There are times in politics, so I have noticed, that breaking news is not really news at all. More a confirmation of the expected, if anything. This is exactly what occurred on Saturday the 12th of September, when Jeremy Corbyn was elected to Labour leadership victory by a landslide result. After months of hustings, press coverage and live debates, we saw it coming, knew it was coming. We were merely waiting on the official confirmation, and to determine the exact margin of his victory.
The Islington North MP, secured the leadership in the first round of voting after receiving 59.5% of the vote (a higher share than even a certain Mr Blair enjoyed in 1994). Andy Burnham received 19%, while Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall trailed with 17% and 4.5% respectively.
Corbyn said that the leadership contest:
“showed our party and our movement is passionate, democratic, diverse and determined in our quest for a better society that is possible for all”.
Yet what an ironic tale this is. The veteran left winger, who had only been included on the ballot list at the last minute after several MPs ‘lent’ him their nominations in an effort to kick-start actual discussion and scrutiny, was only ever expected to scrape last place. But after putting in unexpectedly strong performances in leadership hustings, he began to win over large numbers of activists – and was well on the way to winning the position. His principles and his proposed policies spoke to grassroots Labour activists and members, for all that they are in stark contrast to the winning ways of New Labour (Tony Blair always insisted that he positioned himself to the Centre Left; he always appeared to be closer to the moderate Conservatives than the radical Left of his own party.) But Corbyn has connected where Miliband failed to do so in May, and this connection with the ‘ordinary’ Labour voter meant he was preferred to his leadership rivals.
I wrote several posts on the subject of Corbyn and the leadership campaign, primarily discussing how it was simply another woe for Labour to contend with on the back of a dismal General Election. Back in the summer, on the 16th July, I wrote about how the Indy covered The New Statesman report that one survey gave Corbyn a lead of 15 points plus, whilst a second private poll put him on course to win after building up a ‘commanding position’. Whilst this was breaking news at the time, with hindsight it should be have been obvious that such a result would be recorded. The three other leadership candidates were not particularly inspiring, with Ms Cooper being too close to ‘old’ Labour politics through her own standing and positions and through her husband. Andy Burnham had the most to lose, having been touted as the frontrunner, yet he never could muster enough support in the face of Corbyn and his radical views, especially his anti-austerity platform. And poor Liz Kendall’s campaign was effectively over the moment she was branded as a ‘Tory in disguise’ – she would have struggled against Burnham, but never had a chance against Corbyn. Corbyn cut such a different figure, right from the beginning of his campaign launch, that people were always going to be interested in what he had to say, which tended to be so vastly different from other politicians and such old-school Labour that he obviously was going to spark excitement and generate interest.
On the 21st July, I wrote about how the Budget division and welfare reform revolt within Labour was evidence of a chaotic split in the party, from which leading figures such as Chuka Umunna emerged to complain how his party was acting akin to a ‘petulant child’. Acting leader Harman had ordered the Labour MPs to abstain from voting on the welfare reforms, yet 48 rebels voted against. Labour’s woes were doubled (or rather, quadrupled) by the SNP, the Liberal Democrats, the Democratic Unionists and Caroline Lucas, the Green MP, all voting against the bill. These four parties were apparently eager to exploit Harman’s decision to abstain and to prove that Labour had forsaken its ideological roots. Corbyn was one such rebel, which prompted Umunna to criticise Corbyn’s foreign policy, particularly national defence. Corbyn, however, was able to prove that he represented the Labour party of old along with the other 47 rebels at a time when Labour was accused of turning its back on the working class due to Harman’s order of abstention on welfare reform.
Umunna had argued that Corbyn backed ‘more generous social security payments for people who can work but refuse to work’ through his rebellion. Given the scale of Corbyn’s victory, it is evident that a majority of Labour politicians perhaps underestimated the scale of their members’ frustration regarding Labour’s abandonment of traditional principles such as support of the working class and support of the welfare state. Politicians such as Umunna and Harman believed the party could not promote further welfare spending, when a majority of the electorate believe subsequent Labour governments are to believe for the current economic mess. Cue Umunna’s comments regarding Corbyn’s rebellion. Conversely, Corbyn stuck to the old Labour line of protecting the welfare state, and his continued rejection of austerity meant his actions resonated with Labour members, who reject ‘Tory austerity’ and demand that Labour goes back to the old days of opposing Tory cuts to welfare.
