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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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Corbyn is personally fireproof, but his manifesto could be torched by the Brexit blaze

There is no evidence that EU migration has depressed wages – but most Labour MPs believe it has.

News, like gas, expands to fill the space available to it. That’s why the summer recess can so often be a time of political discomfort for one party or another. Without the daily grind of life at Westminster, difficult moments can linger. Minor rows become front-page news.

There are many reasons why Theresa May is spending three weeks hiking in northern Italy and Switzerland, and one of them is that it is hard to have a leadership crisis if your leader is elsewhere. That makes the summer particularly dangerous for Labour. The danger is heightened as the majority of the press is unsympathetic to the party and the remainder is simply bored. Even a minor crisis could turn into a catastrophe.

Jeremy Corbyn’s interview on BBC1’s The Andrew Marr Show on 23 July, therefore, carried the same risks as juggling lit matches in a dry forest. The Labour leader ruled out continuing participation in the single market after Britain leaves the political structures of the European Union. For good measure, he added that the “wholesale importation” of people from eastern and central Europe had been used to undermine pay and conditions for British workers. Both statements only aggravate the stress fractures in the Labour movement and in its electoral coalition.

The good news for the Labour leader is that he is fireproof. Only God or Corbyn himself can prevent him from leading the party into the next election, whenever it comes, and no one will be foolish enough to try to remove him, even if they had the inclination. Also, while the question of what flavour of Brexit to pursue divides Labour in the country, it doesn’t divide Labour at Westminster. Most Labour MPs nodded along in agreement with Corbyn during the Marr interview. They believe – as the shadow international trade secretary, Barry Gardiner, outlined a day later – that remaining in the customs union and the single market would be a betrayal of the wishes of Leave voters, who want full control over Britain’s borders and laws.

There is no evidence that migration from the eastern bloc has depressed wages. But most Labour MPs believe that it has. “I am convinced,” one formerly pro-European MP told me, “that no matter what the studies say, immigration has reduced wages.”

Most of the Labour people who are willing to kick up a fuss about “hard” Brexit are outside parliament. These include the Welsh First Minister, Carwyn Jones, who wants Britain to remain in the single market; the general secretary of the TSSA union, Manuel Cortes, who recently used the New Statesman website to urge the party to keep all of its options open, including a second referendum to keep Britain in the EU; and the rapper Akala, who lambasted Corbyn’s interview on Twitter. While a large minority of Labour MPs back a softer version of Brexit, they are a minority, and not a large enough one to combine with Tory dissidents to make a Commons majority, even when the votes of the SNP, Plaid Cymru and the Green MP Caroline Lucas are taken into account.

This increases the party’s dependence on Jeremy Corbyn. As the leader’s aides observe, even among the quarter of the country that believes the government should simply overturn the referendum result, only a quarter of that quarter do so because they have a particular affection for the institutions of the European Union.

For the majority of hard Remainers, Brexit is a significant battleground in a larger culture war, one in which Corbyn is otherwise in perfect alignment with their values. His electoral appeal to Labour MPs is that he is someone who can say the same things on Brexit and migration as Yvette Cooper or Stephen Kinnock previously did, but without losing votes in England’s great cities.

The electoral threat to Labour from backing a harder form of exit is, in any case, often overstated. The first-past-the-post system makes the Liberal Democrats an inadequate refuge for anguished Remainers in England, while the SNP’s support for Scottish independence makes it an unsuitable home for Labour refugees in Scotland. Team Corbyn feels that Vince Cable, the Liberal Democrats’ new leader, will struggle to convince Labour voters that he can be trusted because of the role he played in designing the new system of tuition fees (having previously pledged to vote against them). In any case, the risk of letting in a Conservative prime minister – probably one committed to a version of Brexit even harder than Labour’s – further locks Remainers in Labour’s corner.

That leaves Labour in Westminster free to pursue a version of Brexit that meets the needs of both the leadership, which relishes the freedom to pursue a more radical economic policy unconstrained by the European Union, and Labour MPs, particularly those with seats in Yorkshire and the Midlands, who are concerned about opposition to immigration in their constituencies. This has the happy side effect of forcing the Conservatives to take the blame for delivering any Brexit deal that falls short of the promises made by Vote Leave during the referendum and in the high-blown rhetoric used by Theresa May during the election campaign.

However, all is not rosy. What most Labour MPs seem to have forgotten is that Brexit is not simply a political battleground – something to be leveraged to reduce the number of complaints about migration and to hasten the Tory government into an early grave. There is a political victory to be had by using the Brexit process to clobber the government. But there is also a far bigger defeat in store for the left if leaving the EU makes Britain poorer and more vulnerable to the caprice of international finance. That Jeremy Corbyn is personally fireproof doesn’t mean that his manifesto can’t be torched by the Brexit blaze. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue