Labour MPs have been told there is no ‘deselection hit list’ of Jeremy Corbyn’s critics, despite fresh fears among rebels that they are being targeted for defying the party leadership.
Shadow Chief Whip Nick Brown told a meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) on Monday night that MPs should dismiss newspaper reports that party whips had up to 50 names facing the loss of their seats, HuffPost can reveal.
Former Shadow Chancellor Chris Leslie raised the report in the Sunday Times, making clear his anger at any suggestion he would be kicked out by fresh moves to change rules on reselection of MPs for the next general election.
Leslie, an anti-Brexit campaigner who has been one of Corbyn’s fiercest critics, was named along with veteran MPs Hilary Benn and Angela and Maria Eagle, as on a ‘hit list’ drafted by leftwingers.
The paper claimed that one party whip had been privately telling ‘moderate’ MPs not to rock the boat or face deselection in their own backyard.
Leslie sought assurances that the reports were untrue and demanded that Brown raise the issue at Shadow Cabinet and the party leadership should make a clear statement it opposed mandatory reselection for MPs.
Brown warned that the activities of those who tabled rebel amendments on issues such as Brexit were bound to be noted by the whips.
But he insisted to the PLP that he didn’t have a list of people to deselect.
“I do buy the paper [the Sunday Times],” Brown told MPs. “But I only read the Culture Section. I throw the rest away, as it is nonsense.”
When he asked the PLP whether they thought he really should have such a list, his joke was met with laughter by some MPs, sources told HuffPost.
A furious Leslie hit back: “I don’t think this is a laughing matter”.
Brown’s reassurance to MPs came as Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell also moved to make clear that deselections were not an issue, adding that party members were unifying behind even those who had disagreed with Corbyn.
McDonnell told the Liverpool Echo: “No one is in a deselection in the Labour party. People have come together after a fantastic election result.”
Asked if he wanted local members to get behind the city MPs who had not previously backed Corbyn, the Shadow Chancellor said: “Of course we would, we are campaigning together, we are a united party at every level - some elements of the media will always try and sow division.
“But the atmosphere is united and determined because we need this government out and we need a Labour government to turn this country around.”
One source suggested MPs had been given discreet advice to keep their local party on board, but denied threats of removal had been made by whips.
Leslie refused to discuss the PLP meeting but said that the Sunday Times story had concerned him because it suggested it was not targeted at him but the whole of the PLP, and that no dissent of any kind would be tolerated.
“I’m not going to be cowed or intimidated by threats of deselection from Jeremy’s Momentum or from the Labour leadership,” he told HuffPost aftewards.
“It’s vital that the Labour Party is a broad church if we are ever going to win a general election.”
Several MPs fear that leftwingers are set on changing the party’s rules on reselection to make it easier to remove those who have in the past been critical of Corbyn.
The Labour democracy review could include submissions to allow a reselection contest when 33% of local members want one, as opposed to the current threshold of 50%.
Unite the union has already passed a motion demanding ‘mandatory reselection’ for all MPs, and Momentum founder Jon Lansman has long called for the step as it replicates what happens with local councillors.
Corbyn has long said that party rules are a matter for the NEC but has so far been wary of personally backing reselection changes.