Corbyn’s reshuffle – What’s next for Labour?

Alex Mitchell
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Jeremy Corbyn’s long-speculated Shadow Cabinet reshuffle took place over three days – the longest reshuffle in history. There was a buzz of big changes which gave off the impression that the Labour moderates in the front bench were in for the boot.

As expected, Shadow Defence Secretary Maria Eagle was demoted and replaced by Emily Thornberry. This is surely sign that Corbyn doesn’t want to see a repeat of the Syria division between the leader and the spokesperson for that portfolio in the upcoming debate on the renewal of Britain’s nuclear deterrent, Trident.

The big news is that the widely speculated, widely briefed demotion – even sacking – of Shadow Foreign Secretary Hilary Benn did not happen. In a move that some described as Corbyn ‘backing down’ to keep the peace within the party, but which Corbyn advisers later spun as a case of rumours not coming true.

However, rumours that Benn had agreed not to publicly disagree with Corbyn again – respecting the huge mandate given to him by the party in order to keep his job – were quickly dismissed. Instead, Benn said he planned to ‘continue as before’.

Rather than the ‘Revenge Reshuffle’ we saw what was called a ‘phased reshuffle’. A minimal change with no big changes promised, Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell tried to argue that it was the media that got itself in a twist about who would be going.

Maria Eagle was moved to Culture, Media and Sport, saving Shadow Business Secretary Angela Eagle the awkwardness of seeing her sister kicked out of the Shadow Cabinet.

It was the Shadow Secretary for Culture, Michael Dugher and Shadow Europe Minister Pat McFadden who instead faced the boot on the grounds of ‘disloyalty’. Both were quick to point out the irony of such a sentiment coming from Corbyn, who had defied the party leadership in 428 votes.

Three days, two sackings and one demotion. Yet this would not be the end for Corbyn’s reshuffle. Johnathan Reynolds, Shadow Minister for Trains, Shadow Defence Minister Kevan Jones and Shadow Foreign Minister Stephen Doughty all resigned in support of Dugher, McFadden and Eagle.

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Cameron relished in joking that Corbyn couldn’t control his own party, let alone lead Britain in such crises as the recent floods.

This undoubtedly brings an end to what Corbyn advisor and former Mayor of London Ken Livingston described on the evening news just before the reshuffle as the ‘open cabinet, where differences of opinions could be raised in public’. You can certainly raise your differences in public, but if they prove more popular, or help the government secure a victory against your leader, then you are out.

Now I could agree with such a move. Collective responsibility is widely known in politics. You stand firm on a position and the Cabinet (or Shadow Cabinet) toes the party line. If you disagree then you should resign and voice your opinions from the backbenches, as has been the case so often in history.

Yet Corbyn promised a ‘new kind of politics’ – a democratic and open process, thereby inviting the breakdown of collective responsibility. Corbyn appointed Maria Eagle as Shadow Defence Secretary knowing full well her position on Britain’s nuclear programme. Yet she now finds herself demoted for expressing that opinion as defence spokesperson.

Who could blame Corbyn for making such a move, after the vote on air strikes in Syria, where Corbyn made clear that he would oppose air strikes yet he gave way and allowed a free vote of Labour MPs on the issue? At the dispatch box Corbyn argued the points against intervention against I.S. in Syria.

The Shadow Foreign Secretary, meanwhile, used his free vote, used his right (given by his leader) to voice his opinions in public, and argued against his leader in favour of strikes in Syria – on the side of the Government. It wasn’t just Benn who defied Corbyn, however, but a total of 66 Labour MPs. 26% of the Parliamentary Labour Party voted in favour of air strikes in Syria. Now Benn finds himself dangerously close to being sacked.

Labour is dangerously divided. The two factions, Corbyn’s Momentum and the moderates Progress are poles apart. Each side believing the other has the wrong direction for Labour’s future, and I include myself in this.

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I have daily discussions, debates, even arguments about Labour’s future. I put my hands up. I am a moderate. It’s not easy to sum it up in a quick sentence as to why. But I believe that Britain is naturally in the centre, if not leaning slightly to the right. I sit in the centre ground and that is where I think Labour is at its best.

Am I open to debate? Of course I am. Do I have all the answers? Do I think the moderates have all the answers? I do not. However of all the elections I have been through in my short life it’s the party in the centre that succeeds and not those that lean too far left or too far right.

I think Labour are heading into the position the Conservatives were in during the 90s and up until 2010. A divided party, too busy fighting a civil war and not focusing on the task at hand.

What’s more, we should learn a lesson from our Australian cousins. The Australian Labor Party went through a civil war when the two factions of Rudd and Gillard supporters were so divided that the threat of a leadership challenge loomed constantly.

Now I will say the beginnings of this split were different. Julia Gillard, then Deputy Prime Minister, deposed Prime Minister Kevin Rudd with the union leaning party members following a policy difference. The party became embroiled in a civil war where Rudd supporters wanted Rudd back as leader, as poor poll ratings affected Gillard and the security of the Government. That government rested on the majority of three independent MPs following the election called by Gillard after Rudd was ousted.

Eventually the publicly backed Rudd won a leadership ballot and took Labor into the election where they had lost the confidence of the wider Australian public and handed the election to the Liberal Party.

This is something Labour should aim to avoid. I am fed up – absolutely fed up – of the Corbyn trolls. Corbyn wanted an open and democratic party – surely that means we can disagree and be pleasant to one another? Surely we can be above name calling and in some cases (though not mine) threats.

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We are attacking each other over what is perceived as arrogance, when in actual fact it’s a difference of opinion. Hilary Benn was not wrong to stand up at that dispatch box and argue for what he believed was necessary in Syria. Nor was Jeremy Corbyn for arguing his point.

I was glad we had a free vote on the issue. It proved that on issues of key importance we, Labour, were willing to allow our MPs’ consciences to guide their vote as our elected representatives. That is why we go to the polls in elections. We hand over our decision-making to our elected officials.

Regardless of social standing, wealth, education and so on, we can vote ‘and with that cross you can destroy a government without killing anyone’ – a quote from Tony Benn there. We should be encouraging political participation, not putting people off or shaming them for their differing views.

If it’s a new kind of politics you want, then fair enough, but don’t attack those who disagree with you. Don’t sack someone for raising their point of view when invited to.

So what’s in the near future for Labour?

They say a week is a long time in politics. Labour can’t fill the next four years with ‘omnishambles’. I honestly don’t know what to think.

I am in despair when I look at what my party has become recently. It is not a nice place at the moment. There is no magic wand. Will Corbyn and his fellows find a new home outside of the Labour Party? Highly unlikely. Will the moderates find commonality with others such as the Liberal Democrats and break away? Not likely either.

That leaves Labour staying together and allows Corbyn a chance to prove himself at the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly, London mayoral and English council elections in May. Should Corbyn fail at a convincing victory then Labour will no doubt question and fight over his leadership again.

It feels like a never ending cycle. I won’t lie, I am fearful for what will come if we continue on this road of self-destruction for much longer. I’m sure I’m not the only one.

About Alex Mitchell

Political observer and current affairs addict. I observe - I analyse - I debate