There is no honour in the behaviour of Jeremy Corbyn’s shadow cabinet malcontents
Amid all the noise and self-important whining provoked by Jeremy Corbyn’s first shadow cabinet reshuffle, an important point is being rather overlooked – that as Labour leader, Corbyn is entitled to appoint or dismiss whoever he wants in order to build a cohesive and effective team. And the open defiance and public disagreement which continues to emanate from some restive shadow cabinet members would never have been tolerated under any other leader.
Maya Goodfellow writes in LabourList:
This is not, and was never going to be, a revenge reshuffle. It is not a contradiction of Jeremy Corbyn’s brand of honest, inclusive politics. By replacing shadow defence secretary Maria Eagle with Emily Thornberry, shadow EU Pat McFadden with Pat Glass and sacking Michael Dugher, Labour’s leader is doing his job – a position to which he was elected by 59.5% of the selectorate. On a landslide victory. He is well within his job description to make sure that his shadow cabinet is the most effective it can be. But you wouldn’t know that, listening to some Labour MPs, they’re clinging to the anti-Corbyn bandwagon – and they aren’t doing themselves or their party any favours.
For a small, vocal group of MPs Jeremy Corbyn can do no right. In fact, almost everything he does is wrong. These people are well within their right to point out areas of disagreement and argue their own point of view, but actively briefing against Corbyn, dismissing certain activists and shining a spotlight on discontent – instead of the Tories – is pernicious.
Goodfellow goes on to cite other famous historical reshuffles which – perhaps thanks to a stiffer upper lip and the lack of social media – did not lead to quite such an orgy of public posturing and self-aggrandisement, including those of Harold MacMillan and Margaret Thatcher.
Right now, it’s impossible to see how Labour’s restive moderates think that they are helping matters. They hate Corbyn and believe that he is leading Labour toward a third general election defeat, that much they have made abundantly clear. But do they seriously believe they are helping the situation with their incessant carping and tendency to run to the press with juicy anti-Corbyn quotes every time he does something they don’t like?
At some point, party unity – or at least trying to take seriously their responsibilities as the official opposition – should kick in, and encourage Labour MPs and politicos to stop targeting each other in order to focus on opposing the government. And yet we never seem to reach this promised land.
As Goodfellow observes:
The comments made by some MPs in recent months have been frustrating to witness. Change is difficult; negotiating with people you don’t agree with on certain issues is hard. Even when we try to take the personalities out of it, politics is so very personal.
But the way they’ve been acting is an insult to the overwhelming number of people who voted for Corbyn and a let down for all those people who desperately need a vocal, concise and coherent Labour opposition.
Is the sacking of the shadow culture secretary really something to go running to the press with angry quotes over, or taking to Twitter in high dudgeon about? Were any of Jeremy Corbyn’s unremarkable changes to his team truly so shocking that they merited a live TV resignation on the BBC?
Hardly. But the juvenile behaviour of Labour’s temporarily-out-of-power centrists is very revealing indeed. It speaks to their over-inflated egos and sense of self regard that they feel the need to publicly disassociate themselves from Jeremy Corbyn in the media rather than buckling down and helping him to oppose the government; that they are in many cases more concerned about how Corbyn’s leadership reflects on them and affects their future career prospects rather than how they can best serve the party and the country.
It would take a socialist miracle for Jeremy Corbyn to ever find himself in 10 Downing Street as prime minister, the odds (thankfully) are so small. But how Labour chooses to spend its wilderness years is important because it determines the type of party which will eventually emerge as a vote-winning force. Are they to stay deep within their comfort zone and become an angry party of protest, or will they oppose the government thoroughly by developing a credible alternative blueprint for government?
As Michael White notes in the Guardian, with reference to 1930s Labour leader George Lansbury:
Labour had been reduced to 52 seats in the general election of 1931, but Lansbury’s principled leadership cheered up the party activists and kept the show on the road. He’d never wanted to be leader (at 73 he was even older than Jeremy) and kept offering to resign. After hardheaded unions voted for a more robust stand against Hitler than Christian pacifism, he insisted on going.
But his legacy allowed Clem Attlee, the “interim” leader (1935-55) to triple the party’s MPs to 154 at the 1935 election. It survived to win the next election – the war delayed it until 1945 – decisively and do great things.
Like Lansbury, Corbyn’s principles and essential decency are obvious for all to see. He’s trying to make the best of a bad job when his party has just suffered a defeat arguably “worse for the Labour party than 1931”, chiefly because of the loss of Scotland to the SNP and at a time when many Labour supporters are, as in 1931, under the economic cosh.
It doesn’t sound like a recipe for success, does it? No, and I don’t think it’s meant to be.
Think of Jeremy Corbyn as the night watchman rather than the team captain, adjusting your expectations and success metrics accordingly, and moderate Labour’s hysterical overreaction to the “revenge reshuffle” begins to seem even more shrill and misplaced.
Jeremy Corbyn’s critics are measuring his performance and appeal with the wrong yardstick, in the belief that the 2020 general election is still winnable if only they can tame or replace their unexpected leader. Viewed this way, Labour centrists would do much better to quit the unconvincing “not in my name!” routine, get behind their leader when they can and maintain a signified silence when they can’t. And this should remain their strategy so long as they have a snowball’s chance in hell of retaking the leadership from Corbyn.
