Labour MPs lock horns with Conservatives in the Trade Union Bill


Jeremy Corbyn’s front bench and newly liberated Labour MPs head to the trenches in the fight over new trade union legislation

As far as the Commons is concerned, this is a classic Punch & Judy style debate, but in a strange way allows Mr Corbyn’s new front bench to hit the ground running – even though the Conservative majority in the Commons means this bill will ultimately succeed. The bill allows Labour moderates to criticise it on some of the technical points – such as no provision on electronic voting on ballots (which would increase turnout – important given the strike ballot minimum thresholds are being raised in the bill). The bill allows the Labour left to go after it in principle, stoking the fires for some red-hot speeches.

“What’s Labour’s new front bench like?”

31 new faces, 15 men, 16 women, six dragon fairy followers on Twitter.

The six following Puffles. (This is tongue-in-cheek as most follow lots & lots of others!)
The six following Puffles. (This is tongue-in-cheek as most follow lots & lots of others!)

Twitter exploded as news that the traditional ‘top four’ shadow posts were filled by men. The tradition is that the top four offices of state are:

  • Prime Minister
  • Chancellor of the Exchequer
  • Home Secretary
  • Foreign Secretary

These four posts are shadowed by Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell, Andy Burnham and Hilary Benn (son of Tony Benn) respectively. For me, I can understand why this tradition continues – but given how policy responsibilities are now split, I can also understand Mr Corbyn’s response that the tradition of ‘great offices of state’ is now out of date. See here.

Shadow cabinet in the context of running a large organisation

Three years ago I wrote a blogpost stating that the Cabinet was too big – it still is. Have you ever been to a meeting with lots of people? A shadow cabinet meeting with 31 people – how long will it take for everyone to have their say? Even if it’s one person-one minute, you are there for over half an hour. Hence you inevitably get an ‘inner cabinet’ – one acknowledged by the Coalition when they had ‘The Quad’ of the top 2 Conservatives and the top 2 Liberal Democrats. The challenge any opposition party has is trying to ensure every policy area has a policy lead, and that every cabinet minister has a shadow minister. It remains to be seen if My Corbyn develops an inner circle of close advisers from his shadow cabinet team.

John McDonnell as Shadow Chancellor

The appointment of Mr McDonnell as Shadow Chancellor has generated miles and miles of media comment. To describe it as a ‘brave’ appointment is an understatement. Opponents of Mr Corbyn & Mr McDonnell are already going through the archives trying to find speeches and statements to use against them. As appointments of shadow ministers proceeded last night, people were already going through Twitter feeds to try and find embarrassing tweets – such as the new shadow education secretary Lucy Powell MP tweeting during the Labour leadership campaign that she had never spoken to Mr Corbyn before.

Consigned to the fringes of the Labour parliamentary party, both Mr Corbyn & Mr McDonnell now find themselves at the centre of the Labour Party machine. Politicians, staff and activists who might have previously ignored them now find they have to work with them – and vice-versa. Between Mr Corbyn & Mr McDonnell there is not only a sharing of political views but a strong bond of trust too. It’s almost a reflection of the working relationship between the Prime Minister and the Chancellor. Given the 24/7 media lens that will be on the former pairing, I can understand why Mr Corbyn would want to put a staunch political ally in such a post.

Jez and John versus the media

The approach to the mainstream media by Mr Corbyn & Mr McDonnell has already come in for some comment – see for an interesting summary. A bold, brave approach – and one that could only be taken by politicians who are not only rock solid on their political principles but who are also fearless in the face of print media firestorms.

At the same time – and as the Huffington Post link above states, the majority of young people get their news from social media, not the print media. Hence Mr Corbyn reducing the access he gives to a print media that’s only going to attack him, and giving more access to those media channels that are followed by his target audience. At some stage though, Mr Corbyn will need to come up with a media strategy (as mentions) if only to manage people’s expectations and nip the output of the Westminster rumour-mill in the bud. We saw the results of the rumour-mill in the appointment of shadow ministers last night, and it wasn’t the greatest sight.

Whatever the strategy is, the most important thing for Mr Corbyn is consistency. It’s his call on whether he boycotts one publication/media group or another on exclusive interviews. (Banning them from press conferences on the other hand raises freedom of the press / scrutinising politics issues). What matters is that he is consistent. If anything that might lead to an improvement in some of the questions journalists put to Mr Corbyn – more on policy and less on personalities and squabbles between politicians. eg. if a standard response is:

“I don’t care about squabbles between politicians – ask me a question about policy”

…then journalists will learn not to bother with those sorts of questions.

The great retreat of the Blairites

Given Mr Corbyn’s hostility to the mainstream media and his statements about involving far more people in policy-making, there is a much greater role for his shadow ministerial team. There are a whole host of new faces to become familiar with – helped in part by the mass retreat of the Progess wing of Labour. Progress is the movement within Labour that supports the ‘Blairite’ wing of the party. Their recent blogposts make for interesting reading.