Any wonder, then, that I wrote of the nightmare unfolding in Labour regarding potential splits? On the 22nd July, I wrote:
It is clear that there are real fears within the Labour party that Corbyn’s radical left views could alienate moderate Labour voters. (Fears made all the more real when you consider how many moderates or ‘flirty’ voters switched to the Conservatives during the General Election.) The thought of Corbyn in charge brings back memories of Michael Foot’s leadership – a ‘blast from the past’ normally stirs nostalgia, but for Labour, remembering the heavy defeat under pure political theorist and academic Foot, this is something that must be avoided.
Should this not be a nightmare scenario enough, it also has cultivated new bitter splits within the party.
Splits beginning with those who ‘lent’ their votes: Ex-Labour Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett for one described herself as a ‘moron’ for nominating Corbyn. Splits continuing with Labour stalwarts, who openly admitted they would encourage MPs to topple the next Labour leader, should they not perform. (My money would be on Mr Campbell’s success at plotting a coup, to be fair.) Then splits within the current sitting Labour MPs, who in summer were beginning to weave webs of plots and coups in preparation for Corbyn’s ascent. One Labour MP said at the time that this group of would-be plotters would be able to acquire the 47 names needed to trigger a coup if Corbyn became leader, arguing that they cannot sit back and watch if the Labour party was ‘hijacked’ after a ‘summer of madness’. Now that Corbyn has won, it remains to be seen whether these would-be Guy Fawkes resume their plans.
The rumblings of dissatisfaction, from both Labour MPs and political observers alike were heard clearly following on from Corbyn’s reshuffle of the Shadow Cabinet during the weekend of his victory. The initial names being confirmed appeared run of the mill – Vernon Coaker as Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, evidently of interest for me, was expected – or perhaps slightly intriguing – Andy Burnham as Shadow Home Secretary raises questions of being ‘paid-off’. However, two little issues soon emerged in quick succession: firstly, of the lack of women in the ‘big five’ positions, and secondly of the appointment of one John McDonnell as Shadow Chancellor.
It must be stated that Corbyn promised to promote women, and have a gender-balanced Shadow Cabinet. It must also be stated that the Shadow Cabinet, upon the conclusion of all appointments, actually can boast of a majority of women (52 percent, an increase on the 47 percent under Miliband/Harman.) In addition, Corbyn actually created the new position of Shadow Minister for Mental Health, which will be occupied by Luciana Berger MP. However, it cannot be ignored that the ‘big five’ are all occupied by men. And this does not exactly reassure women MPs of being taken as seriously as their male counterparts, and nor has it pleased female Labour supporters and activists.
After his appointments concluded, Corbyn said:
“We have delivered a unifying, dynamic, inclusive new Shadow Cabinet which for the first time ever has a majority of women.
“The Shadow Cabinet is a strong combination of change and continuity that will now come together to hold this government to account.”
Unifying? Not when many new Shadow Ministers hold political views which are further to the Left than the majority of sitting Labour MPs. Inclusive? Not when, as stated above, many women feel that they have been used as a box-ticking exercise, as men occupy the ‘big five’ posts. Corbyn himself has not handed the fallout from his appointments particularly well from a PR standpoint, as he refused to justify his appointments. (Especially in a memorable encounter with Sky News.)
On the appointment of John McDonnell – I must confess that initially I did not know a great deal about the man, and instantly researched him. Given my Northern Irish nationality and residency, imagine my surprise to uncover his now infamous 2003 speech, in which he praised the ‘bravery’ of the IRA and sympathised with IRA hunger strikers, amongst other controversial opinions.
Now, I firmly believe that we are all entitled to our opinions, and have the right to express our thoughts. Yet surely, surely it is one thing to express sympathy with the Nationalist cause (as I do), another to express solidarity with the use of violence, and the murder of innocent civilians (it goes without saying that I do not). I was not at all impressed to hear Corbyn’s repeated refusal to condemn the IRA’s use of violence when being interviewed live on air, so to read of his appointment of a man with similar views was disappointing and sickening.
