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8th - 14th  January 2016 issue
The God Issue

Labour reshuffle

George Eaton on a reshuffle that has strengthened Jeremy Corbyn's position but done little for party morale.

Plus: The New Statesman article opposing a "revenge reshuffle" that led to the shadow culture secretary Michael Dugher's sacking.

Joe Haines: "Depose Corbyn now"

Harold Wilson's press secretary urges Labour moderates to act without delay to remove a leader who threatens "impending disaster".

"Momentum will not organise for deselections": James Schneider defends the Corbynite campaign group from its critics.

Leading article: Mind the Tory gap on Europe.

Letter from Bahrain: John Jenkins explains how fear motivates Saudi Arabia's stand-off with Iran.

Jim Murphy on why his friend John should stay in Labour after 70 years of being a member.

The Ten Commandments: Mona Siddiqui, Jeanette Winterson, Jan Morris, Philip Hoare, Laurie Penny and Julian Baggini on the significance of Moses's mountain memoranda in the modern world.

Blair, Barnes and more big reads: Our culture editor, Tom Gatti, previews 2016 in books.

***

George Eaton: Corbyn's reshuffle was small but perfectly formed.

The NS political editor, George Eaton, argues that although this week's reshuffle of the shadow cabinet was selective, it has left the Labour leader in a notably more powerful position:

Despite its length, the eventual reshuffle did not bring the transformation that some had anticipated. The shadow foreign secretary, Hilary Benn, remained even after his confrontation with Corbyn over Syria. Chief whip Rosie Winterton survived despite claims by the leader's allies that she had exaggerated support for air strikes among MPs (one told me that the "whole project was fucked" unless she or her team were replaced). Not a single additional Corbynite was brought into the shadow cabinet.

Yet in other respects Corbyn significantly strengthened his position inside the party. Benn survived, following the threat of resignations in solidarity with him, but at the price of agreeing to abide by his leader on policy. There will be "no repetition", sources emphasised, of the extraordinary moment when the shadow foreign secretary contradicted the leader of the opposition's stance on Syria from the Commons despatch box [. . .] Corbyn's allies point out that his 534 rebellions against the whip in parliament came from the back bench, not the front bench.

One of the casualties of the reshuffle was the shadow culture secretary Michael Dugher; Corbyn cited Dugher's recent New Statesman article opposing a "revenge reshuffle" as justification for his removal. Eaton notes that:

The sacking of Dugher [. . .] was privately opposed by Watson and the shadow home secretary, Andy Burnham. After their wishes were ignored, nine shadow cabinet members publicly lamented Dugher's departure. But none resigned. Corbyn will feel liberated to sack others in future, now he has confirmed that an attack on one is not an attack on all.

Eaton finds the reshuffle has done little to lift the mood of the party:

As the reshuffle was covered in minute detail by reporters on the stairwell below the Labour leader's office in the Norman Shaw South building, senior MPs melancholically reflected on what they regarded as its irrelevance. "The reshuffled post-holders almost certainly won't get a taste of power," a former shadow cabinet minister told me. "A fantasy government that will stay that way," another said. Their despondency was increased by a YouGov poll, released mid-reshuffle, which showed Labour 10 points behind the Conservatives (23 points behind on the economy) and put Corbyn's approval rating at -32. "You can rearrange the chairs around the table as much as we like. Until these numbers change we won't win a general election," the newly elected MP Wes Streeting said.

*Read the Politics Column in full below and follow the NS's reshuffle live blog here.*

*Listen to the NS deputy editor, Helen Lewis, discuss the reshuffle on BBC Radio 4's Today programme.*

 

Joe Haines: Depose Corbyn now - or the Labour Party is a goner.

In a personal and provocative piece for this week's issue, the former press secretary to Harold Wilson, Joe Haines, now 87, breaks his silence to argue that Labour moderates cannot "wait for something to turn up" in their battle against Jeremy Corbyn's leadership. Either Corbyn goes, "or the party itself is a goner", Haines argues. Those who believe otherwise are the "Flat Earthers of British politics":

Barring a cataclysmic economic failure or a sexual scandal of unimaginable proportions, Cameron's successor will have a shoo-in and a near-moribund Liberal Democrat party will get a kiss of life and dream of beating Labour for second place. Scotland, if it is still in the Union by 2020, wouldn't offer a hope of returning to the Labour fold; the Scots voters know a wee, sleekit, cow'rin', tim'rous beastie when they see one and Corbyn would be lucky to keep our only seat. Either we wake up or we shut up. Too bleak? Too pessimistic? A fantasy scenario and not realistic? No.

Things could get worse. The national party could, according to the gloomiest forecast, disappear altogether by next October, reduced to a municipal party with brave bands of councillors flying the flag, rather like the Independent Labour Party in the 1930s. Actually, I don't think things are quite that bad. We face disintegration rather than immediate doom. At least at the first stage. But what will follow is a series of electoral defeats that can only be imagined.

Quite aside from his outdated policies, Corbyn is "simply not up to the job", Haines argues:

I heard some of his first speeches when he entered the House of Commons in the early 1980s. They were empty then and they are empty now. He is not a Bennite, because Tony Benn would never have been so rigid in his thinking; his speeches were beautifully constructed, even when they were idiotic, and they did not consist of treadmill recyclings of Marx and Trotsky.

Corbyn has no vision for the future of Britain. He offers no beacon to light the way. Politically, he has the candlepower of a glow-worm. He might once have fitted the role of a deputy manager of a northern friendly society, kind, polite and compassionate yet unable to help his client, but he is intellectually unsuited to be a minister of any kind, let alone a prime minister.

Haines issues a rallying call to Labour's passive moderates:

There's nothing we can do about him, wail the Micawberites, until something turns up. That's what they said about Gordon Brown - but nothing did turn up, except Ed Miliband. Chances were missed, not least by Ed's brother, David, to supplant Brown. Those who knew the election might be lost hesitated to do anything about it and the election was lost. And the next one.

Look at Jeremy's majority among the grass-roots members, say the Micawberites. Overthrow him and he will stand again and win again and we would be worse off than ever. Well, you can't be worse off than dead.

[. . .]

Others may feel that they will be accused of disloyalty to a leader whose parliamentary record is one of constant disloyalty. Of course, they will be accused of treachery by others who have made it a lifetime's occupation. They should stiffen their spine and be guided by the words of the Elizabethan courtier Sir John Harington: "Treason doth never prosper: what's the reason?/Why, if it prosper, none dare call it treason."

 

James Schneider: Momentum has defied the odds and will continue to grow.

The public face of Momentum, James Schneider, defends the Corbynite campaign group from critics in an article for the New Statesman and insists that Momentum's activists are not pushing for deselections:

Some say Momentum is a party within a party. We are not. Some MPs worry that Momentum will deselect them. We will not. MPs should not have a job for life, but Momentum is not organising for any deselections. Selections are a matter for local parties and their members. But we do want to change Labour's culture and practices, making it more participatory and campaign-oriented. We think this is what's required for Labour to win in 2020 and to make the changes this country needs. The essence of the new kind of politics is this: we're not just selling a product, we're building a movement.

 

Leading article: Mind the Tory gap on Europe.

There was a useful reminder this past week that Jeremy Corbyn is not the only leader in British politics harried by a fractious and divided party. On 5 January, David Cameron was forced to promise that collective cabinet responsibility would be suspended during the EU referendum. He told the House of Commons that, following his renegotiation, the government would offer a clear recommendation on Britain's EU membership but that ministers could oppose this view without quitting their job.

The decision was a sign of weakness, as the Prime Minister acted to halt a potential revolt from ministers such as Chris Grayling, Iain Duncan Smith and Theresa Villiers who wish to join the Out campaign. Two of Mr Cameron's prospective successors, Boris Johnson and Theresa May, have also long flirted with Euroscepticism, and the concession will force them to declare their hand.

Mr Cameron will be desperately hoping for a short referendum campaign and a resounding win; otherwise, his future will be far from assured. The battle is sure to be bloody and Tory MPs who have revelled in Labour's internal disputes may soon find they are far less filled with schadenfreude.

 

Letter from Bahrain: John Jenkins explains how fear motivates Saudi Arabia's stand-off with Iran.

The former British ambassador in Riyadh John Jenkins argues that, behind its bluster, Saudi Arabia is a country that feels under grave threat from enemies both inside and out. Jenkins has been encouraged by broadcasters to condemn Saturday's execution of the Saudi cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, but he finds himself . . .

[. . .] wondering what exactly it is that I and others are being invited to condemn. The fact of an execution, its nature, the Shia identity of the victim, his status as a cleric, that the Saudis still practise capital punishment, the nature of their judicial system, the timing of the act, the suspicion that it might undermine the peace process in Syria or infuriate Iran - or perhaps all of this and more?

Yet condemnation without understanding is futile. It is not enough to say that this is simply the result of the ascendancy of a new set of inexperienced senior princes. The reasons for Saudi - and Iranian - actions are structural.

Consider the context. Saudi Arabia feels with good reason more threatened than at any time in its modern history, at least since the subversive Kulturkampf of the 1950s and 1960s from Nasser's Egypt. This stems from five sources: first, the challenge of Sunni and largely Salafi jihadism; second, the sustained ideological and material challenge of the Islamic Republic of Iran; third, the collapse of large parts of the Middle East state system following the Arab spring; fourth, a sharp fall in global energy prices; and fifth, a sense that historical alliances - notably but not only with the United States - are fraying.

 

Jim Murphy urges disenfranchised Labour voters to reclaim the party, not abandon it.

The former Labour MP and New Statesman columnist Jim Murphy reflects on a meeting over Christmas with an old constituency friend:

[. . .] John Arthur, a lovely gentleman in his nineties. He has been a Labour member since before the NHS, the State of Israel or my dad were born.

He's a kind optimist and an elder in the local church. But he seemed unusually unsettled. I asked him about his health, his family and all the other things that could be causing his anxiety, but each of the obvious inquiries met with a pretty contented reply. It was only when we turned to politics that I got closer to the truth. And it's why I'm writing this column. Sheepishly, John told me that he was thinking of cancelling his 70-year-long membership of the Labour Party. He no longer recognised the party that he had lived most of his life in.

Murphy regrets that John would be traduced as a "Red Tory" by the new Corbynite "loudmouths" who "count their attachment to the Labour Party in months" rather than decades:

I can only share with others what I said to John, which is that the Labour Party has been nurtured for over a century. It is as much his party as anyone else's and what he has helped build with patience he shouldn't abandon in haste. After all, we elect a leader, not a monarch, and no one person has ever owned Labour. Surely John has earned the right to have his criticisms welcomed.

Of course, it would be charitable to look now at Labour's leadership team and see only the velvet glove of north London dinner-party politics rather than the vengeful iron fist of the Momentum faction - especially with the latter having a far clearer plan than the fabled former. We are also told that our current leaders are principled and harmless. But those leaving Labour see little that is harmless in consciously giving up the centre ground to the Tories, or principled in handing the centre left to the Lib Dems. It all means that, for the first time since 1952, an incumbent Tory government has entered a new year further ahead in the polls than it was at the previous year's general election.

I know that for John and others "Not in My Name" can be a powerful slogan but it is rarely a strategy. In fact, when it comes to resigning from Labour, the opposite is likely. Jeremy Corbyn won the leadership fair and square but it's worth remembering that, among those who were members at the general election and even a month afterwards, he didn't win a majority. I mention that fact not out of denial, but as a reminder that there are tens of thousands of people just like John - who believe in Labour as a party of principle and as a credible alternative government. Crucially, they are backed by all but 16 Labour MPs.

 

The Ten Commandments for 2016.

For this week's cover story, NS friends and contributors, including Philip Hoare, Laurie Penny and Mona Siddiqui, consider the relevance of the Decalogue in the modern age.

The prize-winning writer Jeanette Winterson's favourite commandment is the one honouring the Sabbath:

The rest day isn't about slumping in front of the TV with a tube of Pringles; it's a day shaped differently from a week of getting and spending. I am not religious any more, but I like the spiritual observances that religion is mindful of. If you believe that life has an inside as well as an outside, then how shall we honour that truth? How shall we find time for contemplation, imagination, turning the mind away from daily worries towards that word, "soul"? You don't have to believe in God or an afterlife to believe that human beings are more than their material purpose.

