Politics just got interesting


A Jeremy Corbyn – Tom Watson win for the Labour leadership – and the ‘fun’ has already started.

This article on the Conservative Home blog gives some insight into how Mr Corbyn’s adversaries will respond over the period of his leadership. I expect the print media campaign to be relentless and exhausting. Yet despite the dire media and political warnings from across the Westminster political establishment, the results of the leadership contest were astonishing.

Ed Miliband’s legitimacy was always undermined by the fact that his brother won the vote in the Labour Party full membership, and that it was the trade union vote that saw the younger brother take the leadership. With Corbyn a whisker away from winning the vote from the full members alone in the first round, and winning by thumping margins the other eligible voters, Corbyn has the legitimacy of the grass roots that his predecessor perhaps didn’t have.

A thumping rejection of ‘Blairism’?

I can’t help but feel that parts of Labour’s grass roots never felt it had the opportunity to ‘cleanse’ itself of what it saw as the shortcomings of Tony Blair’s time in office – and what Blair’s done since. Because Liz Kendall MP was the candidate that had the backing of Mr Blair and his allies, Ms Kendall found herself in the eye of the storm of some utterly appalling hatred thrown at her online.

Yet Ms Kendall maintained her dignity and courage throughout. I can’t help feel that many of her higher profile supporters could have done much more to call out those that were throwing abuse at Ms Kendall – and that the Labour Party as an institution should have taken much more firm steps to rein in those party members behaving in such a manner.

There are many criticisms I can make of Ms Kendall’s campaign – not least the lack of serious policy detail on causes that she feels the most passionately about. Yet she had the courage to be the first to step forward at a time when Labour was flat on its face following the general election in 2015 with a series of interviews that actually put journalists on the back foot. Honest about some of the shortcomings of Labour’s campaign, what the party needed to examine and her initial thoughts. The problem was that she was unable to move on from what seemed like an energised start.

“What of Labour loyalists Andy Burnham and Yvette Cooper?”

Ms Cooper only started landing political blows on the Corbyn campaign when she started analysing the policy detail of ‘Corbynomics’, and then being seen at the parliamentary forefront of efforts to change the Government’s policy on refugees from Syria. But by that time, many votes had already been cast.

Mr Burnham seemed to start off strong, perhaps staking out territory as the most ‘left-wing’ of the three ‘moderates’. A reasonable strategy in the absence of a candidate further to the left of him. But with Mr Corbyn scraping the number of parliamentary nominees required, this left Mr Burnham caught between two high profile women candidates on his right, and a solid left-winger on his left.

Exit Labour front-benchers – but how long before they move against Mr Corbyn? A look at the Conservatives in 2003.

Half a dozen front benchers resigned following the announcement of Mr Corbyn’s win. The mainstream media’s Twittersphere was full of rumour about a coup against Mr Corbyn until the scale of the latter’s victory became clear. It’s difficult to see a move against Mr Corbyn in the short-medium term of the rebellion Iain Duncan Smith faced in 2003. The latter won against former Chancellor Ken Clarke in 2001 with 60% of the vote of Conservative Party members.

So it’s not inconceivable that in 18months time that discontented Labour MPs might try and move against Mr Corbyn if he’s seen as a weak party leader. Obviously the problem Mr Corbyn has is that so few members of Labour’s parliamentary party backed him. On the other hand, the impact of new members joining the party on the back of Mr Corbyn’s campaign could persuade enough of those otherwise sceptical MPs to at least give Mr Corbyn a chance and work with him in a shadow cabinet.

Exit Labour front-benchers – what now for them?

They could sit there and sulk for a few years. They could do what a number of former senior Labour ministers did after 2010 and stay away from Westminster, finding solace in a company directorship, charity trusteeship or on the speaking-and-writing circuit. That for me would be a waste. A waste of their talents, a waste of Labour’s time, and a waste of taxpayers money spent paying them to represent constituents. Funnily enough, there are interesting examples set by both Mr Duncan Smith and Robert F Kennedy. In a nutshell, their example is to pick a cause they are most passionate about, learn about it, quietly but consistently campaign about it so that should a ministerial portfolio be offered in the distant future, you’ll be the best prepared to make an impact in that policy area.

That’s not to say such an approach always pays off. Mr Duncan Smith has, in my opinion been anything but a competent minister. The same goes for Andrew Lansley during his time at The Department of Health and as Leader of the House – in particular when you look at Mr Lansley’s record of taking two major pieces of legislation through Parliament. But that reflects the limited pool of people available to take ministerial posts in the House of Commons. The final years of Gordon Brown’s leadership were similar – MPs who were nowhere near cut out for ministerial office were appointed. Hence in party why I strongly favour the separation of executive and legislature. Let prime ministers select whoever they want as ministers, and subject them to confirmation hearings in Parliament, along with the monthly departmental questions to the Commons.

Who will Mr Corbyn and Mr Watson appoint to their front bench?

That’s what we’re waiting for. There’s also no rush either. Some of the younger MPs that backed Mr Corbyn from the start – such as Norwich’s Clive Lewis (who MC’d the Corbyn rally in Cambridge last week), and long-time Twitterfriend of Puffles, Cat Smith, have been mentioned in some publications as MPs likely to get portfolios. For any of the 2015 intake of MPs, taking on a shadow ministerial portfolio is a baptism of fire. The media will be expecting them to have a response to every single government announcement – and a coherent alternative that they can defend in the face of scrutiny from journalists.

