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Thangam Debbonaire MP: Why I have no confidence in Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership

He appointed me as a shadow culture minister without my knowledge or consent while I was in the middle of cancer treatment, only to sack me shortly afterwards.

Many people have asked me for specific examples of my problems are with Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership.

Here is my experience.

On 14 January 2016, Jeremy announced that he had appointed me as a shadow minister for arts and culture without my knowledge or consent while I was in the middle of cancer treatment.

He then sacked me the next day when he realised he had given away part of someone else’s role.

But didn’t bother to tell me that either.

By the time I had sought and received confirmation from the Labour Whips’ Office that I was indeed shadow arts and culture minister, to serve under shadow culture secretary Maria Eagle MP, my office had been besieged by the press and the story was out.

I decided to make the best of it and to serve. I worked on his arts policy while I was still having treatment but in Bristol. Bristol West constituents said they were delighted – a good fit for the constituency, and a good decision to ask someone who has an arts background, which I have.

Six weeks later, after being asked every week to do so by Maria Eagle when she met him at shadow cabinet meetings (I wasn't a member of the shadow cabinet, only the shadow secretaries of state sit in that meeting), Jeremy finally phoned me.

I discovered then that he had made a mistake back at the start and having given me part of someone else’s role, gave it back the next day. I said that I was not happy about this, as I had spent six weeks working on his arts policy, getting in touch with arts organisations and so on. He invited me to come and have a chat with him the following week.

Contrary to what he frequently says, Jeremy is not easy to “have a chat with”. My parliamentary assistant could not get an appointment with him until she went to his office and explained over and over again that I had been promised one.

When my assistant and I met him, I asked how I was supposed to explain the confusion to Bristol West members or constituents. I was faced with the choice of telling the truth that he had made a series of errors, or say I had changed my mind about accepting the role. Either way, I would inevitably face a pile of criticism from his supporters.

Corbyn supporters had already piled onto me for disloyalty when I had had to miss votes for cancer treatment. I had no confidence that he would explain the situation to his supporters, or ask them to trust him that it wasn't my fault. I knew he wouldn't do anything to stop the criticism – I had seen from my own experience that he didn’t directly call on his own supporters to follow his slogan of “kinder, gentler politics”.

At this meeting, despite the fact he had had six weeks to come up with some idea for how to deal with this, he had nothing to say. No idea what to do. It took my boss Maria Eagle to explain to him that, as he was leader, he could reappoint me if that was what he wanted.

I then worked hard for him on his arts policy, loyally didn’t go to the press about the above, got stuck in and worked. And yes, I enjoyed the role; it is one of my dream jobs in parliament and I worked hard for Jeremy and the Labour party. Millions of people work in the arts and culture sectors and they valued being involved in policy-making. So it was never my intention to resign.

However, I kept hearing from other colleagues on the front bench just how difficult or impossible it was to get a decision out of him on important policy issues – the very thing Jeremy is supposed to be good on. I also noticed that the policy-making process through the National Policy Forum was being slowed down by lack of decisions from the Corbyn office.

But then he was missing in action during the EU referendum, including going on a week’s holiday three weeks before the day of the vote. I found that unforgivable. I was doing all I could for the campaign, phone-canvassing to conserve my energy, and kept hearing Labour voters saying “but your leader wants out, doesn’t he?” His team didn’t send anyone to the EU campaign meetings in Westminster and his lack of enthusiasm showed.

On the day after the referendum he asked for an early Brexit. My constituents want exactly the opposite and were telling me so in their hundreds, and voted strongly to remain.

That was the tipping point for me – you cannot remain on the front bench while taking an opposing view to the leader on something so important.

I therefore had to resign.

The reason I then voted “no confidence” in him as leader is because I have no confidence in him as leader. See above. Plus I had found out from other front bench women how unwilling and unable Jeremy is to communicate with, listen to or work with anyone outside his narrow group.

Since then he has stated publicly that he isn’t prioritising winning elections. How can I support a Labour leader who doesn’t want to form a Labour government when working people, the old, the young, the poor, the country, need a Labour government above everything?

I want a Labour government more than anything, because that is how we change the world and how we help millions of people, just as the 1997-2010 Labour government helped millions of people – my own family included.

I profoundly wish I never had to say all this publicly, but people keep asking, and I believe they have a right to know the truth about what Corbyn’s leadership is like.

We cannot win general elections with a leader who is unable and unwilling to learn how to communicate with, listen to and persuade people with whom he doesn’t already agree – we need to convince swing voters who voted Tory last year in southern seats to vote Labour next time, and we need Labour voters in Wales and the North to continue to vote Labour. Without this we can’t win a general election.

That is what’s at stake. Not having a Labour government again is unbearable. I will do anything I can to help to ensure this. It’s the constitutional duty of all Labour MPs, especially the leader, to try to secure a better life for working-class people through parliamentary means. And that’s what I will continue to do.

I hope that’s clear.

Thangam Debbonaire is the Labour MP for Bristol West. This article was originally posted on Thangam Debbonaire’s Facebook page. It has since been published on her blog. It is republished here with her permission.

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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.