Groundhog Day. Forgive me if I’m mistaken, but hasn’t Labour just gone through a ruinous and utterly unnecessary leadership contest that saw the party leader reconfirmed in his position? Please tell me the spectacle of sundry MPs appearing on Sunday politics television playing the unity card and positioning themselves as the paragons of such wasn’t a half-remembered dream from a fortnight ago? I feel moved to ask these questions, because since Jeremy Corbyn began his shadow cabinet reshuffle, the bellyaching and briefing are back.
And so, on Thursday, when it was clear he intended to appoint rather than allow a deeply antipathetic parliamentary party a total or partial veto over the shadow cabinet, the whingeing and picking apart began. Diane Abbott’s appointment called forth a torrent of racist and sexist abuse, but minus the hand wringing from the usual suspects. The unexpected sacking and replacement of Rosie Winterton by Nick Brown has seen her defenestration treated as if the office was hers by divine right. And now mischief is being made because the so-called great offices of state, a detail that was never Something To Be Concerned About until Jeremy occupied the leader’s office, are held by people occupying neighbouring London constituencies. Never mind that this is the most diverse shadow cabinet ever.
The vast majority of the party is, and I imagine the public are fed up of seeing the latest manufactured row hog the headlines and bulletins. If people want soap opera, they have EastEnders. Thanks partly to the incessant backbiting, if they want politics they have the Tories – as dismal poll after dismal poll has made clear (and remember, the unreliability of the polls are because they overestimate Labour support).
There is a lot Jeremy has to do to get things rolling again, and his pronounced tendency of not listening to the sensible members of his team is, to put it euphemistically, entirely unhelpful to his own position as Labour leader. That said, while he’s mostly received brickbats over his shadow cabinet choices I will, instead, offer plaudits. It shows that he’s learning and what has to be done to manage the party after the leadership contest.
He’s reasoned – correctly – that his strengthened mandate, the disappearance of a sliver of anti-Jez people, and the arrival of yet more new members can discipline recalcitrant MPs. It seems, at last, that most have recovered from constitutional cretinism and realised that constituency parties are the really sovereign bodies in their patch. That is, at least, if they wish to continue as Labour MPs. Jeremy should also drop Theresa May a discreet thank you note, for she has fortified his position too. Undoubtedly, there are things about her one nationism quite a few Labour MPs would find beguiling. Had she carried on with Dave’s social liberalism, a superficially “centre left” Tory party might have seen its first direct recruits from the Labour benches since Reg Prentice crossed the floor in 1977. Yet her embrace of anti-immigrant politics and scapegoating is too much even for Labour MPs who understand those ‘genuine concerns about immigration’. As for the LibDems, let’s just say they ain’t what they used to be. Hemmed in by the members and without an escape route to other parties, Jeremy knows he has more room for manoeuvre than previously – even with this lunch time’s resignation of two junior whips. Hence the dispensing of shadow cabinet elections and promotion of key allies.
There’s also precious self-awareness on the PLP’s part about all this. Why, as sceptics and proven opponents were they expecting Jez to reach out? True, all cabinets and shadow cabinets regardless of political colouration and level of government tend to reflect a balance of forces. Ability has to come second, unfortunately. But they’ve already suffered a comprehensive defeat in the party, and from the experience of last year Jeremy has learned that doling out portfolios to people who would undermine you isn’t the best approach to managing matters. Some have returned anyway, and newbies have slotted in, including the much-hyped Keir Starmer in the Brexit brief. Therefore given their track record, and now the breaking of the boycott of the front bench, why from Jez’s perspective should he award them a say over who goes in the top team?
It would also be bizarre if Jeremy didn’t award the allies who stuck by him. After all, isn’t that what leaders do? So the move of Diane Abbott up to the home secretary brief and promotion of Emily Thornberry to shadow foreign (incidentally, the first time a Labour shadow cabinet has seen an even gender split in the ‘great offices of state’ as well as the elevation of a black woman to such a position) ensures that at the very top there’s a unanimity of opinion. There will be no more Hilary Benn moments. And if you’re going to make a stand on immigration and racism, it’s probably best that your immediate team have your back. Diane Abbott, whatever one might think of her, is a consistent campaigner against racism as well as a frequent hate figure for the far right. On an issue as important as the growth in hate attacks, and a government determined to subordinate the health of British capitalism to the needs of the Tory party, you need a right hand woman prepared to make the uncompromising case against scapegoating and xenophobia.
Does this make for a more effective team than the one we had previously? It’s certainly more united, even if it is something of a baptism of fire for new MPs like Kate Osamor, Clive Lewis, and Angela Rayner. However, despite everything, even in its disunited state the party collectively won some impressive victories this last year. With government benches chafing after the purge of the Cameroons, abandonment of neoliberal orthodoxy, and what Brexit actually means the opportunities are there for Labour to claw back ground it lost over the summer. Provided, that is, they’re not pissed up the wall by more internal disputes or egregious attacks of political miscalculation.