For all the talk of change, this felt like a Blair-era reshuffle: lots of chaos, a late panic over some bad headlines, and a large, self-inflicted wound.
Angela Eagle, once again, was cast in the role of main victim: Tony Blair sacked her by mistake in 2002 and here she was mystifyingly given the role of shadowing BIS despite having served as a treasury minister during the last Labour government. Eagle was a quietly radical frontbencher during the last parliament and was far and away the most leftwing candidate in the deputy race. It seems unlikely that Eagle would have been a block against ideas such as People’s Quantitative Easing as she will have to defend those policies when she fills in for Corbyn during Prime Ministers’ Questions.
Passing her over in favour of John McDonnell leaves the party’s top posts looking male and pale, although it may be in the longterm that Jeremy Corbyn reaps a bigger benefit from having his closest ally at the Treasury. There will be no repeats of the friction that categorised Ed Miliband’s relationship with first Alan Johnson and then Ed Balls. (Don’t forget that while Blair and Gordon Brown disagreed about personality they were almost at one on policy, with the exception of the Euro.)
What was a huge error was to keep Hilary Benn in post at Shadow Foreign. Benn looks uncomfortable already and his media appearances today bore all the hallmarks of a hostage video. It would have been better to appoint Diane Abbott, who has a wealth of media experience and is a devout Corbynite. I wouldn’t be surprised if the longterm consequence of this move is an early resignation from Benn – and a lingering aroma of being “just for the boys” from Labour, which looks worryingly like a golf club at its highest levels. Or, if seeking a moderate, offering it to one of the many centrist women who expressed a willingness to serve but were passed over: Emily Thornberry, and thought to be open-minded on Trident, could have done an excellent job. Instead, as my colleague Helen Lewis reports, she was offered nothing.
There was very little Corbyn could have done to keep Liz Kendall, Yvette Cooper, Rachel Reeves and Caroline Flint in the tent – but that Chi Onwurah, from the party’s left, a black woman from the North and with a background in science, wasn’t offered a post at all is an inexplicable oversight.
It gets worse when you look at some of the men who have been included, and the lengths gone to secure them. Andy Burnham, who was the most strongly anti-immigration candidate of the four – Corbyn has said that Burnham’s rhetoric on the area is what drove him to stand in the first place – is now given control over immigration policy. But as Helen writes, Alison McGovern, who was offered Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury, wasn’t allowed to ask for clarity on comparatively minor areas of fiscal policy.
It is keeping the Burnhamites on side, rather than shifting to the left that has made the Shadow Cabinet quite so male: not just Burnham himself, but his backers, Lord Falconer, who remains at Justice, Benn, and Michael Dugher, moved from Transport to Culture.
That said, there were genuine causes for celebration. Dugher’s replacement at Transport, Lilian Greenwood, is chief among them. The creation of a shadow minister for mental health, too, is good news – and giving it to Luciana Berger, who successfully forced a change in law on the government as minister for public health is a strong move too. Health looks to be the best part of Corbyn’s XI – Heidi Alexander, the MP for Lewisham East, will be a fantastic Shadow Secretary of State for Health.
That said, Corbyn did better than Miliband. The claim that this Shadow Cabinet is “majority women” requires Milliband-style feats of accountancy (Corbyn’s predecessor liked to pretend that allowing the minister for childcare to attend Cabinet meetings made it a 50/50 split) but once you strip away the junior ministerial posts it is still level with Harriet Harman’s interim Shadow Cabinet, with an exactly 50/50 split of men to women.
Politically, the big winners are not Corbynites – in fact, it is Corbynite women, like Kate Osamor, Cat Smith and Catherine West, who are glaringly absent from the top table – but what we might start calling the “soft right”: largely supporters of Tom Watson who have opted to stay within the Shadow Cabinet: Michael Dugher, Jon Ashworth, and Gloria De Piero. While they have superficially poor roles around the top table: Dugher is the only one at Secretary of State-level, while Ashworth is minister without portfolio and De Piero shadows young people and voter registration, they wield considerable organisational muscle.
De Piero, along with Michael Cashman, has been elected to the Conference Arrangements Committee – two unnoticed victories for the party’s centrist tendencies amid the Corbyn landslide – while Ashworth will continue to serve on the party’s NEC. Just as the “Friends of George” will likely decide the next Conservative leader, this small group may yet decide Labour’s future.