Labour’s perpetual war zone

Corbyn is right to keep the power to hire and fire, writes Eddie Ford

With civil war still raging, Jeremy Corbyn’s shadow cabinet reshuffle last week consisted of a series of deft moves. The most obvious thing to say is that Diane Abbott was promoted from health to shadow home secretary and John McDonnell retained his position as shadow chancellor - meaning that the left dominate the top three positions.

Perhaps the most newsworthy decision, however, was the sacking of dame Rosie Winterton as chief whip - the press was full of pictures of her rubbing her eye as if in tears at the callousness of the Labour leader. Winterton, who presumably was offered another job, was one of those heavily pressurising Corbyn to support a rule change, so that the Parliamentary Labour Party could partly or fully elect the shadow cabinet. As Corbyn knows only too well, the PLP’s enthusiasm for such a reform was not motivated by a love of democracy, but rather to limit his room for manoeuvre and generally undermine his authority. Thankfully, Corbyn has not accepted this particular ‘peace offer’ from the right, otherwise Abbott and McDonnell would be languishing on the back benches. Never in a million years would the PLP, as currently constituted, vote for such leftwingers.

Interestingly, Winterton was replaced by Newcastle MP, Nick Brown - who had the same job under the Labour leader of the same surname between 2008 and 2010, during which he earned a reputation as a ruthless Brownite enforcer. It is hard to believe that Brown has had an ideological conversion to Corbynism or anything remotely like it. Rather, he has just accepted the facts on the ground: Corbyn is currently secure in his position and therefore the only thing to do at this time is to discipline the troops and attempt to keep the party from falling apart at the seams.

Allegedly “shocked and angered” by the decision to chop Winterton, two Labour whips resigned in protest - Conor McGinn, MP for St Helens, and Holly Lynch, MP for Halifax. Officially, Lynch has stepped down because she wants “time to focus” on her constituency work defending a slender majority of 428 votes - whilst McGinn, naturally, wants to “spend more time” with his family. We hear from a widely reported Labour source that McGinn was “going to be sacked anyway” for “disloyalty”, as he had helped to organise the rolling shadow cabinet resignations during the attempted coup back in June.

Quid pro quo

Another noteworthy appointment was Jonathan Ashworth, former advisor to Gordon Brown, who took Abbott’s former job as health secretary. But as part of the deal, quid pro quo, he had to resign as the shadow cabinet representative on the national executive committee and make way for a Corbyn supporter - Kate Osamor. Obviously, this will help to redress the balance after the Liverpool conference disappointingly passed a vote putting two new unelected members onto the NEC, both appointed by the Scottish and Welsh party leaders - and from the right of the party, it almost goes without saying. The NEC is now finely balanced between left and right, Osamor’s appointment encouragingly showing Corbyn’s determination to secure a left majority on the NEC.

Anyhow, there are other appointments not without significance. The soft-left MP for Llanelli, Nia Griffith, has replaced Clive Lewis as defence secretary. What is significant about Griffith, apart from her historic support for unilateral disarmament, is that she is one of the 10 who have returned to frontline politics after the orchestrated resignation campaign that saw 63 fly the nest.

Lady Shami Chakrabarti, former head of Liberty, found herself with a new job as shadow attorney general. Inevitably, Chakrabarti’s appointment was immediately condemned by the Board of Deputies of British Jews. Its vice-president, Marie van der Zyl, said she was “disappointed” by the move, as Chakrabarti had “sold out the Jewish community” with her report - it “now looks increasingly like the whitewash was a job application”.

Stepping into the role of shadow Brexit secretary and David Davis’s sparring partner is Sir Keir Starmer, former director of public prosecutions. In a near masterful display of understatement, Starmer remarked on the BBC’s Andrew Marr show that there are “unresolved issues” in the PLP - saying “we need to be an outward-looking, confident party rather than an inward, divided party”. However, he appeared to be at odds with Corbyn over immigration - calling for a “reduction” in numbers not long after the Labour leader, quite correctly, refused to bow to pressure from MPs to do the same at the party conference.

