Earlier this week, Corbyn announced a second tranche of post-election appointments to the shadow front bench. These latest changes fill a number of vacant sub-Shadow Cabinet level positions, including those created by the resignation and sackings of six frontbenchers who voted for Chuka Umunna's amendment to the Queen's Speech on Single Market and Customs Union membership in defiance of the party's manifesto. Those departures in particular gutted the shadow Home Office and Communities and Local Government/Housing teams, with the former‘s Commons contingent whittled down to just one occupant in Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott. These changes follow the small reshuffle of the Shadow Cabinet undertaken in mid June, which we covered here.
The Maintenance of the Malcontents
That those who loudly backed Owen Smith in 2016, openly criticised the leadership and spent much of the recent election campaign carping from the sidelines should not necessarily be trusted to take the message of Corbynism to the country would seem self-evident. And yet, some such MPs feature in this recent reshuffle. The apparent acquiescence of these individuals to the cause of democratic socialism should be welcomed of course, but guardedly.
Gloria De Piero, who last year called on the readers of that most unwavering of pro-Labour newspapers The Sun to join the party in order to stop Corbyn’s re-election, has rejoined the front bench as a shadow justice minister. At the election just gone her Nottinghamshire constituency saw a small rise in the Labour vote and a large spike in the Conservative vote. The wider phenomenon of significant swings to the Conservatives in constituencies with large working class populations — though regionally limited and already subject to some wildly reductive and ill-informed theorising (with the exception of the discussion on these pages) — is one that should concern the party and those who back Corbyn’s leadership. What this does not provide however is grounds for the party to embrace unreconstructed Blairism, the fringe politics of Blue Labour or the “2017 manifesto but with added racism” proffered by some on the party’s Old Right.
With this understanding it is incredibly frustrating to see De Piero, just a day after her appointment, quoted heavily alongside one of the more vicious members of the party’s Old Right, Graham “Iranian hangmen” Jones, calling for exactly this kind of dilution and distortion of the party’s programme. The notion that some hasty melange of Corbynism and Old Right policies and rhetoric would (a) have broad appeal (b) not provide for some profoundly contradictory positions and (c) maintain the enthusiasm engendered by the recent manifesto, is patently nonsense and must be strongly rebuffed.
Melanie Onn, first elected as MP for Great Grimsby in 2015, served in the last Parliament in the incredibly obscure and fairly pointless position of Shadow Deputy Leader of the Commons, before joining the ranks of the mass resignees in the wake of the EU referendum last year. Before this she took to the pages of the Daily Telegraph to suggest that Corbyn has a “women problem” after his first Shadow Cabinet included just one woman in the four (shadow) ‘Great Offices of State’, attacking him for “relegating the women” to the apparently inconsequential “nursing and teaching jobs” of Shadow Health and Education Secretary. Prior to her election she was head of the party’s notorious Compliance Unit — the blackened eye of Labour HQ that spent much of the 2016 leadership election pointlessly purging Labour members for grave thoughtcrimes such as liking the Foo Fighters.
Quite what the logic of bringing these MPs back into the fold and trusting them with even junior shadow ministerial roles is remains a bit of a mystery. Notions of “party unity” are lost on them and they hold outdated, miserable politics that are directly at odds with those of the leadership. Might it be worthwhile — as Ian Lavery recently did — questioning the breadth of your church if a number of its congregation insist on repeatedly attacking the priest publicly, refuse to sing from the hymn sheet and think that your Bible isn’t racist enough?
The Left on the Front Bench
The first impression of this second round of appointments was to be blunt, of a surfeit of moderate MPs and a lack of genuinely left MPs. The exceptions to this are the welcome appointments of Chris Williamson, David Drew and the reappointment of Imran Hussain.
David Drew, a member of the Campaign Group who nominated John McDonnell for the leadership in 2007, joins the shadow Environment, Food and Rural Affairs team. Representing the semi-rural seat of Stroud and having served as a member of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee between 2001-2010, he would seem a round peg for a round hole.
Chris Williamson, appointed to Diane Abbott’s shadow Home Affairs team, is another returning MP, having served as MP for Derby North between 2010-15. Williamson returns to the role of Shadow Fire Minister he held under Miliband until his frontbench took a rightward turn with the October 2013 reshuffle. This role, then part of the Communities and Local Government brief (responsibility in government for fire services was transferred to the Home Office in January 2016), has arguably taken on a renewed importance since Williamson last held it with the re-affiliation of the Fire Brigades Union in 2015 and the ongoing role of the emergency services in debates around Grenfell and public sector pay. For those unfamiliar with Williamson his recent wide-ranging Novara interview and LabourList article on his appointment are a good starting point, and offer a firm riposte to anyone who doesn’t strongly support the aim of electing more left MPs.
