Labour MPs who support Jeremy Corbyn have discussed resigning from the parliamentary party and sitting as independents amid fears that Keir Starmer could lead a “mass purge” of the left, an ally of the former leader has warned.
As senior party figures called for calm following Labour’s suspension of Corbyn on Thursday for saying the party’s antisemitism problem had been overstated, Ian Lavery said there are fears that the move was a “war cry” that could force some MPs to leave.
Lavery, who chaired the party for three years until April, told the Guardian that many of Corbyn’s supporters, including MPs, fear the suspension is the beginning of a significant change in direction under Starmer.
On Friday evening senior figures close to Starmer and Corbyn were engaged in informal talks in an effort to allow the former leader to return to the party. Officials from Unite the Union have been involved in the discussions, which are expected to continue over the weekend, it is understood.
Many on the left of the party, including general secretaries of affiliated trade unions and Socialist Campaign Group MPs, remain furious with the decision to suspend Corbyn. But they have been warned by those closest to the former leader not to do or say anything which may make his position more difficult.
Lavery’s comments come after Starmer defended the party’s decision to withdraw the whip from his predecessor. The new Labour leader added that he has not ruled out expelling Corbyn from the party he led until six months ago.
Meanwhile, a poll from Ipsos Mori showed Labour five points ahead of the Conservatives on 42%, the first time the opposition had been ahead according to the pollster since Boris Johnson became prime minister, although the research was conducted in the week leading up to Corbyn’s suspension.
Lavery told the Guardian on Friday: “I have heard people suggest that if this is going to a continued change in political direction then perhaps they might not stay the full term as a Labour party representative. Perhaps they [MPs] might be convinced to become independent Labour.
“I have heard MPs saying that if this is a purge of the left and things aren’t resolved and continue in the same direction, then they would have to check their conscience to see whether they could stay as Labour MPs until the end of this parliament. There is a possibility of people moving to becoming independent.”
Any such move would be a “disaster,” Lavery said, urging all MPs to stay within the party, but he called on senior figures including Starmer to reach out before it is too late.
“The only way we will win an election is by staying as a united party. If people perceive this to be an all-out attack on the left of the movement – and if that is borne out by other decisions by the leader – there will be issues that will come to the fore that will result in massive problems.
“I would urge those MPs not to leave and I would urge the leader’s office to reach out. We have got to try to keep people calm. This dispute with Jeremy has got to be resolved as quickly as we possibly can and then we can move forward,” he said.
Lavery, the MP for Wansbeck in Northumberland, said Labour’s decision to suspend Corbyn could be challenged because it had broken a key recommendation of the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) report, which found the party responsible for three legal breaches over antisemitism.
“The EHRC recommendations, all of which I support, said quite clearly that there shouldn’t be any intervention from the leader’s office in disciplinary matters. Jeremy was suspended on Keir’s say-so,” he said. This is denied by the party, who say the general secretary, David Evans, made the decision.
The widening schism in the party could be healed if the two sides come to a resolution over Corbyn’s suspension, Lavery said. “I think that there has been a miscalculation and there is room for discussion between the adults in the room to see if there can be some sort of resolution,” he added.
In a series of interviews on Friday, Starmer insisted he had had nothing to do with this disciplinary process. Party staff were told this afternoon that the only person consulted by Evans in advance of his decision to suspend was a lawyer.
Asked if possible disciplinary action against Corbyn could include expulsion, Starmer said: “Yes, people have been expelled from the Labour party.” He told the BBC: “But it’s not for me to say what process should be followed, that’s for the general secretary, or what sanction is in order.
“I don’t want a civil war in the Labour party. I don’t think there’s any need for one. I want to unite the party. But I’m not going to renege on my commitment to root out antisemitism.”
Starmer said he had spelled out to Corbyn on Wednesday evening how he intended to respond to the damning report by the EHRC. “I’m deeply disappointed in that response from Jeremy Corbyn yesterday not least because I spoke to him the night before the report to set out how I intended to deal with it,” he said.
Others on the party’s left were preparing to speak up in support of the suspended former leader on Friday night.
Members’ pressure group Momentum announced plans for an hour-long “Stand with Corbyn” online rally, with familiar allies John McDonnell, Diane Abbott, Jon Trickett and Richard Burgon among the MPs lined up to speak.
Despite Lavery’s comments, some allies and colleagues of both Starmer and Corbyn seemed keen to step back from any immediate confrontation, with Labour officials saying that while the disciplinary process was out of Starmer’s control, there would be “lots of meetings” taking place with all sides in the interim.
Len McCluskey, leader of the Unite union, Labour’s biggest financial donor, also rolled back from his more combative tone from Thursday, saying it was “a sensitive time” and people should remain measured.
“Now is the time for some calmness, so we can see if we can resolve this,” he told Sky News. “Yesterday should have been about moving on from antisemitism, and embracing what the EHRC said, which Keir did, and unfortunately we’ve all been knocked off the rails a little bit by Jeremy’s suspension.” McCluskey is understood to have toned down his comments after a conversation with Starmer.
McCluskey met the Labour leader on Friday afternoon with proposals for an negotiated end to the suspension, but there was no immediate sign that anything had emerged as a result.
One Corbyn ally said they believed the Labour leadership would be keen to resolve the disagreement quickly and that both sides were seeking “mutual ladders to climb down”.
However, they disputed Starmer’s implication that Corbyn had been fully briefed about the repercussions of downplaying the scale of antisemitism in Labour before the EHRC report, saying the pair only had a “short” phone call on Wednesday evening, with few details.