Corbyn's decision not to bring back shadow cabinet elections is the right call

The Labour leadership candidate would maintain the vital power of patronage, rather than bringing back the system abolished by Ed Miliband. 

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Shadow cabinet elections have been reported to be among the policies that Jeremy Corbyn intends to resurrect from Labour's past. But as I report in my cover story in this week's magazine, that's not the case. The Labour leadership candidate has resolved that he will maintain the right to appoint his own team, rather than having it elected by MPs (as was the case before Ed Miliband changed the system in 2011). 

In his own column in this week's NS, Corbyn writes: "Whoever emerges as leader on 12 September needs a shadow cabinet in place as soon as possible. I will appoint a strong, diverse shadow cabinet to hold this government to account from day one." Labour MPs had warned that there would be no time for Corbyn to change the procedure in time for him to appoint a new team by 13 September (the day after the result is announced). 

Corbyn's decision is undoubtedly the right one. He has maintained the power of patronage, one of the most crucial for any leader. In troubled times, reshuffles are a vital means of reasserting authority. The return of shadow cabinet elections would also have led to figures from other wings of the party gaining mass support (assuming they stood), weakening Corbyn's hand against them. There are just 14 MPs who explicitly back him.

For this reason, many have suggested that Corbyn would struggle to form a shadow frontbench team. But when I put this to one senior Labour MP, he told me: "That won't be the case. The party comes first." Corbyn's shadow cabinet will likely feature long-standing left-wing MPs such as Jon Trickett, John McDonnell and Diane Abbott, and newcomers such as Richard Burgon, Clive Lewis and Louise Haigh. But what of the other places? Lewis told me: "A number of MPs I’ve spoken to who supported both Yvette and Andy are quietly very excited at this turn of events." He added that "many others, sensing an opportunity to move from virtual political obscurity to frontline politics, an option that wasn’t there three months ago, will do so with guarded enthusiasm."

Those senior figures who have publicly pledged not to serve in a Corbyn shadow cabinet, such as Cooper, Kendall, Chuka Umunna and Chris Leslie, intend to keep their word. The view is that he deserves “maximum room for manoeuvre to implement his prospectus”. Shadow cabinet members are alive to the danger of a backlash if they appear to obstruct him. In time, they hope, not merely Corbyn, but his policies, will be discredited.

Andy Burnham, the most senior figure to have said he would serve under Corbyn (and have Corbyn serve under him), is now being tipped by MPs to become shadow chancellor if his rival wins. In his column, after signalling that he would not bring back elections, Corbyn pledges to introduce "backbench committees of Labour MPs for each department to ensure a dialogue between all Labour MPs and the shadow cabinet, and to drive policy development." 

George Eaton is senior online editor of the New Statesman.

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