Is UK Labour’s re-shuffling itself into a new form of democratic centralism?

Kudos to David for staying up to the bitter end of a 30 hour shadow cabinet reshuffle, that ended up in very little change. It should be noted that Irish cabinet reshuffles can take months, but very few political reshuffles happen within just four months of the previous one.

Some Labour folk are spinning this as a mere media storm, but the four month frame and the barely veiled threat against Hillary Benn clearly indicate an attempt by Jeremy Corbyn to put manners on those not happy with his own chosen direction as leader.

This is Corbyn experimenters demonstrating that it has teeth and is not afraid to bite. But with three further Ministers having resigned and possibly another two on the way it has to be remembered that these dissenters are not on the right of the party.

Rather these are the ones who wanted to back Corbyn as leader.

Andrew Neil pointed out on the Daily Politics this morning after thirty hours of talks it is not clear who Corbyn has been talking to. Lisa Nandy who sits comfortably to the left of the party and retains her job at Environment was stumped as to the reasons for the sacking of Dugher and McFadden.

The naming this morning of Labour’s head of comms Seumas Milne as the person actively promoting the revenge reshuffle narrative suggests either great calculation or great carelessness on the part of the leadership. John McDonnell also followed through this morning.

For Hilary Benn’s (whom it is thought Mr Corbyn had tried to move) part he has said he will carry on as before. That is to carry on holding the party whip and cabinet responsibility. Ironically, it is Corbyn’s leadership that has created an unexpected (and possibly unlooked for) opportunity for Benn.

As Michael White points out in sacking Barnsley MP Michael Dugher (over little more than minor, if irritating forms of blunt speech) is making tough enemies in a part of the Labour machine that Corbyn will find hard to reach.

The moving of Eagle sideways after her run in with Ken Livingstone looks very much like an internal maneuver the new Defence Secretary Emily Thornbury’s anti Trident stance in order to gain some leverage towards a substantial policy shift at NEC level.

The paradox here is that probably one of the most disloyal MPs Labour history is making loyalty to the leader binding even on a free vote. There is a certain smack of democratic centralism to the whole thing, even if weeding out dissenters comes at a certain, erm, excruciating price.

In a fascinating essay for Dissent Magazine, James Stafford notes:

Along with his key lieutenants and supporters, Corbyn has been declaiming at length from platforms for years. He continued to do so, albeit to bigger crowds, at his packed campaign rallies. The audience never really gets to set the agenda.

The leader’s hallmark is his “principled,” stubborn consistency, rather than any particular willingness to engage in genuine dialogue with those who have uncomfortable things to say about the modern Labour party (a category that includes much of the electorate).

It’s worth remembering that Corbyn could have out and out sacked Benn. He didn’t in part because it may well have signaled a full scale civil war within the party, something that does not (yet, at least) suit the Labour leader.

But this is a comedy that will keep playing and playing. We know from our own experience in NI that voters really don’t like divided parties, but Labour is a party with a lot of bad karma and legacy to work through. As Michael White noted yesterday:

…disowning Blairism is a major disaster for Labour, though Hyman’s article concedes that Blair’s disconnect from his party base was pretty ruinous. He and Gordon Brown left a pretty unpersuasive crop of next generation leaders too; hence the choice of the oldest candidate last September.

Yep, but this re-shuffle demonstrates also that it is not going to be any walk in the park for the Rebel Alliance either. Last word to the words that got the MP for Barnsley East the chop:

I was attracted by Jeremy’s call for a new, kinder politics. This would be one where there would be room for a little dissent and where the party, including the Shadow Cabinet, would have the confidence to have proper debates and discussions. What greater evidence of this than his decision that, despite his strong opposition to military action, there should be a free vote on Syria? And his insistence that all sides of the debate should respect one another’s different but sincerely held points of view.

Next week, when the Commons returns from recess, all Labour’s energy should be focussed on getting after the Tories. This is a lousy Tory government and we need to keep exposing the fact. We also know we all face a big test in the May elections: defending the Welsh Government, showing Labour can turn things around in Scotland with Jeremy’s anti-austerity message, winning in London and gaining council seats in England.

In the end, George Lucas did use the “revenge” word in one of his Star Wars films but it was about the baddies in Revenge of the Sith. He was right. Revenge is not very Jedi. It’s also not very new politics.


Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty