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A "revenge reshuffle" would not be very new politics

The sacking of shadow cabinet ministers who voted for intervention in Syria would betray the original promise of Jeremy Corbyn's leadership.

When George Lucas was making Star Wars: The Return of the Jedi, the working title for the film was actually "Revenge of the Jedi" (indeed this appeared on many of the early posters). In the end, Lucas rejected the word “revenge” as he felt it simply wasn’t the Jedi way.

In recent weeks we’ve seen repeated media stories that Jeremy Corbyn is planning a "revenge reshuffle". A variety of sources, some of whom have been attributed as being "aides" to Jeremy or those "close" to the leader have apparently stood up speculation that Hilary Benn, Rosie Winterton, Maria Eagle and me (amongst others) are all for the chop for not voting against extending military action from Iraq into Syria during the recent free vote in the Commons.

My sympathies have particularly been with Hilary Benn. He must have felt like Man Utd boss Louis van Gaal over Christmas, constantly reading in the newspapers that he is about to be sacked.

Depressingly, whilst Hilary was hard at work in his Leeds constituency talking to residents who had been hit by awful flooding, he had a tweet from those good comrades at the Huddersfield branch of Momentum (apparently tweeted from Gravesend) saying: "Shadow Cabinet reshuffle soon lad. So you’ll have more time to spend with your constituents".

As someone who used to have his Christmases ruined dealing with political journalists, I know how difficult it is attempting to manage the media during the holidays, so I also have a little sympathy with Jeremy Corbyn’s press handlers. The festive season is also the silly season. Mischievous hacks bombard aides with relentless and leading questions in the hunt for a new line to keep an old, bad story for Labour running.  It takes time for any spin doctor to learn that it requires as much ability and skill to kill a story as it does to get one going.

The sad thing for Labour is that stories like the "revenge reshuffle" – about who might hear the words (Alan Sugar-style) "you’re fired" – tend to drown out our attacks on the Conservative government, or they can overshadow announcements about the positive things Labour would do differently in government.

Over Christmas, we have had more powerful attacks on the government’s record on the NHS by Heidi Alexander, Lilian Greenwood on the Tory hypocrisy over Boxing Day rail shutdown, Jonathan Ashworth on Conservative asset-stripping, Maria Eagle on waste at the MoD, Kerry McCarthy, John McDonnell and Jon Trickett on flooding, Luciana Berger on broken promises on children’s mental health, John Healey on spiralling rent costs. The list goes on.

My team, shadowing the DCMS, have used the Christmas period to highlight everything from sexism in sports retail and problems in art exports, to allegations of corruption at the International Association of Athletics Federation. Yet all of these good stories about important issues have been regrettably eclipsed by talk about a "revenge reshuffle".

As John McDonnell rightly made clear on the media this week, any decisions about who is in Labour’s top team are of course entirely a matter for the leader. But the idea that Jeremy Corbyn is a person motivated by "revenge" is something that I don’t recognise for a single second.

I indicated to Jeremy ahead of his first reshuffle that I would be willing to remain in the Shadow Cabinet, if that was his wish. I did so because I genuinely believed in what he said after the leadership election, that he wanted to unite the party and bring together people from different traditions and people who had backed different candidates. With the help of his experienced and skilful Chief Whip, Rosie Winterton, he was true to his word and performed a difficult task well.

I was also attracted by Jeremy’s call for a new, kinder politics. This would be one where there would be room for a little dissent and where the party, including the Shadow Cabinet, would have the confidence to have proper debates and discussions. What greater evidence of this than his decision that, despite his strong opposition to military action, there should be a free vote on Syria?  And his insistence that all sides of the debate should respect one another’s different but sincerely held points of view.

Next week, when the Commons returns from recess, all Labour’s energy should be focussed on getting after the Tories. This is a lousy Tory government and we need to keep exposing the fact. We also know we all face a big test in the May elections: defending the Welsh Government, showing Labour can turn things around in Scotland with Jeremy’s anti-austerity message, winning in London and gaining council seats in England.

In the end, George Lucas did use the "revenge" word in one of his Star Wars films but it was about the baddies in Revenge of the Sith. He was right. Revenge is not very Jedi. It’s also not very new politics.

Michael Dugher is Labour MP for Barnsley East and the former Shadow Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport.

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Brexit is teaching the UK that it needs immigrants

Finally forced to confront the economic consequences of low migration, ministers are abandoning the easy rhetoric of the past.

Why did the UK vote to leave the EU? For conservatives, Brexit was about regaining parliamentary sovereignty. For socialists it was about escaping the single market. For still more it was a chance to punish David Cameron and George Osborne. But supreme among the causes was the desire to reduce immigration.

For years, as the government repeatedly missed its target to limit net migration to "tens of thousands", the EU provided a convenient scapegoat. The free movement of people allegedly made this ambition unachievable (even as non-European migration oustripped that from the continent). When Cameron, the author of the target, was later forced to argue that the price of leaving the EU was nevertheless too great, voters were unsurprisingly unconvinced.

But though the Leave campaign vowed to gain "control" of immigration, it was careful never to set a formal target. As many of its senior figures knew, reducing net migration to "tens of thousands" a year would come at an economic price (immigrants make a net fiscal contribution of £7bn a year). An OBR study found that with zero net migration, public sector debt would rise to 145 per cent of GDP by 2062-63, while with high net migration it would fall to 73 per cent. For the UK, with its poor productivity and sub-par infrastructure, immigration has long been an economic boon. 

When Theresa May became Prime Minister, some cabinet members hoped that she would abolish the net migration target in a "Nixon goes to China" moment. But rather than retreating, the former Home Secretary doubled down. She regards the target as essential on both political and policy grounds (and has rejected pleas to exempt foreign students). But though the same goal endures, Brexit is forcing ministers to reveal a rarely spoken truth: Britain needs immigrants.

Those who boasted during the referendum of their desire to reduce the number of newcomers have been forced to qualify their remarks. On last night's Question Time, Brexit secretary David Davis conceded that immigration woud not invariably fall following Brexit. "I cannot imagine that the policy will be anything other than that which is in the national interest, which means that from time to time we’ll need more, from time to time we’ll need less migrants."

Though Davis insisted that the government would eventually meet its "tens of thousands" target (while sounding rather unconvinced), he added: "The simple truth is that we have to manage this problem. You’ve got industry dependent on migrants. You’ve got social welfare, the national health service. You have to make sure they continue to work."

As my colleague Julia Rampen has charted, Davis's colleagues have inserted similar caveats. Andrea Leadsom, the Environment Secretary, who warned during the referendum that EU immigration could “overwhelm” Britain, has told farmers that she recognises “how important seasonal labour from the EU is to the everyday running of your businesses”. Others, such as the Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, the Business Secretary, Greg Clark, and the Communities Secretary, Sajid Javid, have issued similar guarantees to employers. Brexit is fuelling immigration nimbyism: “Fewer migrants, please, but not in my sector.”

The UK’s vote to leave the EU – and May’s decision to pursue a "hard Brexit" – has deprived the government of a convenient alibi for high immigration. Finally forced to confront the economic consequences of low migration, ministers are abandoning the easy rhetoric of the past. Brexit may have been caused by the supposed costs of immigration but it is becoming an education in its benefits.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.