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14 September 2015

Will Jeremy Corbyn’s final shadow cabinet help to repair the early damage?

The Labour leader has achieved a gender-balanced and politically diverse team. But McDonnell's appointment will remain hugely divisive. 

By George Eaton

Before Jeremy Corbyn formed his shadow cabinet, he made two pledges: that it would contain an equal number of men and women, and that it would be broad-based and represent different wings of the party. The Labour leader’s final line-up, resolved after tortuous negotiations, keeps these promises. For the first time ever, the shadow cabinet is majority female, with 16 women and 15 men. Lisa Nandy, tipped by many as a future leader, is the new shadow energy and climate change secretary (the post from which Ed Miliband began his ascent). Maria Eagle has been promoted to shadow defence, Lillian Greenwood to shadow transport and Kerry McCarthy to shadow environment. Heidi Alexander and Lucy Powell received health and education last night. But gender parity has only been achieved by turning junior posts – shadow minister for young people (held by Gloria De Piero) and shadow minister for mental health (Luciana Berger) – into full-level positions (a move that is arguably welcome). 

Corbyn’s team is also not the hard-left outfit that some feared. Just three shadow cabinet members – Diane Abbott, John McDonnell, Jon Trickett – voted for the Labour leader. Corbyn has chosen not to immediately elevate the new left-wing intake and has opened the door to more moderate MPs. Andy Burnham’s team is well-represented, with the second-placed candidate becoming shadow home secretary, his campaign chair Michael Dugher taking culture, Charlie Falconer justice and Owen Smith work and pensions. Almost all of Liz Kendall’s supporters have left (among a total of 12 shadow cabinet members) but Corbyn managed to persuade Gloria De Piero to serve as shadow minister for young people and voter registration. There is also more continuity than some expected with Rosie Winterton remaining as opposition chief whip, Hilary Benn as shadow foreign secretary and the respected former housing minister John Healey returning to shadow the role (a coup for the Labour leader).

The defining question is whether Corbyn’s final shadow cabinet will help to repair the early damage. There was fury among MPs from all wings of the party last night when he failed to appoint a single woman to shadow one of the great offices of state (leader, chancellor, foreign and home). John McDonnell’s appointment as shadow chancellor, in preference to Angela Eagle, was described to me by one Corbyn ally as “simply terrible”. The trade unions and others on the left had pushed for Eagle to win the job on the grounds that McDonnell, who managed Corbyn’s campaign, was too divisive a figure to take the most senior post. But others argue that Corbyn had a clear mandate for the appointment and that it was essential for him to have a fellow left-winger, who he could unreservedly trust, in the role. Corbyn’s team point out that women will lead the education, health and defence teams and state that “The so-called ‘great offices of state’ as defined in the 19th century reflect an era before women or workers even had the vote and before Labour had radically changed the state.” Eagle was also hurriedly elevated to shadow first secretary of state (standing in for Corbyn at PMQs) in an an attempt at damage limitation. 

But his appointment of McDonnell will remain hugely divisive. By chosing his greatest ally, Corbyn has signalled his intent to craft an entirely distinctive, anti-austerity policy agenda. But he has also taken a significant risk. If he fails in winning the country round to his economic platform, his backbench opponents are likely to show little patience. Corbyn the gambler has chosen to fight on his own terms. 

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