When you look at Ed Miliband’s final shadow cabinet (See here) you’ll notice that between the dissolution of Parliament prior to the 2015 general election, and today, there has been a massive change at the top of the Labour Party. Let’s list some of the big names who have all but vanished from view:

  • Ed Miliband
  • Harriet Harman
  • Ed Balls
  • Douglas Alexander
  • Chuka Umunna
  • Tristram Hunt
  • Rachel Reeves
  • Chris Leslie

Yvette Cooper has moved to a role dealing with the refugee crisis, but from the back benches. That left nine very big policy gaps within Labour. For me, the brave and the bold were those Labour MPs who didn’t support Mr Corbyn in the leadership campaign, that stepped forward to take up shadow cabinet positions in the face of such political uncertainty.

I’ve often said before that the best time to make an impact in a political organisation is when it’s taken a massive blow and seems to be in disarray. This is because you get to shape the reconstruction process and have a say in the early important decisions. Whether rejected by the electorate, their constituents or through choice are stepping back from frontline politics, the above-mentioned former Labour front-benchers will find their influence much more limited from where they are now compared to where they were.

A chance for Labour’s women MPs to shine?

My first reaction to Lilian Greenwood and Kerry McCarthy being appointed to the front bench was *****Yeeeesssss!!!!!***** (They are shadowing Transport and Defra respectively). Both are two of the nicest, brightest and most passionate of people in politics that I have either met or communicated with. My general approach with politicians of all parties when I meet them is if they are nice to me and Puffles, we’ll be nice to them. Hence being fortunate to have interviewed politicians from across the political spectrum over the past year or so. (See my Youtube playlist from the 2015 election with interviews and speeches covering the five main parties standing in and around Cambridge).

Here’s my interview with Ms Greenwood when she was shadow rail minister in Jan 2015.

Ms Greenwood has been shadowing various different aspects of transport policy for the past few years – she has covered local transport, rail, and now takes over the full transport brief. She’s also a good friend of Cambridge MP Daniel Zeichner, who also has a strong transport policy interest too.

There are others that could command attention in their new roles to be aware of too. New shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander has a hospital in her constituency on whose behalf she’s been campaigning. (Although the presence of Addenbrooke’s in Andrew Lansley’s constituency didn’t seem to do his health policies any favours!). The media-friendly Gloria De Piero’s role continues work she’s been doing for quite some time on trying to get more people involved in democracy.

Influential policy pairs of Labour women?

There are some very interesting policy-pairings that could become influential both inside Labour and beyond:

It’s now up to them to make an impact – and also at the same time demonstrate they (along with the rest of the shadow cabinet) are capable of independent thought. Because as a friend of mine recently said to me recently: ‘Scripted politics has had its day – whether you like Corbyn or not’.

This was in response to one of the most painfully ‘on message’ ministerial interviews I have ever heard – straight out of the Peter Mandelson textbook.

“What about the remaining MPs? Have some of the former shadow ministers set back their political careers?”

That depends on whether you see politics as a career or a vocation/calling.

Stella Creasy seems to have already carved out a very nice campaigning niche. Although on the back benches, the best thing Ms De Piero can do with her portfolio is to co-ordinate with Ms Creasy but without having the millstone of collective responsibility (that comes with being in the shadow cabinet) placed on Dr Creasy. Dr Creasy is a free thinker and an activist – we saw this in spadefuls during her deputy leadership campaign, and I saw this first hand on her visit to Cambridge last week.

What happens to Chukka Umunna and Tristram Hunt remains to be seen. Between 2010-15 I felt both were promoted far too quickly – and got found out both in the media and at the despatch box. Mr Umunna gained praise for his performances on the Treasury Select Committee in his cross-examination of the Chancellor. Unfortunately Mr Miliband removed him from that committee and put him as shadow business secretary, giving him only 2 questions per month to put directly to ministers. All too often I found his contributions in the media too scripted and wooden.

I felt similar with Dr Hunt. He wrote a brilliant history of local government which made me wonder why he wasn’t on the local government select committee and allowed to bring his considerable academic knowledge to bear on an otherwise (in comparison) intellectually/academically limited ministerial team (Greg Clark excluded) that was in the department at the time. Since then, his media appearances seem to have demonstrated the opposite of the intellectual talents & gifts that he clearly has.

“Are the Jez and John top two pairing a gift to the Conservatives & Liberal Democrats?”

Certainly the emergence of Mr Corbyn & Mr McDonnell has gone down well with Conservatives. This in part reflects the polarisation of politics and also a sense that both Conservatives and Labour activists now know where each other stands. At the same time there will inevitably be media appearances from anti-Corbyn former Labour ministers inside and outside of Parliament who will pass negative comment over the actions & policies of Mr Corbyn. It remains to be seen if anyone resigns and/or switches party. I’ve not seen any just yet.

There’s also a gap opening up that Liberal Democrats are trying to move into – portraying the Conservatives as extreme on one side by listing the policies they blocked in Coalition but that are now being brought in, and by portraying Labour as moving to the hard left of the early 1980s. However, with so few MPs in the Commons, their ability to take advantage of this inevitably remains limited – and will remain so unless they start showing signs of recovery at the ballot box at the local government elections in 2016. This is why for the Liberal Democrats their looming annual party conference later this month will be absolutely crucial.


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