by Rob Marchant
While the formation of a government remains a rank impossibility for a Corbyn leadership, there is now no question about his grip on the party. Indeed, with the removal of Jonathan Ashworth from the NEC, seemingly in exchange for remaining in the shadow cabinet, Corbyn supporters now also rule the NEC. The circle is complete and the rulebook is no longer safe.
Self-evidently, Corbyn’s opponents in the PLP – that is, nearly all of it – have not been able to really make any movement while the leadership election and the reshuffle have been going on, they now can. Their valiant attempt to involve themselves in the selection of the shadow cabinet has, predictably, been paid only lip-service by the leadership. Corbyn will choose, full stop.
And, with a few notable exceptions, what a shambles of a Shadow Cabinet it has become. Unambiguous unilateralists at foreign affairs and defence, something virtually guaranteed to provide a general election defeat on its own. Another shadow cabinet minister who has apparently managed to fritter away a compensation fund for sick miners on his salary and expenses. And someone at home affairs, in charge of the delicate area of race relations, among other things, known for her quote “white people love playing divide and rule”.
On the other hand, given that the “chicken run” of Labour MPs back to the shadow cabinet, feared by moderates, has patently failed to happen (John Healey, Nick Brown and Jonathan Ashworth being the only important moderate names to come back), it leaves the PLP in a relatively strong position with regard to negotiating. It is still unprecedented for a party leader to lack the support of approximately four-fifths of his MPs, and that is important. This is not 1981 and the “gang” comprises a great deal more than four, so Foot-era comparisons are really redundant.
For example, if Corbyn decides that he is going to carry out his threat of deselections, MPs will have very little to lose in withdrawing their cooperation altogether, or even mounting an alternative grouping in Parliament to the rump Corbynite PLP.
It will also be interesting to see how old hand Nick Brown MP copes with being chief whip, as party policy begins to be revised towards the fanciful left and MPs despair of appearing on TV and having to defend it. The party has limped through its first parliament largely fudging its policy positions under Miliband, but that is clearly not sustainable over four more years. How the PLP acts with regards to votes and whipping will be a crucial point in the internal power struggle that will evolve over that period.
But act it must. The 172 MPs (or whatever the new number is, post-reshuffle) must stick together and there must be a strategy. The PLP cannot continue as a bunch of atomised “sole traders”; in that way they can be picked off easily by the leadership. As a number of commentators have observed, in many ways Corbyn has been very lucky with his enemies. The big beasts of the Blair/Brown era are now all but extinct, and possible future figureheads are both relatively inexperienced and in short supply. And perhaps it is MPs being discreet and biding their time, but there has not appeared to be a particularly organised campaign of resistance, either, to date.
As a result of all this, PLP victories over the leadership such as Hilary Benn’s barnstorming speech on Syria, or the success of moderates last autumn in chairing its Departmental Committees, have been sporadic at best. But now the die is cast and there will be no let-up until 2020. There is no new news to wait for.
Now, there are signs that this is really starting to happen: there is already talk of a “shadow shadow cabinet”, setting moderate policy positions and whipping to them. If this comes about and is a success, it could provide a real focus point for a moderate relaunch and an alternative power centre.
That said, to be blunt, to date the PLP has been organising its challenge to Corbyn with all the effectiveness of turkeys preparing for Christmas. If the party is to have a chance of surviving, that now needs to change.
Rob Marchant is an activist and former Labour party manager who blogs at The Centre Left