Labour MPs and shadow cabinet members currently revelling in the anarchy of being able to brief against their party leader to a salivating press corps with near total impunity should ask themselves what will undermining Corbyn from within actually accomplish when he won the leadership election by a landslide and retains significant support among the party base?
Seriously, what is their best case scenario? All of this teenage sulking succeeds in destabilising Jeremy Corbyn and forcing a new leadership election, and then what? Labour’s army of activists forgive the parliamentary party for toppling their hero and willingly vote for Liz Kendall the second time around? The British public forget that Labour embraced Corbynmania in 2015 when they come to vote in 2020?
No. These temper tantrums against Corbyn from the centre-left serve one purpose, and one purpose alone. They act as a pressure release valve for the frustrations – and a balm to the bruised egos – of a group of forgettable, utterly unexceptional centrist politicians who so comprehensively failed to inspire excitement with their visions and policies that their mediocrity allowed Corbyn to win in the first place.
But these preening anti-Corbynites – who feign to be so much wiser and more pragmatic than we partisan hotheads on either side of the aisle – should consider the precedent for open dissent and disloyalty which they are now setting, as it will be very difficult to roll it back and expect the level of deference and respect accorded to say, Ed Miliband, when Jeremy Corbyn eventually leaves the stage and a new leader seeks to assert their authority. In fact, good luck to any party leader who has to endure the sheer volume of friendly fire taken every day by Corbyn.
Allister Heath, with uncharacteristic presumption about (and condescension toward) the working class, their likes and dislikes, writes in The Telegraph:
There is no going back from any of this. For the hard-left Labour activists who brought Corbyn to power, this is a belated Christmas present: their man is delivering on their terrifying agenda, and in turn they are helping to recruit a steady flow of new, radical and often London-based members. They want to turn Labour into a cross between a latter-day version of the Greater London Council, circa 1981, when Red Ken was in charge, and the current Green Party.
But for the rest of Labour, including most MPs, it’s a disaster. The traditional, patriotic working class, still a large chunk of the electorate, has even less time for the antics of the Stop the War Coalition and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament than other voters. They may be nervous about foreign adventures, but they loathe terrorists, love the Armed Forces and care deeply about national security. Labour needs both the “progressive” and the “working-class” elements of its coalition to come together if it is to win elections, but the careful balance found by Tony Blair is being deliberately jettisoned by the Corbynites.
Heath continues, in praise of those Labour MPs who either flounced out of Jeremy Corbyn’s shadow cabinet or were sacked in the reshuffle:
The truth is that it is no longer possible for any sensible Labour politician to serve in Corbyn’s shadow cabinet while retaining their self-respect. In time, Jonathan Reynolds, Stephen Doughty and Kevan Jones, the three shadow ministers who quit, will be seen as heroes: they put their principles first. They were braver that many members of the shadow cabinet.
[..] There are others in the same boat. Regardless of how they caveat their position, they are endorsing a leadership which has nothing but contempt for the values and aspirations of Middle England, and which believes in appeasing the extremists who seek to harm us. It is decision time for members of the shadow cabinet: they must quit, or be held responsible for the catastrophe about to engulf the Labour Party.
Set aside Allister Heath’s wildly misplaced hero-worship of utterly unremarkable politicians such as Jonathan Reynolds, Stephen Doughty and Kevan Jones. Many of Heath’s criticisms of Corbyn’s policies are correct, but he makes the classic mistake of assuming that the Labour Party should hold the same policies as the Conservative Party on a broad range of topics.
The drawback to having a broad, stultifying political consensus on everything from nuclear deterrence to the NHS is that when there is nothing left to debate, people lose interest in politics and stop taking part. Our current centrist malaise and the rise in voter apathy are not unrelated phenomena – when our political debate is reduced to arguing over who will better manage our public services, people understandably switch off. Jeremy Corbyn still offers the last, best opportunity to break this consensus and widen the Overton window in British politics, raising the possibility of a small state, free market revival – if we have the stomach to fight for it.
Heath of all people should appreciate this. Many of the small-government, conservative policies that he would no doubt like to see implemented are doomed never to see the light of day because of the political consensus typified by Blair, Brown, Miliband and Cameron. And there will never be space for more radical right wing ideas and policies so long as we become outraged when Jeremy Corbyn and his followers express their own, stridently left-wing ideas.
Thus even staunch conservatives have reason to support Jeremy Corbyn, and deplore those centrist malcontents within Labour who seek to topple him. Supporting Corbyn as a conservative does not mean endorsing his socialist policies – it means having the magnanimity and confidence in our own ideas to allow other, different arguments to be heard.
Jeremy Corbyn won the Labour leadership election by a landslide. That says an awful lot about the candidates who ran against him, the wing of the party from which they hailed, and our beleaguered, centrist politics in general.
But it is time for malcontents in the shadow cabinet and the media to get over it and learn to live in this new reality with a modicum of dignity.
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