Earlier this week Corbyn quietly announced a reshuffle of his Shadow Cabinet. The changes, though limited, raise some interesting questions about the policy direction of the party and underline how his standing with the parliamentary party has changed.
While we should expect further changes at the more junior levels, what is immediately evident is that Corbyn (rightly) resisted the calls from the political press and some of their ideological bedfellows on the right of the party for the reinstatement of so-called “big beasts” such as Yvette Cooper and Chuka Umunna.
Their furious reaction to having been overlooked is outlined in delicious detail in the Mail today. That some of these individuals apparently feel that their disloyalty towards Corbyn and their open contempt for party members — as documented by NS — should be rewarded with a seat at the table is risible. Mediocrity and entitlement is a toxic combination. A period of reflection as they toil in obscurity on the backbenches may serve them well. Two such “leading lights”, Hilary Benn and Yvette Cooper, are likely but not certain to retain their positions (and media platforms) as chair of the Brexit and Home Affairs committees respectively however.
Those that have been elevated by Corbyn — Andrew Gwynne, Ian Lavery, Dawn Butler etc — cannot be caricatured or dismissed by the media as unwavering, staunch Corbynites, although a few more of those around the Shadow Cabinet table would be welcome. What unites these names was their conduct during the election just gone: they proudly took the message of the manifesto to the country. This put them in stark contrast to many of their colleagues in the PLP and evidently marked them for promotion.
But what might these appointments mean for the party and its platform?
Andrew Gwynne, Shadow Communities and Local Government Secretary
Andrew Gwynne, an MP who supported Ed Balls for the leadership in 2010, Andy Burnham in 2015 and Owen Smith in 2016, is to the right of the man he replaces in the role, Grahame Morris, who returns to the backbenches after a period of illness. Gwynne is particularly close to Burnham having coordinated his recent campaign for the Greater Manchester mayoralty.
While he might not be said to exactly share Corbyn’s politics, Gwynne was unquestionably one of the strongest media performers of the election campaign. His robust, combative performances were typified by his widely shared badgering of a flustered Boris Johnson the night of the leaders’ Q&A.
Having served in the shadow Transport and Health teams previously, he brings a good understanding of some of the policy areas such as social care and public transport that intersect with the Communities and Local Government brief. Under Miliband he sought to introduce a private member’s bill that would have required contractors winning public contracts to provide apprenticeships and skills training. Such ideas could form part of a broader vision for local government perhaps lacking from Corbynism (at least in emphasis) thus far, building upon the successes of the Preston model and its notion of an “inclusive economy”.
Positively, given the brilliant campaign he just helped to oversee and the likelihood of another election shortly, Gwynne retains the campaign coordinator role alongside his new brief.
Ian Lavery, Party Chair
Lavery, a former President of the NUM, was introduced to many voters for the first time in this election through his combative media performances. As with Gwynne, his finest moment came against Boris Johnson. Lavery takes over the role from Tom Watson, who retains his position as Shadow Culture, Media and Sport Secretary alongside his elected position as Deputy Leader.
The role of Party Chair, established by Blair in 2001, is in some senses a purely symbolic one. It does not confer upon Lavery any particular institutional or political responsibilities above that of other Shadow Cabinet colleagues. The Party Chair does not have a seat on the NEC for example. The press release accompanying the reshuffle points to Lavery’s role as being to “strengthen our campaigning and party organisation”. This, alongside his retention of the election coordinator role alongside Gwynne, suggests the Party Chair position has been given to him in recognition of his recent organisational and media efforts.
Dawn Butler, Shadow Diverse Communities Minister
Butler, the third black woman to become an MP and the the first ever elected female African-Caribbean Government Minister, returns to the role she held before resigning in February 2017 over the decision to invoke a three-line whip on the vote to trigger Article 50. She returns to the position in what has been described as the “most diverse Parliament ever”, a fact largely driven by the election of new Labour MPs.
No such role exists in government, but as with the establishment of a shadow mental health minister role (occupied by Luciana Berger until she resigned last year in the wake of the Brexit vote), it was created to accentuate the differences in priority and emphasis between Corbyn's Labour and the Conservatives.
Her task will to be build upon the promise of the Race and Faith Manifesto which placed a welcome emphasis on "unlocking potential" and "better representation in public life", echoing the priorities laid out by Butler herself in a party video when she first took on the role last year.
Owen Smith, Shadow Northern Ireland Secretary
Lesley Laird, Shadow Scottish Secretary
The lowest profile of the new appointees given that she had only just first been elected to the Commons a few days prior.
Having supported Andy Burnham and Kezia Dugdale in the 2015 Labour leadership elections, she is not particularly left-leaning. She comes to Westminster having served on Fife Council and latterly as Economy & Planning spokesperson and deputy leader.
She can’t be worse than the previous incumbent but one Ian Murray, a man only who held the role in the first place because he was Labour’s last remaining Scottish MP.
Some further disparate thoughts:
While we on the left must of course be gracious and extend the hand to any MP that recants and pledges full fealty to the Corbyn project, part of me wishes Corbyn would test Angela Eagle’s election night “pledge to play any part my party should ask of me” by offering her the most derisory role possible. PPS to Owen Smith perhaps?
Andy Burnham, a man equal parts absurd (see his 2010 leadership platform for “ASPIRATIONAL SOCIALISM”) and appalling (see his opening up of the NHS to private healthcare companies), has roots that run deep within the PLP. His departure from Westminster to contest the Greater Manchester mayoralty has not changed this. Several of the new intake (Afzal Khan in Manchester Gorton; Jo Platt in his old seat Leigh) have ties to him and several of those now in the Shadow Cabinet (Andrew Gwynne, Debbie Abrahams, Nia Griffith, Ian Lavery, Christina Rees, Andy McDonald, Valerie Vaz, Keir Starmer) supported his candidacy for the leadership in 2015. We should ready ourselves for the unappealing prospect of hearing more from the little boy prince up the M6 should Labour’s polling dip.
It will be interesting to see who, if anyone, Corbyn picks as his PPS — a role unoccupied since Kate Osamor moved up to a full shadow ministerial position and Steve Rotheram moved on from the Commons. It would be positive to see one of the young new intake on the left brought into the fold.