What this reshuffle shows above all is the importance of Corbyn keeping the power to hire and fire - otherwise, he would not have been be able to ‘bribe’ the returnees and other reluctants to come on board. Or, as Rafael Behr puts it in The Guardian, “the details of who Jeremy Corbyn chooses to place in any particular front-bench job matter less than the fact that it is the leader who gets to choose” (October 7). Being on the back benches is a pretty boring life, constituency work is just what you have to do to stay in the race - whilst waiting for the good times. Of course, only a cynic would suggest that the extra money which comes with such an appointment would motivate a career politician to accept a shadow cabinet post - though it certainly helps. More importantly still, albeit related, such a position increases your public profile by a significant magnitude, opening up all sorts of possibilities (noble or otherwise). As the rules stand now, this is something that a Labour leader can capitalise on - as Corbyn did.

Given his impossible remit of presenting a united front of all the political forces in the party, Corbyn did a pretty good job. Indeed, you could say that the reshuffle was a very skilful effort. But, of course, the right will never be satisfied and immediately started to cry foul.

Hence John Cryer - chair of the PLP - sent an “angry letter” to MPs complaining that he and Rosie Winterton had been kept in the dark about the reshuffle. In his letter, Cryer mentions how in early September the PLP voted “overwhelmingly” for the return of elections to the shadow cabinet - which led to “negotiations involving myself and the then chief whip, Rosie Winterton, and people from the leadership team”. Cryer said it became clear last week that a reshuffle was under way, which “had not been discussed or mentioned” during the talks. In response, a Corbyn spokesman said: “Shadow cabinet elections will be considered by Labour’s national executive committee as part of a wider party democratisation at a special meeting next month.”

Fantasy politics

The sacking of Winterton and elevation of key Corbyn allies like Abbott and Chakrabarti to high-profile posts has prompted the right to talk about a “revenge reshuffle”. Bermondsey MP Neil Coyle complained about “the facade of discussions and negotiations going on about shadow PLP elections, which were a complete farce when the leader’s team had already planned what they would do instead”. Similarly Tom Blenkinsop, a former whip, said that Corbyn “wants submission, not unity”, while another MP muttered, “So much for wiping the slate clean.”

Meanwhile, showing how far to the right he has travelled, Owen Jones is hoping for an outbreak of peace in the Labour Party. In the pages of The Guardian (September 29) he tells us that what “appeared impossible just weeks ago” - ie, uniting the party - now “seems far more achievable”. Thus in the “afterglow” of Corbyn’s “well-delivered” conference speech, “there can and should be compromise” from “all sides”, as apparently “the ideological divisions are less profound than they were in the 1980s” - the “bigger concerns, MPs will tell you, are competence, priorities and effective communication”.

Jones seems to have no problem in rewriting history or retreating into fantasy politics: the political divisions and schisms within today’s Labour Party are just as deep and profound as in the 1980s. Tony Benn, after all, was the Jeremy Corbyn of his day. But now the right’s nightmare has come true, with the Bennite left controlling the leadership.

Jones also gets enthusiastic about how Corbyn’s speech was “infused with patriotism” - which is “not a concept that many metropolitan leftists are terribly comfortable with”. But for millions of working class English people it “matters a lot” (apparently “Scotland and Wales are well served by their respective patriotisms”). There was also “calibration”, Jones writes, meaning a “passionate defence of migrants” that was “balanced with an acknowledgement that concerns over immigration must be acknowledged”. In the opinion of Jones, Labour’s woes are not all the product of the machinations of the mainstream media or the PLP - rather, the leadership team “made mistakes in communication and strategy that cut through and caused damage”, and that damage “must be undone if Labour is not to suffer the sort of election rout that would discredit the left for a generation”.

Sorry, Owen, but you are never going to see peace in our time - or the right learning to love the left. Forget it. The right will not be happy until Corbyn has finally been deposed as leader, or at the very least sacrifices John McDonnell, Diane Abbott and anybody else associated with the left, and becomes a permanent hostage to the right. Whatever the rosy dreams of Owen Jones, the right are absolutely determined to reverse the disastrous mistakes of “the morons” and put the left back to where it was pre-Corbyn - totally scattered and utterly ineffective, afraid to raise their heads above the parapets ever again.