Now they have power for themselves the Bennite left have junked the ‘new politics’ they promised and indulge patronage like never before
Remember the fuss about ‘Tony’s cronies’? It began almost as soon as Tony Blair was elected leader of the Labour party in 1994, and became noisier once Labour formed the government. The fuss centred on the idea that Blair was surrounding himself with his mates, both as advisers and as appointees to plum positions including in the House of Lords.
Was Blair uniquely prone to cronyism? Of course not. Every prime minister uses their powers of patronage to reward loyalty, place allies in key positions, and to buy off opponents. Blair used patronage less than, say, Margaret Thatcher or Harold Wilson, because of new rules on public probity. And you can convincingly argue that the people he gave patronage to, for example Charlie Falconer or Peter Mandelson, were the best people with the best brains for the jobs.
Yet Blair was ritually denounced by his enemies: by William Hague and Michael Howard from the right, and by the Bennites to the left. In 1999 Tony Benn told the BBC that that ‘we have gone back to a sort of medieval system where there is patronage on an enormous scale. I heard the prime minister actually offered peerages to members of the royal family. There has been nothing like that since the middle ages.’ Ah yes, fake news before the age of fake news, when a member of parliament could allege some bizarre thing without evidence, based on something they ‘heard’.
Now that Benn’s followers are in charge of the Labour party, and the leading Bennite of the 1970s and 1980s is the leader of the opposition, we can all breathe a huge sigh of relief. The days of patronage are over. No more ‘cronyism’ from a leader of the Labour party. Today, each appointment is scrutinised by independent panels, appointments to the National Executive Committee are transparent, no appointments are made to the unelected House of Lords, and the shadow cabinet is elected by the parliamentary Labour party, with a standing order that when Labour wins an election, the shadow cabinet becomes the actual cabinet.
Actually, no. Jeremy Corbyn has dodged every opportunity to democratise his powers of patronage. Indeed, he has used his powers ruthlessly and without compunction. His very first acts were to install his cabal into key positions within the taxpayer-funded leader’s office. First on the list were supporters from his own leadership campaign, and cronies from the media and the unions. These jobs were doled out without a recruitment process that any HR professional would consider fair or accessible. Nope, Corbyn literally gave his mates jobs on the rates.
Then there was the shadow cabinet. After 1979, thanks to Bennite campaigning, the power of the party leader to appoint a shadow cabinet was removed, and vested in the PLP. In opposition, the Labour MPs elected the shadow cabinet each year from 1979 to 1997. After returning to opposition in 2010, the PLP once again took up the responsibility of electing the shadow cabinet. In the elections that year, the top 10 winners were (in order of votes) Yvette Cooper, John Healey, Ed Balls, Andy Burnham, Angela Eagle, Alan Johnson, Douglas Alexander, Jim Murphy, Tessa Jowell and Caroline Flint. This was a formidable team, elected on merit (with some help from the Yorkshire bloc of MPs). In 2011, Ed Miliband – the soft-left, break from New Labour control freakery candidate – scrapped the system of elections.
In 2015, Corbyn was in favour of an elected shadow cabinet. That did not stop him making some jaw-dropping appointments to the big jobs – notably John McDonnell and Diane Abbott. By 2016, an anonymous Corbyn spin doctor told the press that the idea was ‘dead in the water.’ By 2017, Corbyn has used his powers of patronage to give jobs to his noisiest and most loyal supporters: Chris Williamson, Richard Burgon, Jon Trickett, Rebecca Long-Bailey, and Ian Lavery. The opportunity to enhance democracy was missed, and patronage became even more entrenched. If you are loyal to the leader, you can expect a job on Corbyn’s frontbench.
And then there was the strange tale of Shami Chakrabarti, who Corbyn appointed a member of the House of Lords, and then as shadow attorney general almost immediately. There was dismay at her initial appointment to the upper house because the supposed link between her ‘independent’ report into antisemitism in the Labour party (which continues to be rife), which seemed to let Labour’s establishment off the hook, and her subsequent elevation to the Lords.
But the bigger issue was missed: not that Corbyn appointed Chakrabarti to the House of Lords, but that he appointed anyone to the House of Lords. Corbyn was on the record as saying he would make no appointments to an institution he feels should be abolished. And yet a few months later, he legitimises it by using his powers of patronage. You can quite reasonably ask the question, if he is prepared to do it once, will he do it again? Who else is on a promise for a new ermine cape? Lord Milne of Richmond-upon-Thames? Lord Lansman of Butler’s Wharf?
Perhaps we should not mind that Corbyn and his faction use loyalty tests, threats of deselection, and patronage so vigorously. This is politics, after all. But it is not the ‘new politics’ we were promised, nor the internal democracy and transparency that so many thousands thought they were voting for. And if Corbyn behaves like a medieval monarch now, after only two years in the job, imagine what he would be like if he ever became prime minister.
Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.
Our work depends on you.