Why Jeremy Corbyn’s sadness about Ken Livingstone’s departure was ill-judged

A sharply worded statement – using the words “door”, “hit you” and “way out” – would have helped heal the breach between Labour and the Jewish community.

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When Jeremy Corbyn became Labour leader in 2015, his original intention was not to appoint anyone to the House of Lords. His opposition to the Lords was long-standing, rooted in the belief that the remaining hereditary peers were an anachronism and the case for the second chamber itself was paper-thin.

Yet now he has appointed three peers in a single sitting. The first two are the activists Pauline Bryan and Martha Osamor, mother of Kate Osamor, who serves as his shadow secretary of state for international development. The third new peer is the former general secretary of the Labour Party, Iain McNicol, who was replaced by Jennie Formby. They join Corbyn’s only other nominee to the Upper House, Shami Chakrabarti.

The crucial role played by Labour peers in the one legislative triumph of Corbyn’s first year in charge – the defeat of George Osborne’s planned tax credit cuts – was one part of why the Islington North MP warmed to the Lords. Corbyn was not the first and will not be the last party leader in the Commons to sneak in at the last minute and claim the credit for the good work of his counterpart in the Lords. But that victory against Osborne, the then chancellor, was crucial to his project, because it came at a time when the leader’s office was considered to be underpowered, before the arrival of chief of staff Karie Murphy and former Momentum activist James Schneider. Corbyn was in desperate need of some kind of achievement to show that Corbynism could work in practice.

The leader’s softening position on the Lords opened the door for the appointment of Chakrabarti, who serves as Labour’s shadow attorney general. Her elevation also gave the leader’s office another politician who is both loyal to the project and an experienced television performer (it should be said, however, that many in Labour feel she performed consistently more impressively on the TV sofas as chair of the advocacy group Liberty than she does now).  The thaw was accelerated by the advice of Bob Kerslake, the former head of the civil service, who is now a cross-bench peer. He was tasked with running sessions with the leader’s office and shadow cabinet to prepare them for the realities of government, at which he impressed upon his audience the sheer scale of the challenge facing them. Between Corbyn’s radical economic programme and the demands of Brexit, there would be little time to reform the Lords in the first term of a Labour government. So why not make use of it?

What sets McNicol apart from the rest of Corbyn’s appointments is that he is no Corbyn loyalist, or anything close to it. He is widely believed by Corbyn’s allies to have met with those who plotted to bar Corbyn from participating in the 2016 Labour leadership election against Owen Smith, after the so-called coup. (That he and Tom Watson were at Glastonbury and conveniently out of contact during the first days of the coup only adds to the suspicion.)

McNicol is also blamed in some circles for running an overly defensive campaign in the 2017 general election, which saw Labour lose narrowly in several Tory-held constituencies. Dawn Butler, the shadow women and equalities minister, recently blamed McNicol for the party’s sluggish response to anti-Semitism among Labour’s grass roots.

Among Corbynsceptics, it is widely believed that McNicol’s peerage was the price of his orderly exit from the job of general secretary, which allowed Formby of Unite to take the role. If so, it seems like a good day’s work for Corbyn. McNicol – and his extensive knowledge of the party’s inner wrangles – remains inside the Labour tent, and Corbyn has a true ally in the engine room of the party. Plus, there is the added benefit of an extra vote to discomfort and demoralise the Conservatives in the House of Lords whenever it is needed.

However, there is discontent – particularly among the foot soldiers of Momentum, some of whom see Corbyn as having been captured by the Labour machine rather than growing into his position of authority and power. For them, the issue is not his softening attitude to the Lords (I am yet to meet a senior Corbynite who sees that as a hill worth dying on) but the belief that Corbyn gets very little value out of his compromises. Some fear that when Formby moves on, the Labour Party she leaves behind will be much the same as the one she inherited, the only difference being that most of the staff will be committed Corbynites.

There was also widespread discontent over Ken Livingstone’s departure from the party, after his resignation on 21 May over comments he made about Hitler and Zionism. It is not Corbyn’s fault that Labour’s disciplinary process is so slow that the investigation into the former London mayor was still ongoing when he quit. However, for Corbyn to call the departure “sad” was badly judged. A sharply worded statement – the words “door”, “hit you” and “way out” might have featured – would have helped to heal the breach between the Labour Party and the Jewish community. Instead, Corbyn chose to focus on Livingstone’s achievements as mayor of London and head of the Greater London Authority. That decision was undoubtedly his, rather than that of his staffers or his allies, all of whom are more naturally ruthless than Corbyn. 

So, this week shows a Labour leader both changed and unchanged. He may have learned to tolerate, if not love, the House of Lords – and even to use it to his advantage. By appointing McNicol to a peerage, he has shown a willingness to reward his enemies. Yet he has not yet acquired a crucial, if unpleasant, ability for any leader: he cannot discard his friends, however difficult they might make his life. And that is far more telling than his appointment of peers to an upper chamber he used to oppose.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman and the PSA's Journalist of the Year. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

This article first appeared in the 23 May 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Age of the strongman