It has been a fun few weeks for the Labour party, hasn’t it? Let’s briefly recap. Before Christmas this column identified Tom Watson, Angela Eagle and Hilary Benn as the three most direct threats to Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. Entirely unrelatedly, over Christmas the leadership of the party chose to undermine Benn and Maria Eagle, for the gross disloyalty of disagreeing with the leader on a free vote and favouring party policy on Trident.
On discovering that sacking Benn and Eagle (M) would cause the remarkable emergence of a spine among even the most supine of the shadow cabinet, Corbyn and his crack team of political operators decided to instead keep Benn but brief he had been humiliated, dismiss Watson’s good friend Michael Dugher, patronise the Eagle sisters by giving Maria his job (because she has always been so keen on opera, as a girl) and promote Emily Thornberry back into the shadow cabinet. Amazingly, this even managed to annoy Thornberry, as she was immediately portrayed as a patsy by Ken Livingstone, who assured the country she agreed with his views on everything. When you consider that by 11pm Livingstone can often disagree with his own views on things, this is quite a feat.
Undermining Benn, Eagle and co, however, came at a cost. To do so, especially on the grounds of Trident, Corbyn endangered his relationship with Unite and the GMB, who are crucial to his future plans.
Having reluctantly been railroaded into Corbynism by the logic of their own opposition to the politics of compromise, the trade unions now face an uneasy future. While the trade union bill is damaging enough to the union movement, imagine it as the first in a decade’s worth of anti-union steps from a Tory government.
What’s more, while Progress was a rhetorical target for John McDonnell, this was obviously a distraction. Sacking someone like Dugher sent a clear message that the union right is as much of an enemy as the hated Blairites of this parish.
Speaking of which, sacking Pat McFadden was the worst possible choice as sacrificial lamb. It is true that McFadden is not the most gregarious and pally of men, which might make him appear isolated, but he is serious, and respected and credible. Even those who despise his politics have a grudging admiration for his analytical skill and understanding of issues from jobs to banking to regulation. To sack him, then put the overwhelmed new City spokesperson Richard Burgon on telly to proclaim party unity, invites an unflattering comparison.
So Corbyn alienated his deputy leader, sent a good and confident organiser into the wilderness for no apparent reason, annoyed some of his own key allies, looked petty and achieved … a shadow defence secretary whose political reputation is ruined if she does not display independence from her leader. It is as stupid a move as Tony Blair sacking John Spellar was, and it will have much the same effect.
All that said, incredibly, in one crucial way, this was a success for team Corbyn.
If you assume that they are not concerned by such trivia as winning a general election, party unity, policy coherence or effective opposition, but rather on the more pressing task of securing control of the mechanisms of control of the party, they were successful. While Benn was not fired, his card had been marked for all to see, Seumas Milne could tell the press that the outcome of disloyalty was humiliation or the sack, and the shadow cabinet did not revolt over Trident. For the first time in months, Corbyn could say he was acting on his mandate for change.
Even from Westminster, you could nearly hear the applause at local Momentum meetings.
But now Corbyn’s position rests entirely on his popularity among the membership. The unions are restless and willing to grumble publicly (This led directly to the ‘bun without a burger’ Trident policy. One unnamed GMB source remarked, ‘It is wonderful Keynesian economics, but we will be building stuff that doesn’t work [as a deterrent]. I think the Labour leadership will struggle to put together a coherent, credible policy around that type of approach. Aircraft carriers with no planes on them, nuclear submarines with no missiles on them; are we going to start dishing out cricket bats for the army?’). The parliamentary Labour party dislodged Corbyn’s man on the National Executive Committee last month by an overwhelming majority, showing that very few members of parliament are willing to give a leader’s office flunky their proxy vote. Watson has been slapped in the face, which is rarely a wise idea.
So, while Corbyn has undermined his enemies, his own position is increasingly exposed.
For now, this does not matter. The support that Corbyn has from those who elected him is enough to protect him from any internal dissent. Mount McCluskey might rumble menacingly, but will not erupt while his factional allies are addressing crowded Momentum meetings. Shadow cabinet and PLP members simmer with frustration, but their lid is staying on because they see no electable leadership candidate in the room or out of it.
Yet, if that mood changes, Corbyn will find himself caught in the collapsed rubble of his own undermining efforts. Internally, the reshuffle strengthened Corbyn’s hand, but it also narrowed his alliances. There is only one thing keeping Corbyn as leader now, and it is the urgent crusading faith of his supporters. For as long as that lasts, he is safe. However, as soon as faith in the prophet wavers, his newly acquired enemies will find it all too easy to bring the mountain to Mohammed, in this case vertically and with great prejudice.
Cartoon: Adrian Teal
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