Jeremy Corbyn needs to be “bolder and braver” in making the case for immigration and should step up the campaign to keep Britain in the EU, the chief of one of Britain’s biggest unions has said.
The warning from the GMB general secretary Tim Roache comes as the Labour leader prepares to praise the EU in a speech. He added that the Remain campaign risks losing the referendum if Labour voters do not get more engaged.
The intervention from the leader of GMB, the third-largest Labour affiliated union that represents 640,000 members, also comes after it emerged – through a leaked memo and polling from YouGov – that nearly half of Labour voters are unaware of the party’s stance on the upcoming EU referendum. The poll revealed that only 55 per cent of voters knew that the majority of the party’s MPs back remaining in the 28-member state bloc.
Around 45 per cent of those asked thought the party was backing Brexit or its members were split down the middle.
Mr Corbyn, who voted against membership of the European Economic Community in 1975, has received criticism for a "half-hearted" campaign to keep Britain in the EU.
In an interview with the BBC, Mr Roache said Labour needed to confront the immigration question: "I think Labour needs to be a bit more bold, it needs to be a bit more brave, in taking on the issues in working people's minds, rather than keeping silent about them, and I think that's what Labour's done for too long."
He warned of the danger that Labour supporters could stay at home on referendum day because "they won't see it as the absolutely crucial vote that it is, and I also think that they see it as a bunfight in the Tory Party".
left to register
"The reality is that the more people that stay at home, the more likely it is that we will leave the EU," said the GMB boss. "I don't think we can even begin to contemplate that."
Shadow cabinet member Owen Smith said Mr Roache was “right” about the need for a “strong and distinct Labour case” for Remain and “the danger that Labour voters will see this as something that Tories have been banging on about for the last 30 years and not something that bothers them”.
“Jeremy agrees with him, which is why he is making a really big speech today - the third or fourth speech he has made in the campaign - and he is making a very clear Labour case, saying that we have a series of workers' rights that are dependent on our being members of the EU, which acts as backstop to support those rights,” Mr Smith told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme.
Mary Creagh – a Labour MP who put her name forward for last year's leadership contest but failed to secure enough support to get on the ballot paper – said speeches were not enough to get Labour's message across, and the party should be fighting the campaign like a general election.
The Wakefield MP told BBC Today: "The danger in this campaign is that all Labour voices have been crowded out by the crisis and splits engulfing the Conservative Party. I've had emails from my constituents saying 'I'm a Labour voter but what's the Labour position?' I've been saying it locally, but that message isn't getting through on the ground.
"The danger is of leaders making a speech and then thinking everybody has heard it ... I think we need to be treating this referendum as though it was a general election campaign and having everybody out on the doorstep and having a good ground campaign. It's important that we help people understand what this means for working people."
In a speech at the Institute of Engineering Technology, Mr Corbyn will say:"Several Leave supporters have stated clearly they want to leave Europe to water down workers' rights, to rip up the protections that protect work-life balance, that prevent discrimination and prevent exploitation and injustice.
"That is why we say, the threat to the British people is not the European Union - it is a Conservative Government here in Britain seeking to undermine the good things we have achieved in Europe and resisting changes that would benefit the ordinary people of Britain.
"A vote to Leave means a Conservative Government would then be in charge of negotiating Britain's exit. Everything they have done as a government so far means we could not rely on them to protect the workplace rights that millions rely on. A Tory Brexit negotiation would be a disaster for the majority of people in Britain."
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