Jeremy Corbyn has issued a defiant message to the seven MPs who resigned from his party on Monday, reminding them they stood in the 2017 general election on Labour’s manifesto, and “were elected to carry out those policies”.
The Labour leader was speaking on Tuesday at the annual conference of the manufacturers’ group Make UK, in his first public appearance since the breakaway MPs announced they would sit as independents in parliament.
“I regret that seven MPs decided they would no longer remain part of the Labour party. I thank them for their work,” Corbyn said, when asked about their departure.
He added: “I hope they realise they were elected to parliament on a manifesto that was based around investment in the future; that was based around a more equal and fairer society; that was based around social justice – and it is that programme that we are going to put to the electorate in the future, that does have enormous support. They were elected to carry out those policies. They decided to go somewhere else.”
Labour is keen to ramp up the pressure on the seven to trigger byelections in their seats, and run against official Labour candidates.
Asked whether he agreed with his deputy, Tom Watson, who said on Monday the frontbench of his party needed to “broaden out” to reflect the balance of views in the parliamentary party, Corbyn said: “I recognise that leading the party means you have to take people with you, and I’m determined to do that.”
But he said Labour policy was already developed in consultation with backbenchers, adding: “Anyone who does not feel consulted is not taking up, in my view, the opportunities that are available, at all times, to do that”.
There was no hint that he was prepared to carry out the reshuffle Watson appeared to be demanding.
The seven MPs, including Chuka Umunna and Luciana Berger, announced their resignations at a press conference on Monday, citing as reasons Labour’s Brexit policy and the leadership’s record on tackling antisemitism.
Much of Corbyn’s speech was devoted to Labour’s plans for a “renaissance” of manufacturing, and radical reforms of adult education. He was accompanied on the platform by the shadow education minister, Angela Rayner, and the shadow skills minister, Gordon Marsden, though neither spoke.
He announced the creation of a new commission on adult education, with those involved including the former education secretary Estelle Morris and Dave Ward, the general secretary of the Communication Workers Union.
“My old friend Tony Benn used to say that education should be like an escalator, going alongside you throughout life, so that you can get on and off it when you want to,” Corbyn said.
He also underlined his determination to continue pressing the government to adopt Labour’s Brexit plan, including a permanent customs union.
“It’s a plan we are convinced could win the support of parliament,” he said. He called on the prime minister to “end the Brexit uncertainty and back Labour’s credible alternative plan” or call a general election.
Failing that, he said Labour would keep “all options on the table” – including that of a “public vote” on Brexit. These remarks are likely to infuriate those backbench MPs who want to see Labour whip its MPs to support a referendum next week, when Theresa May is due to offer parliament the opportunity to vote again on the next steps in the Brexit process.