Monday 4 September 2023

Making the Counter-Revolution Permanent

A reshuffle plays to the absolute worst of political punditry. As if armed with a fantasy football score card, commentators delight in promotions and revel in demotions. Faces of old having spent eternities on the back benches are welcomed back, while gasps and shocks surround unexpected removals and resignations. And that's about the size of it. Which demonstrates the paucity of the lobby hacks who steal a living from writing on politics in this country. For Keir Starmer, as it is for Rishi Sunak, any other party leader, and every single council leader the cabinet is always about balances of power. A leader has to weigh their preferences and strategic direction against the strengths of the different wings of the party, and usually dishes out positions to the extent factional buy-in is secured. This basic truism was lost on Liz Truss, but not on Sunak who has locked in the right from the beginning.

Starmer might be (and in many ways, still is) limited about politics, but certainly not on this point. After the leadership contest his first shadow cabinet ranged across the entirety of the party. The soft left were the big winners while continuity Corbynism was given a few scraps. Very quickly, a pretext was found to get rid of the troublesome Rebecca Long-Bailey from Education and shifts right ensured her more junior colleagues resigned themselves away. When they were done, the soft left were evacuated from the Chancellery and Home Office shadows and in were drafted the horrors of Rachel Reeves and Yvette Cooper. Hilariously, Starmer tried removing Angela Rayner and was almost badly damaged when he found he could not. Yet , despite coming out of that episode strengthened, that has since been sapped by incessant anonymous briefings and her being powerless to get allies and supporters selected. That she couldn't save her significant other from the deselection axe shows how narrow her writ runs. Now, Starmer has moved to make his counter-revolution permanent. Blairites and Brownites dominate the shadow cabinet, and the soft left are relegated to a supporting role. In other words, Starmer feels the balance has shifted so far his way he doesn't have to bother with the big tent pretensions any more.

Still, it seems short sighted and unnecessary. His reshuffle demoted Lisa Nandy to shadow the non-existent international development portfolio, and in accepting it proves she's willing to eat any shit to remain, in her words, a "team player". It must be doubly galling to be junior to the foreign office brief she previously enjoyed, and especially having her loyalty rewarded with a bump down the ranks. Unlike nearly everyone else at the top table, Nandy can be a skilled performer when she dumps the dead-eyed wooden-top countenances mandated by front bencher media training. And she does have her own base, of sorts. You might recall that Nandy is commonly seen as being on the soft left - though she's done nothing to merit this positioning. And during the 2020 leadership contest, after Jess Phillips dropped out Nandy became the favoured candidate of the PLP right (Labour First weren't so stupid and constituted Starmer's back office from day one). Though she didn't win she showed a certain amount of across-the-party appeal - enough to be talked about as a future leader when a Starmer premiership hits the buffers. In a shadow cabinet of non-personalities, Nandy was at an advantage. She had to go.

The most serious miscalculation has been the ditching of Rosena Allin-Khan. In her resignation letter addressed to Starmer, she said "you made clear that you do not see a space for a mental health portfolio in a Labour cabinet." As such, she would not serve in any other role if that position - whose introduction saw Jeremy Corbyn receive a rare moment of universal praise - was scrapped. And so back to the backbenches she goes. The politics of her removal aren't too difficult to fathom, even if you don't have a line on the gossip about shadow cabinet meetings. As a still serving A&E doctor, she has been an annoying presence in leadership meetings raising awkward questions about the role for business in the NHS. There is also a school of thought that she's too close to striking NHS workers. Her presence in cabinet might lead to conflicts of interest and her being seen as the BMA's woman on the inside. And lastly, her A&E work confers an authenticity virtually all her colleagues lack. Within government, she might have been seen as an embodiment of the NHS and its values, giving her a popular legitimacy independent of whatever position was doled out by Starmer, and with that a potential platform for a challenge. After all, Starmer has known for a year that she covets his job. Better neck the paracetamol of removal now than risking a splitting headache later.

While not on the left of the party, Allin-Khan is obviously a coming power. By giving her no choice but to leave, she's now free to build up support in the Commons and in the country before and during the early days of the government. She has a justified grievance, and through her work on mental health has proven more in tune with medical need and popular expectations than her erstwhile boss. The second, more serious problem, is how Starmer has added to the problem of his divided base. Whether he doesn't understand who supports him and why, or simply doesn't care because polls and elections keep pointing to a thumping majority, the effect is the same. Among the professional managerial class there are serious jitters about Starmer's leadership. That the more he talks about authoritarian modernisation, the less it resembles a programme of renewal. The prevaricating over fixing crumbling schools is a case in point. That makes some susceptible to lend their affections and their votes to other parties that diagnose the problem and have their own programmes of modernisation, threatening to fragment Labour's base. And others, without any real choice, will be compelled to confront a Starmer government just as they have done the Tories. Who knows where that might all end up.

While the resemblance between Starmer's programme and the Tories are often overstated, he has already taken on their bad governing habits: to their shared authoritarianism, you can now add the propensity to short-termism. Whether Allin-Khan and, to a lesser extent, Nandy will enact some sort of revenge down the line is neither here nor there, it's the alienation of the constituencies in and out of the party that they represent that are going to do for Starmer if he persists with his do-nothing politics.

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Zoltan Jorovic said...

If it is true that we get the politicians we deserve, then we must have done something unforgiveable.

Anonymous said...

You are making rather a lot of what were rather limited changes tbh.

Blissex said...

«If it is true that we get the politicians we deserve, then we must have done something unforgiveable.»

The politicians are corrupt because so many voters are corrupt in the same way, and they have been corrupted by vicious rentierism, for example as a commenter on "The Guardian" wrote: “I will put it bluntly I don't want to see my home lose £100 000 in value just so someone else can afford to have a home and neither will most other people if they are honest with themselves”.
«An old mining MP called Bill Stone, who used to sit in the corner of the Strangers' Bar drinking pints of Federation ale to dull the pain of his pneumoconiosis.
He was eavesdropping on a conversation at the bar, where someone said exasperatedly about the Commons: "The trouble with this place is, it's full of cunts!"
Bill put down his pint, wiped the foam from his lip and said: "They's plenty of cunts in the country, and they deserve some representation." (To get the full effect, say it aloud in a broad northern accent.)
As a description of parliamentary democracy, that strikes me as unbeatable.»

Jim Denham said...

Is that supposed to be amusing?

Zoltan Jorovic said...

To be fair, I found it quite funny.

I feel I should point out that in my everyday life I rarely come across the sort of people that @Blissex seems to hang out with. Either he just happens to know a lot of cnuts, or I am lucky to know very few. Either way I don't buy that the reason we have so many vile politicians is because we are a vile people. There are much more nuanced arguments about the system being weighted so that only the sort of person you really don't want representing you gets to the top.