A few days into Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership and we’re already seeing how collective responsibility operates under a lifelong backbencher, who voted against the Labour whip 534 times and who won with the support of just 14 MPs. After Corbyn’s refusal to sing the national anthem at the Battle of Britain memorial service (an entirely principled decision but a terrible political one), shadow work and pensions secretary Owen Smith told Newsnight: “I would have advised him to sing it, yes. I would absolutely, irrespective of his views”. Then, on the Today programme, shadow equalities minister Kate Green went even further, warning that her leader had “offended and hurt people”.
Even more strikingly, Green went on defend the benefit cap the morning after Corbyn had pledged at the TUC to abolish it. “I don’t think it is any secret that Jeremy and other London MPs in particular are against the cap because they have seen it having a particularly harsh affect in London where housing costs are very high,” she said. “The present policy position of the party, decided collectively by the party – and that is the way we make policy in the party; Jeremy is very respectful of that collective approach – is that we accept the principle of the cap but it is not currently before parliament to have a vote to remove it altogether. Obviously if that becomes a possibility in Parliament the party will collectively decide where we stand…It is not the current policy of the Labour Party but it is clearly something that Jeremy feels very strongly about.”
Green’s stance is, of course, technically correct. Corbyn’s position has not been officially adopted by the party. But to treat his pronouncements as if they are merely unilateral declarations is a remarkable affront to her leader. “Jeremy and other London MPs,” was how she effortlessly dismissed her new commander. And this just days after Corbyn has won the biggest victory of any leader in the party’s history. Shadow cabinet ministers (and Smith and Green are hardly on the right of the party) have already shown that they will not spin on his behalf. His mistakes will be his own. Corbyn is now already under pressure from some supporters to appoint a shadow cabinet of true believers (just three, Diane Abbott, John McDonnell and Jon Trickett voted for him). As he has already discovered, it is very lonely at the top.