Labour reshuffle: what does it all mean?

From a communications standpoint, Jeremy Corbyn’s reshuffle was a textbook failure.

From a communications standpoint, Jeremy Corbyn’s reshuffle was a textbook failure. Likely moves were widely briefed by his aides over Christmas, stirring ill will in the party over the holidays. Likely moves that then did not materialise. The speculation killed off any coverage of Labour’s campaign against annual tube and rail fare rises, distracted attention from the party’s opposition to the Housing and Planning Bill, and minimised coverage of Conservative splits over Europe. The reshuffle also dragged on a record-breaking 34 hours, allowing the speculation to create further divisions and anger among frontbenchers and their staffers who feared the sack. Now, most of the public do not pay attention to reshuffles, but any who did or glanced briefly at the news will come away with another small impression of incompetence and chaos from Labour. The most damaging thing was the deepening sense of hostility between Corbyn and the Parliamentary Labour Party, and the intensifying paralysis caused by MPs stuck with a leader they would get rid of tomorrow, but cannot convince the membership to do so.

In the end, the number of moves was limited – just one shuffle (Maria Eagle from Shadow Defence to Culture) and two sackings (Michael Dugher from Shadow Culture and Pat McFadden from his shadow Europe brief). They were, however, significant. They represent acts of revenge on vulnerable frontbenchers without the following to become causes célèbres for fellow MPs – Dugher had criticised Momentum vigorously, and McFadden had attacked the Stop the War Coalition for its comments after the attacks on Paris. Corbyn laid down a marker that he intends to stand by his pressure groups and allies and will not lose these to accommodate his MPs and their fears for the next election.

Maria Eagle, as was widely trailed, was moved from Defence to remove the inconvenience of her support for Trident and the independent nuclear deterrent. Emily Thornberry’s appointment as a more pliant Shadow Defence Secretary clears the way for Ken Livingstone, another longstanding Corbyn ally (and like McDonnell, probably also convinced of his intellectual superiority to the leader), to dominate Labour’s review of defence policy. Thornberry and Livingstone are both against the renewal of Trident, although they have not formally challenged party policy. It does indicate, nonetheless, that the Labour leader wants to defy official conference policy, which is to maintain Trident, and is determined to remake Labour policy in his image.

He intends to empower his old left associates, now that they have one chance (which will not come again – a future non-Corbyn leader is certain to change the rules to prevent this situation recurring) to reshape the party. James Bloodworth for Progress reminds us that for many on the hard left, their political priority is to seize and consolidate control of the Labour Party, rather than to defeat the Conservatives in 2020. The Twitter tributes to sacked colleagues which have flooded in from the frontbench and other MPs merely suggest a sea of angry, resentful colleagues who feel trapped by this hard left project until the May 2016 elections can give them solid evidence to show the membership that the party is heading to disaster.

There have been three resignations, of Jonathan Reynolds, a shadow transport minister, Stephen Doughty, a shadow foreign minister, and Kevan Jones, a well-respected shadow defence minister who crossed swords with Livingstone, but it seems unlikely that the exodus will generate enough momentum to precipitate urgent problems for the leadership.

That said, Hilary Benn, believed to be the real target of the “revenge reshuffle”, survived. His dissent was the most public and the most damaging to his leader, but was done with such courtesy and eloquence that his fellow frontbenchers were willing to threaten resignations which would leave Corbyn without the MPs to fill a shadow frontbench. It has been widely reported that Benn was allowed to stay on the promise not to cross the leadership as he did on Syria again.

The compromise suggests two things. The first is that Corbyn is determined to assert more central control over policy and communication, and to limit dissenting voices. He cares most deeply about foreign policy, and believes that he needs to muzzle such an effective internationalist voice as Benn. The second is that Andy Burnham has not yet given up his dream of being the Labour Party leader. He held his job – Benn, who voted for Burnham, held his. He lost his campaign manager, Michael Dugher, but he now moves to the backbenches where he will have time to organise opposition to Corbyn. Burnham remains determined to make it work, and to put himself in position perhaps to be Labour’s Neil Kinnock, and bring the party back down the lengthening road to power. But Corbyn’s instinct is not to let go so easily.