Corbyn Neuters Critics with Shadow Cabinet Reshuffle

Britain’s Labour Party leader starts removing critics from top positions at the risk of a split.

British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn arrives for a meeting with other European socialist leaders in Brussels, December 17, 2015
British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn arrives for a meeting with other European socialist leaders in Brussels, December 17, 2015 (PES)

British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn began purging opponents from his shadow cabinet on Tuesday, consolidating his leadership at the risk of splitting the opposition party between its far- and center-left.

The first lawmaker to lose his position was Michael Dugher, a former party vice-chair and shadow media secretary.

Dugher criticized Corbyn’s interpretation of why Labour lost the general election last year in an interview with the New Statesman, saying, “I’ve never been wholly convinced that people chose to vote Conservative at the last election because Labour wasn’t left-wing enough.”

Hilary Benn, the shadow foreign secretary, and Maria Eagle, the shadow defense secretary, were among other Labour leaders rumored to be replaced.

All three were believed to be among an estimated 67 out of 231 members who defied Corbyn last month to support British airstrikes against Islamic militants in Syria. Corbyn himself, a longtime pacifist, had urged his conference to vote against, saying the Conservative government’s proposals for military action did not “stack up.”

Benn and Eagle also favor renewing Britain’s nuclear submarine deterrent, Trident. Corbyn opposes all nuclear weapons.

Who is the real rebel?

The BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg reminds readers that Corbyn built his own career by rebelling against the party leadership — hundreds of times, in fact, since he was elected to Parliament in 1983.

For him to call for message discipline from the outset might have seemed ludicrous.

Ludicrous perhaps, but not unexpected.

Before he was elected leader in September with 60 percent support from party members, Corbyn said he would expect a future shadow cabinet to fall in line. He told The Independent newspaper a month before the leadership vote that he would “absolutely” use his mandate “to push our agenda up to the parliamentary party and get them to follow that.”

Even though Corbyn won thanks to an influx of leftwingers who weren’t Labour Party members before — and without almost any support from his own parliamentary colleagues — he is keeping his word and doing just that.

Corbyn’s policies, which include free university education, the renationalization of utilities and rail, more generous welfare spending, withdrawal from NATO and unilateral nuclear disarmament, are popular on the far left. But polls show even average Labour voters are unconvinced.

Tactical victory

Dan Hodges, a former Labour official who resigned from the party after Corbyn was elected, admits that the reshuffle is a tactical success for the new leader. “He has made clear that those who wish to serve under him must agree to do so on his terms,” Hodges writes in The Telegraph.

His critics in the shadow cabinet have been effectively neutered. They have been reminded they serve at his pleasure and that public displays of disloyalty will no longer be tolerated.

Another reward is greater shadow cabinet unity on foreign policy and defense, argues the New Statesman‘s George Eaton — two “totemic issues” for Corbyn.

But there are risks as well, he warns.

The decision to reshuffle his team just four months after being elected, against the appeals of many MPs (from all wings of the party), will further reduce goodwill and inspire greater rebellion.

Hodges is less sure. He laments “the spectacle of the shadow cabinet debasing themselves in a frantic attempt to save their own positions” and doesn’t foresee a moderate revolt any time soon. With the vast majority of party activists and members behind him, Corbyn can be fairly secure in his position.