In September, Jeremy Corbyn’s first keynote speech as leader of the Labour Party heralded a new and more democratic ‘kinder politics’. Later in the year, quizzed by a reporter on the divisions and disputes in Labour, he raised a knowing eyebrow and said: ‘You don’t understand the new politics.’ Meanwhile, Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell defended the new democratic politics by warning: ‘Don’t mistake debate for division. Don’t mistake democracy for disunity.’
But Corbyn has just begun meeting shadow cabinet ministers to discuss a major reshuffle. First in the firing line, reportedly: Shadow Foreign Secretary Hilary Benn.
If true, this would seem to be an act of revenge for Benn’s highly acclaimed speech in favour of extending RAF airstrikes to ISIS targets in Syria. Benn gave the impassioned speech after Corbyn lobbied for a party whip to bring Labour MPs in line with his anti-interventionist stance, but was forced to back down and allow a free vote on the issue.
Corbyn’s opponents in the Labour Party have denounced any attempt at a revenge reshuffle as ‘an act of war’. And at the very least, such a move would be a major blow to Corbyn’s new ‘kinder’, more democratic politics.
Hilary Benn was one of a group of centrist shadow cabinet ministers, including Maria Eagle and Michael Dugher, who Corbyn appointed as counterbalances to his own supporters in the shadow cabinet. Their appointment was criticised by many from the Corbynite wing of the party, but the Labour Leader pressed ahead, using moderate shadow ministers as a sign not just of the new democratic politics, but also that Labour remained a broad and united church.
Backtracking on this to punish Benn would show the hollowness of the ‘new politics’ rhetoric and hearken back to the darkest days of New Labour intrigue, when ministers who stepped out of line would regularly find themselves undermined by character assassinations and anonymous ‘leaks’.
And worse than that, another u-turn after the party’s reversals on EU membership, Osborne’s fiscal charter and Syria would represent to the public a politics that is not only not new, but also less unified, less media-savvy and less organised than the Blair/Brown brand. If Corbyn wants to present the public with a viable party of government in 2016, he must keep the broad cabinet he appointed and learn to stay his course.