On the topic of splits, it is evident that McDonnell’s appointment is not helping such matters. After DUP MP Nigel Dodds criticised McDonnell’s statements (to loud cheers in the Commons) during Corbyn’s first week at PMQ’s, Labour looked sullen – they knew it was an own goal in the making. And McDonnell himself has recently had to apologise for his comments on Question Time -presumably at a PR advisor’s urging – yet it will take a long time indeed for the damage to be repaired. According to another DUP politician, Ian Paisley Jnr, the Shadow Cabinet were apparently so incensed at the appointment of McDonnell and the revelation of his comments, that they were considering demanding his resignation if he did not apologise. (In an interview with the Guardian, McDonnell excused his remarks due to his being from the North of England, ‘ You can take the boy out of the north but you can’t take the north out of the boy. I’m a plain speaker.’ I am a girl from the North (albeit of Ireland), and also pride myself on being a plain speaker – amazingly, however, I appear to avoid causing controversy, hurt and insult. A word of advice for any other English politicians, when considering wading into NI politics and history by sympathising with murderers from either side of the community divide, and lacking in informed knowledge: just don’t.)
Many senior figures, and some in the unions, wanted Corbyn to appoint Angela Eagle to the post of Shadow Chancellor, safe in the knowledge that she at least is a less divisive figure. Corbyn, however, used his vast mandate of 59.5 per cent of the vote on the first round to ensure the appointment of McDonnell. Eagle instead was appointed Shadow Business Secretary, as Labour MPs begin to fear that the McDonnell appointment will in fact make it even harder for the party to regain economic credibility.
Since then, it has hardly been a honeymoon period for Corbyn as leader. The threatens of splits and instability to Labour continues. This time, it is from within his Shadow Cabinet.
Following on from his reshuffle and the chaotic aftermath of same, Labour MPs have apparently confronted Corbyn and demanded assurances over his defence and economic policies. During a meeting of the parliamentary Labour party, many MPs challenged new leader Corbyn to effectively rule out his opposition to the Trident nuclear deterrent, and to desist in his calls for withdrawal from NATO. Furthermore, Corbyn was warned that he would only have the loyalty of his MPs if he did not cross a number of policy ‘red lines’. He was criticised over his new shadow cabinet and was accused of having a ‘women problem’ after failing to appoint any females to the most senior positions. Finally, he was accused of ‘lying’ over his assurance to his new team that he would never campaign to leave the EU, until he admitted he had voted to leave in the 1975 referendum. (Phew, quite the heavy list of grievances. It all feels rather King John v Barons.)
Such dissatisfaction does not end there. Following on from concerns of Labour MPs that Corbyn would bring back mandatory reselection, the new leader had to move to reassure his moderate Labour MPs that his left-wing allies would not launch a purge aimed at deselecting them. The process gave local constituency parties the right to select sitting MPs prior to each General Election, and was used by hard-Left activists to oust moderate MPs during the 1970s and 1980s.
Lord Falconer recently criticised essentially every proposed policy of his new leader, saying that he has ‘no idea’ if Jeremy Corbyn can win the next election.
Nor is dissatisfaction now confined to Labour politicians and members. After failing to sing the National Anthem during a Battle of Britain anniversary event, he provoked public outrage. Herein lies a problem. The public can accept his Republican credentials and rejection of the Monarchy. But the public cannot forgive what has been branded a snub to those who died defending their country during WWII. For those moderate Labour MPs and activists who dreaded Corbyn’s far-Left principles, this must have been an all-too real nightmare.
According to The Times, Corbyn’s stance was met with fury among Royal Air Force veterans, former military commanders and politicians. Former wing commander Tom Neil, who flew 141 combat missions during the Battle of Britain was reported as saying that Corbyn’s Anthem omission ‘just shows how bigoted he is and how small-minded.’
The new Labour leader must have known that his is a hard task, made all the more difficult when he compares his own political ideologies to that of many of his MPs. It has been a tough ride, yet it is one which does not look set to soften soon. With a divisive Shadow Cabinet, a majority of MPs who did not support his campaign and the press watching his every move, Corbyn will have to devise a means of achieving balance and peace – between his friends as well as his rivals.
Crown him Corbyn, King of an unstable Labour. For he won the popular vote and now Labour will have to realise their new political landscape. But uneasy lies the head that wears a crown. There will be factions and splits at play.