Winterson's commandment for the modern age would be "Thou Shalt Not Destroy":

It might even save the planet. Along the way, it might save the destruction in the name of profit of much that is beautiful.

The historian Jan Morris finds herself in agreement with many of the original edicts and adds an eleventh of her own:

It is curious to consider how relevant they are to today's concerns and how my own elementary rule conforms to the instructions of my distant childhood; so here they are, the Decalogue, from the Book of Exodus in the good old King James version of 1611, shortened and provided with my own agnostic responses. They are prologued by a simple declaration - "I am the Lord Thy God," which is agnostically debatable, for a start - and they continue thus:

1. The Decalogue: Thou shalt have no other gods.

Me: Well, so you say.

2. The Decalogue: Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image.

Me: It depends entirely upon the image.

3. The Decalogue: Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.

Me: If you mean using religious conviction to evil ends, I agree.

4. The Decalogue: Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy.

Me: Oh dear, I wish I could, but it's too late even for Wales.

5. The Decalogue: Honour thy father and thy mother.

Me: Quite right, too.

6. The Decalogue: Thou shalt not kill.

Me: Spot on.

7. The Decalogue: Thou shall not commit adultery.

Dear me, no.

8. The Decalogue: Thou shall not steal.

Me: Certainly not.

9. The Decalogue: Thou shall not bear false witness.

Me: Agreed, of course.

10. The Decalogue: Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's house, nor anything that is thy neighbour's.

Me: Semantically acceptable, as there's a difference between coveting and envying.

(11. The Decalogue: Thou shalt not lie.

Me: This is not one of the commandments but I think it should be.)

I agree with most of the Ten, you see, as most of us presumably would. Allowing for changing circumstances, in the many centuries since Moses first carved them in his Sinai rock, most of his commands seem to me to make moral sense still.

For the philosopher Julian Baggini,

[. . .] the very word "morality" seems to be increasingly out of place in the modern world. Even though almost no one would want to be killed or slandered, or see their partner or belongings stolen, very few of us recognise anything as providing sufficient authority to underwrite these rules. We want the protections of morality without having to defer to it, the fruits without the roots.

The problem is not that morality requires divine assent. Plato showed long ago why God's say-so doesn't answer the question of why some things are right and others wrong. If things were good only because God commanded them, then morality would be hollow and God could as easily demand murder as prohibit it. So God only gave us his commandments because they were the right ones to follow in the first place. That means they are right whether God tells us about them or not

Plus

Peter Wilby on the Iran-Saudi stand-off, Simon Danczuk's downfall and a
misleading case of wine. 

Commons Confidential: Kevin Maguire's pick of the best gossip from
Westminster. 

Climate Change: Edward Platt on the limits of Britain's flood defences. 

Maurice Walsh reviews Ronan Fanning's biography of an Irish political titan,
Éamon de Valera: a Will to Power

Ed Smith on how to revive Test cricket in the age of Twenty20. 

Lives ex libris: Nicholas Lezard finds both sadness and "sweet perkiness" in
Josh Spero's Second Hand Stories

Television: Rachel Cooke is dazzled by a near-perfect War and Peace on BBC1.

For more press information, please contact Anya Matthews: anya.matthews@newstatesman.co.uk / 020 7936 4029 / 07815 634 396

 

*Read the Politics Column in full*

George Eaton

Jeremy Corbyn's reshuffle gives him the advantage in Labour's internal war.

In 1963, soon after becoming Labour leader, Harold Wilson told his left-wing supporters: "You must understand that I am running a Bolshevik revolution with a tsarist shadow cabinet." The same was true of Jeremy Corbyn after his election last September. To the consternation of his ally Diane Abbott, his first shadow cabinet contained just three MPs who voted for him (Abbott, John McDonnell and Jon Trickett).

From the beginning, most of Corbyn's supporters believed this team would not endure. In an interview shortly before he became the leader's director of strategy and communications, Seumas Milne referred to it as "a stabilisation shadow cabinet". The expectation was that an ideologically purer successor would follow. After Labour's victory in the Oldham West by-election secured Corbyn's leadership, his team seized the chance to act.

Despite its length, the eventual reshuffle did not bring the transformation that some had anticipated. The shadow foreign secretary, Hilary Benn, remained even after his confrontation with Corbyn over Syria. Chief whip Rosie Winterton survived despite claims by the leader's allies that she had exaggerated support for air strikes among MPs (one told me that the "whole project was fucked" unless she or her team were replaced). Not a single additional Corbynite was brought into the shadow cabinet.

Yet in other respects Corbyn significantly strengthened his position inside the party. Benn survived, following the threat of resignations in solidarity with him, but at the price of agreeing to abide by his leader on policy. There will be "no repetition", sources emphasised, of the extraordinary moment when the shadow foreign secretary contradicted the leader of the opposition's stance on Syria from the Commons despatch box. Rather than further free votes, the leadership's intention is to enforce collective responsibility on future occasions. Corbyn's allies point out that his 534 rebellions against the whip in parliament came from the back bench, not the front bench.

Maria Eagle, an unambiguous supporter of Trident, was replaced as shadow defence secretary by Emily Thornberry, an opponent of renewal. Corbyn will still struggle to avoid conceding a free vote when the Commons decides on the matter later this year. Deputy leader Tom Watson, who emphasises that he has his own mandate, is among the shadow cabinet members committed to renewal of Trident. But the unilateralists have advanced their position.

Corbyn sacked the shadow culture secretary Michael Dugher and the shadow Europe minister Pat McFadden, two of his savviest critics, for "disloyalty". Labour sources maintain that "the new politics" allows "open debate" but not licence to "attack" the leader. The sacking of Dugher, whose recent New Statesman article opposing a "revenge reshuffle" Corbyn cited as justification for his removal, was privately opposed
by Watson and the shadow home secretary, Andy Burnham. After their wishes were ignored, nine shadow cabinet members publicly lamented Dugher's departure. But none resigned. Corbyn will feel liberated to sack others in future, now he has confirmed that an attack on one is not an attack on all.

On the morning of Dugher's removal, several of the 12 former shadow cabinet ministers who refused to serve Corbyn told me they felt vindicated. Far better to force Corbyn to assemble a team of true believers and succeed or fail on his own terms.

As the reshuffle was covered in minute detail by reporters on the stairwell below the Labour leader's office in the Norman Shaw South building, senior MPs melan­cholically reflected on what they regarded as its irrelevance. "The reshuffled post-holders almost certainly won't get a taste of power," a former shadow cabinet minister told me. "A fantasy government that will stay that way," another said. Their des­pondency was increased by a YouGov poll, released mid-reshuffle, which showed Labour 10 points behind the Conservatives (23 points behind on the economy) and put Corbyn's approval rating at -32. "You can rearrange the chairs around the table as much as we like. Until these numbers change we won't win a general election," the newly elected MP Wes Streeting said. Last month, for the first time since 1951, a Conservative government ended the year further ahead than at the time of the general election.

But in Labour's internecine struggle such numbers are of little consequence. For Corbyn, who took office with unprecedentedly low support among MPs, the priority is to consolidate his control. Senior Labour figures express fury that the Tories have extended their advantage despite the floods debacle and the EU schism. But they realise that their rage is futile. Corbyn's hegemony among members is undiminished after the exodus of tens of thousands of opponents. For both principled and political reasons, he is enacting the anti-war, anti-Trident mandate that his supporters gave him.

Even if the May election results are as uniformly dismal as some predict, few believe that Corbyn's position will be endangered. Some of his opponents speak of the need to remove him before the 2016 conference, when they fear he will change policymaking and leadership rules to the left's advantage. Yet there is little confidence that their self-imposed deadline will be met.

When Corbyn first became the front-runner it was often predicted that he would be unable to form a front bench at all. Just four months later, he has begun to remake his shadow cabinet in his image. In time, outriders such as Clive Lewis, Richard Burgon and Cat Smith, all first elected in 2015, will become candidates for promotion.

The original hope of Corbyn's opponents in the shadow cabinet was that he would serve on their terms. The reshuffle has turned that calculation on its head.

 

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