Jeremy Corbyn critic says he is victim of Labour smear campaign

Andrew Sparrow
Neil Coyle, the MP for Bermondsey and Old Southwark, says he refuses to be intimidated. Photograph: Jonathan Brady/PA

A Labour MP strongly critical of Jeremy Corbyn has said he has been the victim of a smear campaign after it emerged that his conduct had left him facing potential disciplinary action.

Neil Coyle is being investigated by the party’s chief whip, Nick Brown, over a series of complaints about him allegedly being abusive to members of Labour party staff.

Coyle has denied doing so. He said he was only aware of one complaint made to Brown about him, which was prompted by an email he sent to Corbyn last month.

In the email, Coyle complained about Corbyn’s communications operation. He received a reply from Karie Murphy, Corbyn’s office manager, saying she was referring the matter to Brown because Coyle’s claims were “vicious and unjust”.

Party sources said on Monday that Murphy was one of several people who had complained to the chief whip about Coyle recently, and that “there have been a number of occasions when he has abused staff, both in writing and verbally”.

The Commons has not been sitting over Easter and Brown has yet to adjudicate on the complaints, but party sources say they are sufficiently serious that that they could result in Coyle’s suspension.

In his email to Corbyn, Coyle referred to complaints journalists havd made about how long it takes Labour to issue press statements about stories and asked: “What is the challenge that your large support team has in understanding what news is coming up and how to respond quickly?”

He also complained about Labour MPs not getting a Brexit briefing from Corbyn’s office that week and, urging him to improve communications, concluded: “These basic mistakes are avoidable, but make your team look disorganised at best, incompetent at worst.”

In response, Murphy said Coyle was quoting a journalist known to be critical of Labour and that it was wrong for him “to attack any Labour staff member in such [a] vicious and unjust manner with absolutely no substantive evidence”.

Coyle told the Guardian he did not consider his letter abusive and that, if his critics had evidence of him abusing party staffers, they should provide it.

“If any of them went to put their head above the parapet, then they are more than welcome,” he said. “But they can’t [provide evidence], and instead of that it’s smear and innuendo.”

Coyle was elected MP for Bermondsey and Old Southwark in 2015, and was one of the Labour MPs who nominated Corbyn for the leadership that year in the interests of broadening the debate. He has since, however, become one of Corbyn’s most vocal critics.

After last year’s local elections he wrote a Guardian article with his fellow Labour MP Jo Cox, who was subsequently murdered, criticising Corbyn’s “weak leadership, poor judgment and a mistaken sense of priorities”.

More recently he wrote a formal complaint about the behaviour of Corbyn’s staff at a meeting of the parliamentary Labour party that was leaked to the Evening Standard. Coyle accused the Corbyn staffers of hissing at Labour MPs, a claim they strongly deny.

Over the weekend Coyle was also quoted as saying that, while some members of the shadow cabinet are effective, others are “almost invisible” and “a complete washout”.

On Monday Coyle said it was absurd that he was being penalised for raising legitimate concerns. “Rather than address the issues I have raised, the knee-jerk reaction is to make accusations about me, make a complaint about me,” he said.

“I won’t be intimidated. They’re shouting down anyone who dares to raise the tiniest of concerns about losing Copeland or being 20 points behind the Tories in the polls.”

Coyle said he was shocked by the reply he received from Murphy to email he had sent to Corbyn. He said it was indicative of how “some who surround Jeremy try to prevent him having to answer any questions”.

Coyle said no effort was being made to address the challenges the party was facing. “There’s a lot of damage being done by the Tories,” he said.

“We should be winning. We should be communicating better what the Tories are doing, the damage it is doing to everyone.”

A spokesman for Corbyn said: “Jeremy Corbyn has not referred Neil Coyle to the chief whip. Neil Coyle has been referred by others to the chief whip for consistently abusing members of Labour party staff.”