New Times,
New Thinking.

Why Jeremy Corbyn is Labour’s Doctor Who

The party leader’s stealthy reshuffle shows that, like the Time Lord, he can regenerate and stay the same.

By Stephen Bush

Rather like Doctor Who, Jeremy Corbyn has survived a series of regenerations. Immediately after his election as Labour leader in 2015, his scepticism over Nato softened and his support for shadow cabinet elections vanished. The year after, this former Brexiteer became a spokesman for Remain. And somewhere along the way, the once scruffy backbencher emerged as the blue-suited genial campaigner of the general election.

Yet just like the Time Lord, while the costume might change – a question-mark umbrella here, a voluminous scarf there – and the mannerisms might alter, his essential character remains unchanged.

A good demonstration of this came in Labour’s low-key reshuffle on 12 January. Unlike the car crash of early 2016, which dragged on for days, this year’s refashioning of the shadow ministerial team was accomplished with the press release of a single list of all the new appointments. It was only when you looked at the timing – the notice was sent at seven o’clock on a Friday night – that it became apparent Corbyn’s perennial distaste for journalists and courting the media has not changed.

Another trait of the previous Corbyn incarnation – his dislike of firing people, particularly those he sees as having “stayed loyal” to him in times of crisis – has survived. The Labour leader has voluntarily removed just three people (Michael Dugher, Pat McFadden and Rosie Winterton) from the front bench since he assumed the leadership. His longest-standing allies, John McDonnell and Diane Abbott, often remark that “Jeremy is kinder than I am”.

Corbyn’s unwillingness to wield the axe has not prevented him from elevating a large chunk of the 2015 and 2017 parliamentary intakes, who are to the left of the average member of the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP). That is important, because the one area where Corbyn differs from the Doctor is that his regenerations cannot make him younger – so creating a wide field of possible successors is a vital task.

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Thanks to Theresa May’s maladroit handling of both her own reshuffle and the Brexit negotiations, Corbyn’s age is one of the few sources of consolation to the Conservatives. The Tory thesis – which, strangely enough, is also one I have heard from several of Corbyn’s closest allies – is that only the present leader can plausibly maintain Labour’s Janus-faced stance on Europe. At the next election, they expect him to offer a pro-Leave set of policies, spoken in a pro-Remain voice.

But will he stay the course? Although Corbyn is getting better at the game of Westminster politics, he still doesn’t relish it, according to those who know him best. Because of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, he can expect to wait four years before returning to the part of the job he enjoys: campaigning and meeting people. That’s one reason both Corbynites and Corbynsceptics are preparing to fight another leadership election.

It’s also why the Labour left has lost no time making use of the new, larger majority it has just won on the party’s ruling National Executive Committee (NEC). Jon Lansman, a former aide to Tony Benn and founder of Momentum, the pro-Corbyn pressure group, has been elected to the NEC. But the true significance of his election has been missed by most: Lansman can now act as a kind of chief whip for the left on the NEC, stopping other sympathetic members carving out their own deals with the unions.

While Lansman and the leader’s office agree broadly on most issues, they are divided over who the party’s favoured candidates in vacant seats should be. The new NEC may operate a rubber stamp for Corbynism – but that isn’t quite the same thing as a rubber stamp for Corbyn.

As a consequence, the various power brokers on the Labour left could easily end up backing multiple candidates for the leadership, should a vacancy occur.

One emerging candidate who could unite them all is Laura Pidcock, the 31-year-old newly elected MP for North West Durham. She arrived in Westminster already respected by the big trade unions but with little profile beyond them. She quickly made a splash by telling the left-wing website Skwawkbox that she had no intention of making friends with Tory MPs.

Pidcock has been given the role of shadow minister for labour, a coup twice over. The first boost is that Corbyn is committed to creating a fully fledged ministry of labour, which means the position is effectively that of a secretary of state in waiting. The second is that it gives her licence to deepen her ties with trade union officials, something that  has not gone unnoticed.

Another winner from the Labour reshuffle was Dan Carden, who shares an office with Pidcock and who was elected in 2017 to the ultra-safe Labour seat of Liverpool Walton. Carden’s former job was as aide to Len McCluskey, general secretary of Unite, Britain’s largest trade union, which has ever greater influence over the Labour Party. He is a junior shadow minister for international development and is on the rise.

Like Nick Clegg and Ed Balls before him, Carden has arrived in parliament with a big reputation. (Two years after being elected, Clegg was the Liberal Democrat leader and Balls was in the cabinet.) Carden has done what any big-name neophyte should do to avoid bruising the feelings of senior colleagues: he has kept a low profile. However, he might well now have the same rapid ascent as Balls.

Unfortunately for the ambitions of any man in the PLP, there is a hardening conviction that the party should – learning from Doctor Who – finally have its first female lead. Yet since the NEC elections have only consolidated Jeremy Corbyn’s power, the next few regenerations might still be his. 

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This article appears in the 17 Jan 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Churchill and the hinge of history