They will also be expected to land political blows when the ministers appear for their monthly scrutiny sessions in the Commons – something that is very difficult to do when each shadow minister has a very limited number of questions they can put directly to ministers. Maybe Mr Corbyn’s idea of crowd-sourcing for Prime Minister’s Questions could also be extended to departmental questions? That would mean every day of parliamentary business that had a departmental questions session would involve public participation. How would ministers respond if shadow ministers prefaced each question with:

“I’m asking this question on behalf of X from Y, and the question is…”

Unless the question is along the lines of ‘When is the minister going to resign over…’ or ‘Doesn’t the minister agree that our policy is better than his?’, any party-political style answer or one that doesn’t properly answer the question is likely to reflect badly on the minister concerned.

“Doesn’t the lack of women in the top two reflect badly on Labour?”

A number of people have commented on this. Part of the problem was with the election rules and sequencing. If they said they would announce the winner of the party leadership first, with the deputy leader being the candidate of a different gender with the most votes winning, we would have had Stella Creasy as deputy leader instead of Tom Watson. So in principle the current outcome of two men winning could have been avoided.

But Labour is where it is. The challenge for Mr Corbyn is how to compensate for this – in particular with the number of higher profile women MPs who have already said they won’t serve in Mr Corbyn’s shadow ministerial team. My hunch is that Mr Corbyn & Mr Watson will want to appoint women to the ‘policy heavy’ shadow portfolios to get that balance. I wouldn’t be surprised to see women MPs shadowing The Chancellor, Home Secretary and Foreign Secretary. The traditional ‘big’ departments of state are Chancellor of the Exchequer (money), Home Secretary (internal) and Foreign Secretary (external). At the same time, the political passions of Labour activists generally are more towards policy areas such as health, education and infrastructure.

“What have the Liberal Democrats and The Greens made of Mr Corbyn’s victory?”

It seems like they have welcomed it but for different reasons. For the Liberal Democrats, they seem to be happy in that Mr Corbyn’s victory allows them to brand themselves as ‘moderates’ between the Conservatives and Labour. The risk with this strategy is that it allows them to sit comfortably in a ‘safe’ zone and not address some of the big challenges they face following the hammering they got at the general election. Their up-and-coming party conference will be one of the most interesting for years.

The Greens have welcomed Mr Corbyn’s victory because many of the Greens’ policies that Mr Corbyn personally spoke in favour of will suddenly get a huge amount of publicity. Issues that Mr Blair, Mr Brown and Mr Miliband either seldom mentioned or never spoke about at all may well find themselves getting broadcast time because of the way the TV news is obliged to report on parliament. Because of the compromises they see Mr Corbyn will inevitably have to make with a sceptical parliamentary party, they will be able to market themselves as a party that can offer those policies in full. It’s a bit like UKIP vs anti-EU Tories. Why vote for the Conservatives if you want to exit the EU when they only offer a referendum, not leadership on an exit?

“What of UKIP? Nigel’s been quiet of late, hasn’t he?”

The past month has been all Labour. How much of the Labour membership increase has been due to the wall-to-wall coverage during a traditionally quiet time for the media? The campaign certainly gave journalists something to sink their teeth into. That’s another unknown. Mr Corbyn has been seen to connect with people because as journalists have commented, he gives straight answers to questions. One of the challenges Mr Corbyn faces is whether he will be able to communicate his ideas and policies through to the wider electorate in the face of print press hostility.

Digital overhaul promised by Tom Watson

In one of my old policy areas, the team I worked in supported Mr Watson with one of his ideas when he was appointed minister for digital engagement in 2008. It was this scheme. I don’t know what happened to it because in those days there was a huge churn of ministers and policy officials. But basically Mr Watson is more than familiar with this field. Mr Watson’s challenge is persuading digital-lite constituency parties to step up to the plate. I’m going to keep on mentioning Cambridge in this regard until they start getting some of the basics right – such as posting links of website news items to their currently under-used Facebook and Twitter accounts.

Poor show: An under-used local party corporate account. Note the few posts in the run up to the general election.
Poor show: An under-used local party corporate account. Note the few posts in the run up to the general election.

“Hang on – didn’t local MP Daniel Zeichner back Yvette Cooper for leader?”

He did – but note Mr Zeichner’s comments in the Cambridge News. A pragmatist and a party loyalist by nature, I wouldn’t be surprised if Mr Zeichner accepted an offer of a shadow ministerial post in an area he is passionate about. As someone with a vast experience inside Labour and politics in general, Mr Corbyn & Mr Watson may need Mr Zeichner to step forward.

“Wasn’t Cambridge Labour split on who they backed?”

Certainly as a local party they did not collectively endorse a specific candidate. Personally I think that’s a strength because it shows a diversity of views that reflect a diverse city. Also, given that Labour control Cambridge City Council and given the things that are happening with the Greater Cambridge City Deal, I’d be surprised if any of Labour’s councillors in Cambridge resigned in principle over Mr Corbyn’s victory.

What I’ll be on the lookout for locally is what impact Mr Corbyn and Mr Watson will have on the party locally – in particular on how it functions as a local political institution. I’ll also be on the lookout for new activists, candidates and the impact they have too.

We live in interesting times.


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