McDonnell calls for ‘mammoth listening exercise’ after MPs quit

Shadow chancellor John McDonnell has called for a “mammoth listening exercise” after seven MPs quit Labour in protest at the party’s direction.

The comments came as one of the breakaway group, Chuka Umunna, signalled that a new centre party could be formally created by the end of the year.

The walkout saw party leader Jeremy Corbyn being warned he faces more resignations by Labour MPs unless he gets a grip on the problem of anti-Semitism within the party’s ranks.

Mr McDonnell told Sky news: “We need a mammoth, massive listening exercise and (to) address some of those criticisms that have been made.”

The shadow chancellor said the “only disagreement we have had within the party is around how we handle Brexit and I think we are bringing people together on that”.

Mr McDonnell played down suggestions that as many as 36 Labour MPs had been considering a split.

(PA Graphics)

He said: “I don’t think there is that scale, but the key issue for us – and it was made clear at the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP), Tom Watson said it and others – the Labour leadership, and I’m part of that, we need to keep listening, bring people in, talk to them.”

Asked when the breakaway group of MPs could evolve into an up-and-running centre party, Mr Umunna told ITV’s Good Morning Britain: “I would like to see us move as quickly as possible and certainly by the end of the year, but that’s my personal view.”

He added: “There needs to be an alternative, so that’s perfectly possible. But I don’t get to determine this.”

Prominent Labour MP Mary Creagh said she had been approached to join the breakaway, but said no.

(PA Graphics)

Ms Creagh told the BBC: “I think what’s important is that we now take a long hard look at ourselves as a political party.

“It’s clear that Brexit is pushing both parties to the brink. It’s clear that anti-Semitism has taken root in our party.”

Shadow business secretary Rebecca Long-Bailey said the MPs who quit took an “agonising” decision as she called for unity.

Ms Long-Bailey told the BBC: “I know that the decision colleagues made to leave the party was agonising, but I honestly don’t think it was the right one.”

The MPs who quit Labour were  branded “pathetic” by Derek Hatton, the firebrand former deputy leader of Liverpool City Council.

Jeremy Corbyn
Jeremy Corbyn has been urged to reshuffle his frontbench team (Victoria Jones/PA)

Speaking after it was reported he had formally been readmitted to the Labour Party 34 years after being expelled, Mr Hatton told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “Of course it’s good to be back, in fact in a way I’ve never left.

“For 34 years I’ve stayed absolutely solid with the Labour Party. Never joined any other party, never actually voted for another party. Never campaigned for another party.

“And, believe you me, during the times of the Blair era, the Iraq war, the ending of clause four, etc, it wasn’t easy, and it was tempting to go.

“And that’s why when you look at the seven who now have left you think, well, how pathetic is it, how really strong are you within the Labour movement to want to run away when there is something that you disagree with?”

Tensions in Labour ranks broke into a stormy meeting of the PLP on Monday night.

Party chairman Ian Lavery faced an angry backlash at the gathering.

Labour sources said Mr Lavery stressed the leadership’s commitment to rooting out anti-Semitism at what was described as a “heated” behind-closed-doors gathering at Westminster.

But his claims were greeted with derision by some of those present with accusations that he failed to understand the “enormity” of the problem.

The clashes came after Mr Umunna, Chris Leslie, Luciana Berger, Mike Gapes, Angela Smith, Gavin Shuker and Ann Coffey said they would be sitting as a new Independent Group in the Commons and urged MPs – from Labour and other parties – to join them.

A party source said Mr Lavery had spelt out the measures being taken to deal with the “appalling abuse”.

My colleagues and I are in a privileged position as MPs to not just complain about the same old politics but have a duty and ability to do something about it. Join us to #ChangePolitics:

— Chuka Umunna (@ChukaUmunna) February 19, 2019

“Ian Lavery spoke about the party’s traditions as a broad church, in which there is a wide range of opinions, but we work together to build a brighter future for millions of people and transform our society,” the source said.

“He made clear the party’s absolute determination to root out anti-Semitism and the work that is being done to improve procedures to tackle this appalling abuse.”

Earlier however, deputy leader Mr Watson – who has been critical in the past of efforts to deal with anti-Semitism in the party – said he feared there could be further resignations.

“I confess I feared this day would come. And I fear now that unless we change, we may see more days like this,” he said.

He called on Mr Corbyn to reshuffle his frontbench team so it better reflected the balance of opinion in the PLP, where many MPs reject the leader’s left-wing agenda.