“For the next leader of the Labour Party, the seventeen days between being elected leader of the Labour Party and sitting down after their first conference speech will be the most important period of their whole leadership,” James Morris, Ed Miliband’s pollster, wrote during the leadership election. “Define themselves in the right way from the start and they have a fighting chance of being Prime Minister in 2020. But, as Ed Miliband discovered, if they get off on the wrong foot it may never be possible to convince the public to think again.”
In the Financial Times shortly after he became shadow chancellor, John McDonnell disagreed. “Speaking as a football fan,” he wrote, “I am less interested in October and more in where my team is when the season closes in May.”
He’s right, of course, but if you win just one game in October, you are not going to win the Premier League in May, as Chelsea have discovered. So, how have Corbyn’s first 100 days been?
Despite the polls, and their healthy lead in CLP nominations, the bulk of the senior team around Corbyn expected to lose until very late in the contest. Only a barebones plan for the 48 hours after his victory was drawn up, and both Carmel Nolan, Corbyn’s press chief, and James Mills, brought in on secondment from the CWU to bolster the operation, returned to their previous lives the Monday after Corbyn was elected.
That meant that, at the beginning, Simon Fletcher, the campaign manager and now chief of staff, was acting as a jack of all trades – political adviser, rebuttal unit, HR manager and general dogsbody. That “hurt us twice”, in the words of one Corbyn ally: there weren’t enough top-quality people at the centre at the beginning, resulting in Fletcher being overstretched. Later, when Fletcher took “well-deserved time out”, the leader’s office became less effective without him.
Despite that, Corbyn has got many of the big calls right. For all his baggage – and his unpopularity with the bulk of the trade union leaders, thanks to his years campaigning for their left-wing opponents – putting McDonnell in at shadow chancellor was the right call. While the relationship between the two Eds – and their staff – never sunk to the toxic levels of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, Blair and Brown disagreed on only two important issues – who should be prime minister, and whether Britain should join the euro. (Brownites thought Gordon Brown could equal the election-winning heroics of Blair. Blairites wanted to join the euro. Let’s call it a tie.)
Balls and Miliband might have had more time for each other personally, but there was a gulf between the two of them, policy-wise. Angela Eagle is able but from the centre of the party – appointing McDonnell as shadow chancellor assures the leadership that Labour’s top two will be on the same page going into the next election.
Putting Hilary Benn in at shadow foreign, however, was a blunder, firstly because it meant that Labour’s top posts are exclusively filled by men, but more importantly because it opened up a line of awkward division right from the off. It is likely that Diane Abbott, the only frontbencher who combines impeccable Corbynite credentials with television experience, will end up replacing Benn when Corbyn conducts his next reshuffle.
There have been good appointments underneath the top posts: Heidi Alexander at Health and Lilian Greenwood at Transport are among the most exciting for Labour, while Lisa Nandy, long spoken of as the next big thing, has been handed a big stage at shadow DECC.
But outside of that, the picture is mixed at best. Unforced errors – from the Little Red Book to quoting Enver Hoxha, to staying silent during the National Anthem – give off the impression of a leadership that doesn’t quite know what it’s doing at best, and of one that dislikes many of the things voters hold dear at worst.
That said, Corbyn has shown an unexpected – and underappreciated – deftness on the big political issues. On the European Union, he has U-turned on his long-standing opposition to British membership of what he is widely believed to view still as a capitalist club, as Labour members are overwhelmingly pro staying in. But on issues where he has the bulk of the activists behind him, such as air strikes in Syria, he has held fast to his beliefs and used them as wedge issues against his internal opponents.
That’s partly why it is now difficult to see how Labour won’t go into the next election with either Corbyn or his chosen successor at the helm.
So, all in all, a better start than McDonnell’s Hayes and Yeading – 15th in the Conference South – but probably only about as good as Corbyn’s Arsenal – currently second behind a team in blue, and likely to end the season that way, too.
Update, 11:20, 21/12/2015: Apologies. I originally referred to Fletcher taking time off in the present tense – looking back at the original message, the reference was clearly historical.