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6 January 2016

Jeremy Corbyn’s reshuffle: where do we go from here?

The divide between the parliamentary party and the members is real - but not unbridgeable, argues John Denham.

By John Denham

A shambles can be a sign of sheer incompetence; or, as in the case of Labour’s reshuffle, it can underline the fundamental dilemmas of leadership.  In defence of Jeremy Corbyn, no one would choose to lead a party so divided between its members and its MPs, but the test of leadership is how you respond to circumstances you didn’t choose and that were largely outside your control.

Corbyn has huge support from people who want a more radical Labour than they’ve been offered for the past 20 years. Some members are latecomers who didn’t even vote Labour in May, but most are not. At the same time most MPs – often with years of winning over floating voters, and fighting for party, country and constituents – worry that heart on sleeve liberal radicalism, deafness to Labour’s white working class base and anti-western foreign policies will prove unelectable. As with the members, it’s best to avoid crude stereotypes:  MPs are also open to a more radical domestic policy; many clearly share Corbyn’s doubts about ill-planned military action, and relatively few believe that Blair was as good as it gets. 

But the distance between membership and parliamentary party is real, and in these circumstances, the Labour leader has two options.

The first is to believe that the party is now divided into two warring tribes, in which only one can triumph. War to the death – or decisive split – is the only option. From Labour’s right, this is what former Blair advisor Peter Hyman has recently argued. From Labour’s left, it drives the grass roots movement to deselect Labour MPs. Plenty of those close to the leadership, like Momentum’s organiser Jon Lansman, have spent their political lives wanting to reduce MPs to delegates of the members.

The other route is to recognise that no one would have chosen to be here, but we have to make the best of it. A fight to the death will simply mean that we all die together. There is no reason to assume Labour will always bounce back; not when the social and economic conditions that created mass labour parties are disappearing right across Western Europe. Good will and hard work, could produce a Party more radical than in recent years, and a party in which most of the PLP and the membership can be comfortable. No one will get everything they want, but common ground might make progress possible.

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What’s clear from the past two weeks is that Jeremy has not decided which route to follow. The choice between a uniting compromise and a fight to the death clearly haunts him. Much of his personal rhetoric suggests a desire to bring people together. Most of his actions point to the opposite. His chosen media voices are amongst the most divisive and confrontational figures in the party. Key staff appointments are people from the left’s Leninist fringe.

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Ironically, while Labour’s right is terrified of the new members, the hard left understand that they only have a narrow window of opportunity to re-shape Labour. They well know that few of Labour’s members are signed up to a hard left revolutionary project: far from it, they want a radical Labour but one that can win. The hardliners have to push through measures to seize the party machine before evidence of electoral failure shakes the confidence of both new and longstanding members.

Under this pressure, Corbyn raised lengthy and damaging expectations of a sweeping shake-out of those who challenged him on key issues. In the end, faced with the reality that stoking further conflict would benefit no one, no changes of any real significance occurred (with all due respect to Pat McFadden and Michael Dugher).

Whether Jeremy lost his nerve, or whether he never intended to provoke a fight to the death, only he knows. But he still hasn’t made that fundamental leadership choice. He’s drawn back from bloodletting, without setting out any unifying political strategy. Further conflict seems guaranteed.

But is it realistic to talk of a unifying strategy when the gap between membership and MPs seems so large? Behind the divisive language, there may be more common ground than many assume.

On economic policy, much of the party inside and outside Parliament would back more active state intervention and more emphasis on national ownership and national interest, while still positively asserting that the vast majority of wealth creation must come from successful private sector companies.

On welfare, most would oppose current cuts while laying the basis for a different, more contributory system for the future and a greater emphasis on an economy that produces better and fairer rewards from work.

Internationally, most of the party would be comfortable opposing ill-planned interventionism while consistently reinforcing and actively promoting the real and fundamental importance of western liberal and democratic values against authoritarianism in all its forms. And the party can surely unite in defence of the EU and European cooperation.

And on public services, the issue that probably brings most people into Labour, common ground clearly lies around higher levels of investment and the rejection of marketisation as the primary means of service improvement. Devolution, decentralisation and democratisation have growing support across the party, as does recognition of the distinct national English, Welsh and Scottish Labour identities.

Uniting Labour by asking what its members and MPs share is a far cry from building the party through a dialogue with the voters. The gap between what the Labour family can agree and what the voters want may prove too wide to create a General Election winning party. But from the Leader down, the party can only play with the cards history has dealt, and it might be enough to hold things together and to provide a platform on which to build.