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19 September 2016

Jeremy Corbyn’s hand of friendship is a chance to reunite Labour

But the hurdles are huge. 

By Julia Rampen

Should Jeremy Corbyn win the Labour leadership election again next Saturday, as most expect he will, his next task will be to rebuild his shadow cabinet. 

As seen from Corbynland, this is a straightforward task. When asked about his disaffected colleagues, Corbyn has consistently struck a conciliatory note. He told BBC Radio 4 Today he had “made it my business to talk to quite a lot of Labour MPs”, and that he was going to reach out to them in the event of winning. The BBC reports that 14 could return.

The Labour leader has also pledged to have a majority female shadow cabinet, and proposed a return to elected cabinet members, which could in theory  redress some of the tensions in the management style. 

Such an offer has so far convinced one MP – Sarah Champion. Less than a month after resigning, she rejoined the shadow cabinet in order to return to her brief on preventing abuse. 

But while many former shadow cabinet MPs continue to campaign on the issues they were once officially representing, Corbyn still faces three main hurdles to rebuilding his shadow cabinet. 

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1. Ideology

Many of Labour’s big hitters stayed out of the first shadow cabinet in recognition of their differences with their new leader. Some of Corbyn’s first shadow cabinet had backed other candidates for leadership. 

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Corbyn seems to be promising respect for different opinions. He told the BBC: “It doesn’t mean everybody agrees on everything all the time, that I understand, but the general direction of opposition to austerity, opposing the Tories on grammar schools – those are the kind of thing that actually unite the party these days.”

He didn’t, however, mention Brexit, which was the initial trigger for the mass resignations from the shadow cabinet. Should the Labour leadership move towards a left-wing Eurosceptic line, this could alienate many MPs, who have not forgiven him for what they see as a half-hearted EU referendum campaign. 

2. Management

Several MPs who resigned made it clear they objected not so much to Corbyn’s ideology as to his poor managerial skills. Lilian Greenwood was shadow minister for Transport, but she said Corbyn’s tendency to say one thing and do another undermined her. Thangam Debbonaire said she was  promoted without her consent, then sacked without being informed.  

Corbyn has also refused to rule out deselection. This may sound like a good way of making elected representatives accountable, but many MPs see as throwing them into the hands of hard line grassroots activists. Briefings from his campaign, such as the one identifying “abusive” anti-Corbyn MPs, have made the atmosphere worse. 

One way to reconcile the party would be to endorse the desire of the parliamentary Labour party to bring back elections for shadow cabinet ministers. Corbyn appears to agree to this, but he has added a crucial condition.

Corbyn wants the right to elect the shadow cabinet to extend all the way from the PLP to Labour’s half a million members. For MPs who already feel bossed about by grassroots activists, this is not going down well. 

3. Grassroots activists

If the PLP isn’t feeling particularly affectionate towards grassroots activists, well, the feeling’s mutual. 

While some Corbyn supporters just want the party to come back together again, others see this as an opportunity to get rid of the stubbornly un-Corbyn PLP.

Liam Young wrote in The Staggers that from this perspective, Corbyn’s hand of friendship is a serious mistake: 

“Supporters do not want to return to the spectacle of members of the front bench openly opposing Corbyn’s position at the despatch box and on their television screens.”

There will be MPs who rejoin the shadow cabinet. Clive Efford, who resigned as shadow sports minister, nevertheless told the BBC he believed MPs had a duty to listen to the party. Ian Murray, Labour’s last remaining Scottish MP, said he would consider running for an elected shadow cabinet. But others, such as the leadership challenger Owen Smith, have declared they will serve on the backbenches.

Ultimately, whether or not an MP rejoins the shadow cabinet will be down to many factors, including where they get their mandate from, how much they care about their brief and why they quit in the first place. One thing’s for sure – Corbyn needs to get his appointments right. To lose your shadow cabinet once might be misfortune, but to lose it twice is carelessness indeed.