War of manoeuvre
Jeremy Corbyn still presides over a ‘left-centre-right’ shadow cabinet, writes Eddie Ford
After 30 hours of talks, Jeremy Corbyn finally completed his cabinet reshuffle in the early hours of January 6. As widely expected, Michael Dugher, shadow culture secretary, got the sack. As far as communists are concerned, good riddance to rightist rubbish - exemplified by his red-baiting comments about how a lot of Stop the War Coalition members “think the wrong people won the cold war”, or attacking Momentum as a “mob” who condemned “good” Labour MPs who took a “very difficult decision” over military action in Syria.
Issuing a rather self-aggrandising statement, Dugher - a former aide to Gordon Brown who ran Andy Burnham’s leadership bid - said he had “paid the price” for speaking out in defence of such colleagues, claiming that the biggest casualty in the reshuffle had been the “new politics” promised by the Labour leadership. He also accused the Corbyn team of deploying a “barrage of briefing” against “decent and loyal” shadow cabinet members. Sections of the media made a big thing about Dugher being a popular “working class MP”, suggesting that his departure could represent a “danger” to the Labour leader.1 Fairly predictably, Dugher was praised by the usual suspects on the centre and right of the party - Tom Watson, Labour’s deputy leader, Andy Burnham, shadow home secretary, Vernon Coaker, shadow Northern Ireland minister, and a string of senior Labour MPs such as Lucy Powell, Jon Ashworth, Luciana Berger and Graham Jones. Watson, in particular, lamented the “loss” of a “rare politician” like Dugher - a “talented working class MP” who has “not lost his strong Yorkshire roots”. Somewhat daftly, Graham Jones - MP for Hyndburn - made out that Dugher’s sacking was a sign that “traditional working class Labour is dying”, presumably at the hands of the London metropolitan elite represented by Jeremy Corbyn.
Also sacked for “incompetence and disloyalty” was Pat McFadden, the shadow Europe minister - replaced by Pat Glass, formerly the shadow education minister with responsibility for childcare. McFadden got the chop, it seems, mainly for his response to the blog post that appeared on the STWC’s website, which said Paris had “reaped the whirlwind” of “western support for extremist violence” in the Middle East (which, of course, was taken completely out of context by the media and the Labour right). Full of innocence, McFadden mused on the BBC’s Today programme that the Labour leader “clearly” interpreted “me saying terrorists are entirely responsible for their actions” as “an attack on him” - how on earth could Corbyn have thought such a thing? All he did was ask David Cameron to reject the view that terrorist acts were “always a response or a reaction to what the West did” and to agree that such an approach “risked infantilising terrorists, when the truth was that they were adults who were entirely responsible for their actions”. More directly, John McDonnell told the same show that McFadden’s comments had “played into an agenda which distorted Jeremy’s views on how we tackle terrorism” and in general contributed to an “undermining of Jeremy’s status”. McDonnell is surely right.
For weeks there had been feverish speculation that Hilary Benn would be sacked as shadow foreign secretary, prompting a mass walkout by at least ten shadow cabinet ministers. According to The Guardian and other papers, Corbyn had wanted to ditch Benn but in the end he was just too big to bring down and retained his job - so the warmonger remains in the shadow cabinet.
However, apparently “an agreement” has been reached with Benn, meaning he would be “obliged” to agree with Corbyn in public - a Labour source saying all future positions on foreign policy would be “directed” by the Labour leader. Or in the words of McDonnell, the shadow foreign secretary has “recognised the mandate” that Jeremy Corbyn has from the party membership and “will recognise his leadership on this issue”. Slightly confusingly though, McDonnell also said that Benn will be “entitled to disagree” with the leader on “matters of conscience” like the bombing of Syria, but would have to do so from the backbenches in any future free vote rather than as the party spokesperson.2 Stirring things up, both The Telegraph and the Huffington Post claim that Benn did not agree to “any new conditions” - but, on the other hand, he will “not be going out of his way to pick a fight with the leadership”.3 Then again, Benn told Sky News on January 6 that he has not been muzzled and would be carrying on with his job “exactly as before”. When it comes to the Benn test, it is not clear who has out-manoeuvred whom.
Maria Eagle, the pro-Trident shadow defence minister, was demoted to culture, replaced by Emily Thornberry - who gained momentary notoriety after she was forced to resign from her role as shadow attorney general for tweeting a picture of a white van and St George’s flag, an action that was interpreted as “drippingly patronising”, and snobbish. We are informed that Eagle is “happy” with her new job. Elsewhere, Emma Lewell-Buck was promoted to shadow minister for devolution and local government. Angela Eagle, the shadow business secretary and twin sister to Maria, was given the extra title of shadow first secretary of state - allowing her to stand in for Corbyn at PMQ’s. As a result of the reshuffle, there are now 17 women and 14 men in the full shadow cabinet - making a complete nonsense of the statement on Newsnight from Jess Phillips MP that the Labour leader was operating a regime of “low-level, non-violent misogyny”. Interestingly, there is speculation that Rosie Winterton - currently shadow chief whip - could lose her role chairing the boundary review of parliamentary constituencies: a move that would amount to “an act of war” greater than any reshuffle change or sacking, as one Labour insider put it, given the opportunity to select more leftwing parliamentary candidates.
Rather luridly, The Guardian portrayed the reshuffle as “moves to quash internal disagreement” (January 6). But far from being a “Stalinist purge” or “revenge reshuffle” - a term first coined by Dugher in the New Statesman - it was more like a gentle pruning. Corbyn still presides over a ‘left-centre-right’ shadow cabinet, or the “big tent” approach, but has tilted the balance slightly leftwards - keen to stamp a larger degree of authority over the shadow cabinet and wanting greater “coherence” on foreign and defence policy.
For Cat Smith, shadow minister for women, Corbyn was perfectly entitled to sack people like Dugher who spent more time attacking the Labour leadership than the Tories. As she explained, Corbyn is “trying to realign his top team to match more what the PLP is and more what the party is.” It was understandable that Corbyn, albeit within the obvious limitations of a thoroughly right-dominated PLP, wanted to partially ‘correct’ the political balance and composition of the shadow cabinet.
But it was still too much for three shadow ministers. Jonathan Reynolds (railways) and Stephen Doughty (foreign) quit over the sacking of McFadden, and Kevan Jones quit his defence role in protest at the removal of Maria Eagle. In his resignation letter, Reynolds endorsed McFadden’s comments about the Paris attacks, saying he could not “in good conscience endorse the world view” of the STWC - and also wanted to “exercise more freedom” to express his views on the future direction of the party. Similarly, Doughty did not want to be associated with a “narrative that somehow it’s the West that is responsible” for terrorism - ie, STWC and hence Corbyn.
We in the CPGB have made our view plain on a number of occasions. Despite comrade Corbyn’s reshuffle, which has some welcome features, he still has the same problem with the shadow cabinet - the right and the centre set the limits of what can be done. If you do this or that, we will walk: perpetual blackmail. But let the bastards walk, so be it. Yes, it would create a crisis if there was a mass walkout by the right. After all, who the hell do you replace them with? The PLP is hardly over-endowed with talented class warriors. But that is why our preference, under these concrete circumstances, is for a pocket-sized cabinet that does not try to cover every base.
As almost everybody must know, the reshuffle has been accompanied by the ongoing Simon Danczuk scandal - now suspended for ‘inappropriate’ behaviour - sending numerous sex-texts to a 17-year-old girl, Sophena Houlihan, after she asked him for a job in his constituency office. In return, he asked her if she wanted a “spanking”. The party’s ruling National Executive Committee is now investigating his conduct.
Danczuk has “unreservedly” apologised for his behaviour, blaming a drink problem and a “weakness” for young women. But he is now facing a police investigation as well as a rape allegation dating back to 2006. At the weekend, Danczuk’s first wife, Sonia Rossington, accused him of being a “sexual predator” fuelled by booze and cannabis, in an interview with the Mail on Sunday - to which Danczuk responded by saying she was “consumed by bitterness” and drink. Talk about kettles and pots. Then in a series of interviews over the new year, his recent ex-partner, Claire Hamilton, portrayed him as a man prepared to do anything to get his name in the press and say anything to inflate his already swollen bank account. In return, his second wife, Karen - the so-called ‘Selfie queen’ - is also being investigated by the police after she tweeted about Hamilton: “You forgot to say which married Labour MP gave you oral sex 24 hours before getting with SD”.4 Hamilton demanded that Karen Danczuk remove the post from Twitter, called the police when she refused, and is now threatening legal action. Making everything even more tawdry, another Sunday tabloid claims that Sophena Houlihan, now 18-years-old, has appeared on a website calling herself Goddess Rosalie Von Morelli, a dominatrix - allegedly using the site to sell used thongs, “frenchies” and knickers for £15 a pair, and offered bras and toe-nail clippings for £10 a time.5
It is surely a pity that Danczuk has been suspended for stupid behaviour - rather than for having a regular column in the Sun, Mail and Telegraph, voting for war in Syria, agitating for a “coup” against comrade Corbyn, describing Nigel Farage as the “best leader” in Britain, openly toying with the idea of defecting to Ukip, arguing that foreign aid money should be spent on Britain, etc, etc. If the NEC does take disciplinary action against Danczuk on this matter, it would have an unfortunate whiff of John Major’s laughable ‘back to basics’ campaign - which quickly backfired when it was revealed that half the Tory cabinet were having affairs or engaged in some form of financial corruption.6 From the communist point of view, we want an emphasis on politics - not individual failings. There but for the grace of God …
Meanwhile, over the Christmas period there have been many hints that Momentum - Jeremy Corbyn’s supposed praetorian guard - is going to be given a more solid organisational basis. This month it will hold its first national committee meeting, where up to 60 key members will agree a new leadership team, membership fees, making official links with a host of trade unions, and so on.7 Most importantly of all, of course, the committee will consider whether to apply to affiliated to the Labour Party as a “socialist society” just like the Fabians, the Jewish Labour movement, Labour Irish Society, Socialist Health Association, Chinese for Labour, etc. This would give Momentum a seat on the NEC, helping to strengthen Corbyn’s position in the party. Though there will be plenty of talk about appealing to the grassroots and beyond, creating something new and fresh, Momentum is rightly orientated towards Labour and to giving organisational flesh to the Corbyn campaign that spontaneously developed last year - that is a no-brainer, as Corbyn himself and Jon Lansman (Momentum’s director) have made quite clear right from the very beginning. Naturally, that leaves the ‘strategy’ of the Left Unity leadership up the creek without a paddle - having rejected the idea of affiliation and an orientation towards the Labour Party.