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3 January 2016updated 27 Jul 2021 4:55am

Talk of a revenge reshuffle risks repeating the worst of New Labour

Jeremy Corbyn's promise of a kinder politics is at risk from loose-talking aides, says John Woodcock.

By john Woodcock

The anonymous briefings in various newspapers over Christmas about a revenge reshuffle targeting members of the shadow cabinet with different views to Jeremy Corbyn have been strongly reminiscent of a George Orwell novel.

Not Orwell’s nightmarish vision of an all-controlling future in his famous work, 1984; ‘minute of hate’-style ‘twitter storms’ where everyone gets together to denounce someone are not yet compulsory and no-one is being hauled in front of the national executive committee for the thought crimes that eventually did for the novel’s hero, Winston Smith.

Rather, the way in which the new Labour leadership risks recreating the worst hallmarks of the New Labour regime they claim to despise has strong echoes of Orwell’s Animal Farm. In the author’s classic satirical allegory of revolutionary Russia, the pigs who join with the other farm animals to overthrow their human masters end up being just as bad as the tyrants they have deposed.

So, Jeremy’s inspiring speech about a new politics based on kindness, openness and honesty was supposed to contrast with the brutal media culture of the Blair-Brown years where decent Labour people often found themselves on the receiving end of unnamed character assassinations from their own side. That demoralised them and dismayed the thousands of Labour supporters who picked up the papers to read them. 

Back at the time of the decision to go into Iraq against Saddam Hussein, senior Labour figures who had the courage to express a different viewpoint to Tony Blair were wrongly sidelined by the then leadership.

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Now, the situation seems to have been turned on its head yet remains the same. Things are different in that the people who always oppose intervention are now the ones running the party, but in most other respects the atmosphere of intolerance and threat is depressingly familiar. 

Those who have had the courage to express alternative points of view to Jeremy on the decision to extend of RAF air strikes from Iraq into Syria find themselves reading in the paper that they will be reshuffled, despite the fact it was a free vote and they expressed their strongly held convictions courteously and respectfully. MPs are told by their leader that there will be “no hiding place” as angry anti-war activists denounce them as Tories and traitors on social media. Ken Livingstone, the leader’s spokesman and his closest ally on the ruling NEC, even goes so far as to say he will support Labour members who want to try to deselect any MP who was persuaded by the case that in the wake of the Paris attacks the RAF’s campaign should be redirected towards the extremists’ headquarters in Syria rather than continuing over the border in Iraq.

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It does not have to be like this. The Labour party’s long history of thriving and vibrant debate makes it possible for people to disagree without being disagreeable. 

Many of us will always have a different approach to Jeremy on a whole host of issues, domestic, foreign and, above all, on the importance of winning the chance to govern so you can actually change things not just point out what is going wrong.

That difference can be a sign of our party’s strength, not its weakness.

Let 2016 be the year in which Jeremy and his leadership team puts into practice the vision of a tolerant culture that captured the imagination of so many Labour supporters who voted for him. I know there is a side of our leader that understands his compelling victory did not usher in an era of elected dictatorship where what he says goes and everyone else is menaced. After all, he himself chose to walk a different path to every previous Labour leader under whom he has served as an MP – from Neil Kinnock onwards. 

Let the Jeremy who reached out and included those with different views in his first shadow cabinet be the man who leads a diverse Labour party in 2016.

Please Jeremy, don’t be the guy who allows himself to be a kindly smiling face at the front of a brutal regime that recreates all the authoritarian intolerance of New Labour without any of that era’s good bits.

Animal Farm should remain a fiction book rooted in a past that has no place in modern Britain. Let’s not stand by and let it become a case of art being imitated by life in Westminster.