Monday, 14 September 2015

Unifying, dynamic, inclusive: Corbyn sets out his stall

So Jeremy Corbyn, within 48 hours of taking up the mantle of leader of the Labour Party and of the official British Opposition, has named his first shadow cabinet. And, like all such decisions, it contains the usual mix of things to excite disappointment or to excite admiration.

The biggest disappointment is that of the five top jobs, not one has gone to a woman. It’s true that two of these are determined by election not appointment – his own and his deputy’s – but the other three, Shadow Chancellor, Shadow Foreign Secretary and Shadow Home Secretary, were in his gift.

One of these, perhaps the greatest, the finance post of Shadow Chancellor, he’s awarded to a close ally, the man who ran his campaign for the leadership, John McDonnell. The Labour Party has recent bitter experience of a leader at loggerheads with his Chancellor: Gordon Brown was famous for working constantly to replace Tony Blair.

In the end, then, there were only two posts that he could have handed out freely. He chose men for both. It might have been pleasing to see a woman in one of them. Well, we won’t, at least for now. He has at least been generous in both those appointments: Hilary Benn, who already held the Shadow Foreign Secretary, keeps the position under Corbyn; and as Shadow Home Secretary, he’s appointed his closest rival for the leadership, Andy Burnham.

He might well have shown more of such generosity, but a great many people from other currents in the Labour Party decided they simply would not serve in a Shadow Cabinet under him. So if there has been a failure of behaviour, it hasn’t been on his part, but on theirs. 

He has described the Shadow Cabinet he appointed as “unifying, dynamic and inclusive.” Clearly, he could only be as inclusive as far as people would accept inclusion. Equally, he can only unify those who don’t set out to divide; one can only hope that the sheer scale of his victory will silence serious rebellion, at least for long enough to see whether he can prove himself, and his team, sufficiently dynamic.

As well as including people who disagree with him, he has also displayed a readiness to carry into practice as leader a willingness to compromise, that he’d increasingly exhibited during the campaign to win the position. He has for instance appointed Maria Eagle Shadow Defence Secretary – always fun to see a woman taking on so traditionally macho a brief – though she disagrees with him fundamentally on scrapping Britain’s nuclear deterrent (so-called: it’s so small as to make it difficult to imagine which nation it might deter) and on leaving NATO.

In passing, it’s amusing that as well as Maria Eagle he has also appointed her twin sister Anna as Shadow Business Secretary. I’m not aware of any previous Shadow Cabinet or actual Cabinet that has contained a pair of twins.

A first? Twins in the Shadow Cabinet?
One of them's Maria Eagle and the other one's Anna
Corbyn has also agreed to campaign for Britain to stay in the European Union, a position he certainly does not enthusiastically endorse. Hilary Benn, as his Shadow Foreign Secretary, confirmed that there were no circumstances in which Labour would campaign for Britain to leave the EU. That’s another significant concession.

The measure of his approach was perhaps best summed up by Chris Bryant, who takes the role Shadow Leader of the House of Commons:

It’s going to be a bumpy ride. In the conversations that I’ve already had with Jeremy, though I disagree with him on lots and lots of different things, I have to say that he has been accommodating. It’s evident there’s going to be quite a bit of give and take and when I said, ‘look I will hold my views very strongly and passionately and will put them across, sometimes too aggressively,’ he said ‘you and me both, mate.’

A refreshing attitude. Though by no means a wholly unprecedented one. The man who filled the position of President of the United States more brilliantly than any other, Abraham Lincoln, took a not dissimilar position. He appointed to his cabinet the man who most commentators, not least himself, expected to win his party’s nomination for the White House, William Seward. Indeed, for a while, Seward tried to behave as the real power in government, until Lincoln explained to him, quietly and courteously but with unshakeable firmness, that he would hold ultimate authority and not his Secretary of State.

Lincoln and Seward were both moderates on the slavery question, wanting it to wither slowly rather than to abolish it immediately. But Lincoln appointed to another senior position in his cabinet, Treasury Secretary, Salmon Chase who was on the radical wing of his party.

He never used Lyndon Johnson’s colourful expression concerning FBI Chief, J. Edgar Hoover, “it’s probably better to have him inside the tent pissing out, than outside the tent pissing in.” That was his guiding principle. And it worked: Lincoln focused on the main issue in hand, the defeat of the rebellion in the South and restoration of the Union, but by doing so, he achieved not only that objective but also the final, complete abolition of slavery through the 13th amendment to the US Constitution.

I don’t know whether Corbyn can achieve greatness as Lincoln did, and I certainly hope he doesn’t share his fate. What I can say is that by giving way on such issues as Trident and the EU, he does give his party a far better chance of focusing on the key questions; developing an alternative economic policy to austerity, and taking the battle to the Tories. While in his Shadow Cabinet appointments, he’s done everything his adversaries will allow him to do to unify the party. As for dynamism, he's already shown he has plenty of that.

Incidentally, though there are only men in the five top jobs, there are more women than men in the Shadow Cabinet as a whole.


McTodd said...

Amidst all the hysteria from the right-wing media and the Tories and, disappointingly, sneering from the right/so-called centre of the Labour Party itself, this is a refreshingly measured analysis of Corbyn's advent as leader. He has certainly proven far more conciliatory and unifying than the Labour centre/right who, for all their sniping at 'divisive' left-wingers during Corbyn's campaign, have shown themselves to be the wreckers and troublemakers.

Unrelated to Corbyn as such, I would quibble with this comment of yours:
"...Britain’s nuclear deterrent (so-called: it’s so small as to make it difficult to imagine which nation it might deter)."

Given that Trident consists of four submarines, each of which carries up to sixteen missiles each of those with up to twelve independently targettable warheads of around 80Kt yield (five times the vield of the Hiroshima bomb), thus giving a potential to obliterate a maximum of 768 targets, I can't see how anybody would regard that as insignificant. Even China would probably baulk at the thought of 768 cities (or various targets) being flattened. As it is, realistically with only one submarine on patrol at any one time, with perhaps as few as eight missiles aboard with a mere five warheads apiece (as appears to be policy since 2010), this still gives 40 targets. Still a quantity that would make the RAF's bombing of Germany in WW2 look like a vicarage tea party, and I don't recall *that* being thought of as insignificant.

David Beeson said...

Thanks for your feedback – I appreciate it.

You may be right about the nuclear deterrent: it may indeed be more significant than I allow. I suppose I feel it pales by contrast with the truly great arsenals of the superpowers, but I suppose that they simply provide massive overkill – literally as well as metaphorically.