Imran Hussain, MP for Bradford East since 2015, is another solidly pro-Corbyn MP, having nominated him in the 2015 leadership and served in the shadow International Development team since early 2016. A barrister by profession, he fittingly joins the shadow Justice team.
Excluding those MPs who returned to Parliament after a period away like Williamson and Drew, three members of the new intake have joined the shadow ministerial ranks with these changes: Paul Sweeney, Afzal Khan and Anneliese Dodds.
Paul Sweeney, seen as on the soft-left, has been appointed to the Shadow Scotland Office team, joining fellow new MP Lesley Laird. Some activists on the left of Scottish Labour are disappointed that the more pro-Corbyn Danielle Rowley has been overlooked. Sweeney was among the signatories of a June 2016 letter calling on Corbyn to resign. His first parliamentary intervention of note was to sign Chuka Umunna’s divisive and pointless amendment to the Queen’s Speech, calling for the continuation of Single Market and Customs Union membership, in contravention of the clear position of the election manifesto. He failed to vote for the amendment however, and was likely to have been among the group of “new MPs who are strongly Pro-European” that met with Shadow Brexit Secretary Keir Starmer and were seemingly assured of the party’s position that “outcomes and not the structure” should be emphasised in the negotiations.
Anneliese Dodds, who served as an MEP from 2014 until her election to the Commons, joins John McDonnell’s shadow Treasury team. While she was not the left’s preferred candidate for the vacant safe seat of Oxford East, her selection was warmly greeted by the local Momentum group and she might reasonably be described as on the ‘left of the soft left’. While her experience will likely provide valuable insight into the Brussels perspective on Brexit, Dodds’s appointment also makes sense on policy grounds as the author of a well-received report into tax evasion and avoidance and with experience of sitting on the EU Parliament’s influential Economic and Monetary Affairs Committee.
Another ex-MEP, Afzal Khan, becomes Shadow Immigration Minister under Diane Abbott. This appointment was greeted with justifiable concern given his background as a former policeman, his close ties to Andy Burnham and bizarre and frankly disgusting association with estate agents during the election campaign.
The Left behind
A number of left MPs remain on the backbenches. It remains to be seen whether new members of the PLP on the left such as Laura Pidcock and Dan Carden will be elevated - the official press release announcing this week’s changes points to further appointments “in due course”. Irrespective of this reshuffle and any further ones, it is crucial that the profile and platforms of these young, socialist MPs are built up if we are to strengthen Corbynism within Parliament but also help create new socialist voices that are comfortable and confident in communicating Corbynism in their constituencies and in the media.
While it is essential that the front bench is filled with as many MPs as possible supportive of the Corbyn project, backbenchers are able to avail themselves of certain policy avenues closed to shadow ministers, such as sitting on select committees. These committees largely toil away in obscurity, but can play an important scrutiny function and occasionally make significant policy interventions. As such these spaces should not be vacated entirely to moderate Labour MPs. See for example, the platform given to prominent anti-Corbyn voices such as Hilary Benn and Yvette Cooper due to their chairships of the Brexit and Home Affairs committees respectively. Their media appearances, often ostensibly to discuss issues with the remits of their committees, almost invariably stray into different territory, including their tired brand of unthinking anti-Corbynism. The full memberships of these committees are determined by party whips so it may be incumbent to place some of the less experienced left MPs on those committees whose remit overlaps with key aspects of the Corbynite agenda such as Education, Treasury and Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.
Beyond this these MPs may seek preferment for parliamentary private secretary (PPS) roles which may help them build both understanding of policy and relationships with the shadow front bench and the leader’s office.
The full set of appointments
Where specific roles have later been confirmed this has been noted.
Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
Farming and Rural Affairs: David Drew
Flooding and Coastal Communities: Holly Lynch
Security: Nick Thomas Symonds
Fire and Emergency Services: Chris Williamson
Immigration: Afzal Khan
Policing: Louise Haigh
Gloria di Piero
Roberta Blackman Woods
Rail: Rachael Maskell
Shipping, Aviation and Road Safety: Karl Turner
Women and Equalities
Early Years: Tracy Brabin