’t true.
“Labour lost because of our Brexit position, infighting, a collapse of industry in our communities and a lack of trust in our ability to deliver.”
Talk of a second referendum was seen by many traditional Labour voters as “a way to foist Remain upon them”, he said. “Communities represented by Labour for generations felt abandoned. It is time to outline a positive vision of the future outside of the EU.”
Mr Lavery said Labour’s route to victory was not to shift direction politically but to “rebuild links” with communities and restore trust in its ability to govern.
“For Labour to win again we need to understand why we lost and to rebuild trust and power in our communities,” he said.
“We don’t have the divine right to exist as a party – we need to earn it.”
Mr Coyle said it was “great” that Mr Lavery appeared to be set to put himself forward for the leadership, as this would allow his record as chair to be scrutinised.
“Members will be able to ask him why he failed to allow their inclusion in policy-making,” the Bermondsey and Old Southwark MP told The Independent.
“They’ll want to know why he broke the whip to vote for Brexit. They’ll be keen to ask about how he’s upheld Labour values.
“They’ll wonder why he did so little to try and prevent the party splitting and to tackle antisemitism.
“They’ll be keen to ask why his term as party chair has left him questioning whether Labour – a party in government just nine years ago – now has any right to exist.
“I’m glad he’s put himself forward to answer questions and look forward to his responses as he’s failed to answer questions from parliamentary colleagues for some time. Should be a real eye-opener.”