Spinners and Losers: Assessing the Labour Reshuffle

January 8, 2016 3:46 pm

Even before Christmas it was widely reported that Jeremy Corbyn was planning a ‘revenge reshuffle’. Foreign Secretary Hilary Benn seemed the most likely target given his support for action against IS in Syria, but Chief Whip Rosie Winterton and her deputies Alan Campbell and Mark Tami were also rumoured to be in the firing line.

When it finally came, the reshuffle was a tawdry affair, albeit one that lasted almost three days and showed the limits of Corbyn’s spin team in handling the media. Michael Dugher moved from Culture, Media and Sport to be replaced by Maria Eagle whose post at Defence was taken by Emily Thornberry. Meanwhile, Shadow Minister for Europe, Pat McFadden lost his brief, prompting three walkouts from junior ministers Kevan Jones, Stephen Doughty and Jonathan Reynolds.

In some respects the reshuffle was as a victory for Corbyn and his efforts to reshape Labour policy.In this respect, Thornberry’s promotion is particularly important. A unilateralist, her appointment marks a clear break in Labour’s defence policy and support for the replacement of Britain’s Trident-armed vanguard-class submarines. Though multilateralism was endorsed by the last Labour Party Conference, Corbyn, a life-long CND member, has made no secret of his opposition to any continuation of Britain’s nuclear deterrent and desire to change Labour policy on this front.

That the reshuffle took place with just three resignations, and only then from junior Ministers, can also be chalked up as a win for Corbyn. Although popular among their peers, Jones, Doughty and Reynolds are far from household names and their resignations are likely to have little impact beyond Westminster itself. For some Corbyn supporters their departures may even be welcomed as an indication that the leader is developing his team to implement his policies.

Finally, given it was rumoured that Angela Eagle would resign as Shadow-Business, Innovation and Skills Minister if her sister was sacked, moving her to DCMS was a canny move. The Eagle sisters are widely respected and keeping them in the shadow Cabinet will bolster its credibility.

However, despite these minor successes, the reshuffle had major limitations. First, the purpose of a personnel shakeup cannot solely be to bolster the position of the leader and his worldview, but should instead galvanise and strengthen the party. The gulf of trust between Corbyn and his MPs has needlessly grown wider this week and made any chance of a healing process more challenging.

Second, by sacking Michael Dugher, Corbyn has, in the words of a loyal Brownite apparatchik, sounded a “declaration of war.” It is easy to guffaw at this suggestion given Corbyn was elected less than six months ago, but it would be unwise to do so. Michael Dugher, a close ally of deputy-leader Tom Watson, is well versed in machine politics and understands the dark arts of spin made famous during the New Labour years. In this instance it is worth remembering President Lyndon B. Johnson’s famous maxim about who you want to be inside and outside your tent and why.

Third, Jonathan Reynolds is fast becoming one of the Labour MPs to watch. In recent months he has penned articles on issues as diverse as electoral reform, how to institute social democracy without relying on the levers of the state and how technology can influence and improve Britain’s transport system. These are issues that Labour will need to get on top of if it is to stay relevant, let alone to win. On the backbenches Reynolds’ talents will be more difficult for the leadership to utilise.

Finally, and most importantly, this reshuffle failed the 6 o’clock news test. Simply put, very few people tune in for Prime Minister’s Questions, attend political rallies or religiously read The Spectator. Their interaction with politics is, outside of elections, limited to what they catch a glimpse of on TV or radio. Anyone who tuned in this week will have seen a divided party, something that will repel swing voters.

More subtly, by reducing plurality across the Cabinet, Corbyn has effectively bought his ‘New Politics’ project to an end a matter of months after its inception. When focus grouped before becoming leader Corbyn’s openness to debate was one of his most highly praised features among members of the public. The reshuffle has poured water on this obvious strength.

It is essential that Jeremy Corbyn is open about his goals. If it is to change the Labour Party from a traditional party of government to a movement of protest the reshuffle can be checked off as a success. Labour could well be on its way to unilateralism and no challenge to Corbyn’s leadership seems to be on the horizon.

However, if Corbyn’s goal is to enter the doors of Number 10 he is undoubtedly weaker today then he was on Monday. Losing talented personnel is in itself damaging, but the unedifying spectacle of a divided party will linger long in the memory. If Labour are to win in 2020 conciliation on both sides is required and fast.

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