The Labour Party is facing a rebellion at the heart of parliament, with a series of high profile resignations sending the party into turmoil. But what does it all mean? Since 23 MPs have now left the Shadow Cabinet, at the time of writing (the remaining members of the original Shadow Cabinet are Jeremy Corbyn, Tom Watson, Rosie Winterton, John McDonnell, Andy Burnham, Emily Thornberry, Jon Trickett and Diane Abbott), not all of the Shadow Cabinet members who have left will be listed below – however the most important will be detailed.
Hilary Benn was sacked by Corbyn after Benn told Corbyn that he had no confidence in his leadership. He fundamentally disagreed with Corbyn on foreign policy and had voted to authorise bombing on Daesh in Syria back in December after being the closing speaker for the Opposition in the preceding debate whilst Corbyn had opened for the Opposition. Corbyn is fundamentally an anti-war politician, having been the national chair of Stop the War Coalition, though he has named three justified conflicts (the most recent being the role of UN peacekeepers in the 1999 East Timor crisis). Corbyn has also said that stopping war and violence is his key personal objective.
Whilst Labour had seemed relatively unified on domestic policy and split on foreign policy, the sacking of Benn shows that this situation is no longer working for the Labour Party (if, indeed, if ever did work). Benn, since his sacking, has focused on Corbyn being a poor leader, rather than their foreign policy differences, however. Regardless, Emily Thornberry, who has been named the new Shadow Foreign Secretary, agrees with Corbyn on issues such as Trident, which will prove very important if Corbyn remains leader of the Labour Party when the Trident vote is held.
Benn’s sacking shows that it will be nearly impossible for Corbyn to continue holding various different wings of the party together in a Cabinet. The patience of even the most conciliatory moderates in the party has run out (with the exception of Andy Burnham and possibly Rosie Winterton; it is difficult to see how Watson, as Deputy Leader, could’ve resigned even if he had wanted to).
Because Benn was the Shadow Foreign Secretary, one of the four Shadow Great Offices of State, this is probably the most important exit from the Shadow Cabinet. However, it would not have amounted to much if the avalanche of resignations hadn’t followed after it.
Heidi Alexander was the Shadow Health Secretary before she resigned. She was the Shadow Secretary of State for Education and had been elected as the MP for Lewisham East in 2010. Her Shadow Cabinet post under Corbyn was her first. Paul Mason has claimed, after her resignation, that Alexander tried to get Corbyn to blame the junior doctors for the junior doctors’ crisis; a claim she firmly denied. She doesn’t, however, participate in picket lines as the Labour leadership frequently do and she even once successfully persuaded John McDonnell not to participate in a picket line of striking junior doctors. Instead of protesting with junior doctors, she pressed for a compromise during the crisis which could’ve averted the strike.
She had supported Andy Burnham’s 2010 and 2015 leadership campaigns. Thus, if crude statements about Labour factions are going to be made, she is probably part of the soft left wing of the Labour Party. The soft left (including Andy Burnham’s 2015 leadership campaign as well as Andy Burnham currently) has been broadly supportive of Corbyn’s leadership. However, Alexander’s resignation clearly shows that this previous tentative support is now all but annulled. Indeed, Alexander’s resignation is a clear demonstration that most of the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) will not put up with Corbyn’s ‘politics of protest’ any longer. They view him as not wanting to get Labour into power and create electable policies, instead preferring to constantly protest against the Tories and diametrically oppose them on virtually everything they do without bothering to find workable cross-party solutions, or even broad-based Labour solutions, to problems.
Lucy Powell was the Shadow Secretary of State for Education before she resigned. She was a close ally of Ed Miliband and said that she had ‘never, ever met or spoken to’ Mr Corbyn since she became an MP – yet she was appointed to, and accepted her appointment to, the Shadow Cabinet in 2015. During her time as Shadow Education Secretary, she argued in favour of taking free schools and academies back into local authority control. Again, her resignation clearly suggests that the broader left of the PLP has lost its tolerance for Jeremy Corbyn.
Pat Glass is her replacement as Shadow Education Secretary (appointed Monday 27 June). Glass says that ‘she was never a Jeremy Corbyn supporter when he was running for the leadership’, but she has drawn controversy for calling an elector ‘a horrible racist’. She also suggested that voters shouldn’t bother with persuading their grandfathers to vote remain because ‘the problem is older white men’. One can’t help but feel that Corbyn is having to scrape the barrel due to resignations from MPs who had been broadly supportive of him previously – there are many Labour MPs who don’t make these kinds of offensive statements to voters, but virtually all of them either ruled themselves out of the 2015 Shadow Cabinet or have left the 2016 Shadow Cabinet.
However, as of Wednesday 29 June, Pat Glass has resigned. Resigning only two days after being appointed, this is probably the shortest-ever tenure of a Shadow Cabinet member and demonstrates that Corbyn can’t really trust any ‘moderates’ in the party to join his Shadow Cabinet and that the only long-term solution to the issue if Corbyn remains in charge of Labour (and this seems likely, at the moment) is surely to start MP deselections.
Ian Murray is Labour’s only Scottish MP. He has (after resigning) said that Scottish Labour supports Sturgeon on the EU in protecting Scotland’s jobs and economy against what he describes as the Conservatives’ ‘utterly dreadful decision to put their party first before the country’. This is a very embarrassing resignation for Corbyn, since it means he may have to appoint a non-Scottish MP as Shadow Secretary for Scotland. However, it has also been suggested that Corbyn could appoint a Labour MSP to the post (there is nothing stopping him from doing this). This would be a rather novel move and it would be interesting if this idea is used by future governments – with a member of the UK executive being also a member of a devolved legislature rather than the UK legislature. However, this does mean that the Shadow Secretary for Scotland would be unable to make responses to the Secretary for Scotland in Parliament. Overall, however, this resignation only added to Corbyn’s problems.
She’s viewed as a solid lefty in the party and Owen Jones, left-wing journalist for The Guardian, considered backing her after Ed Miliband’s resignation. She was the Shadow Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change. Her resignation shows that even those who are ideologically close to Corbyn in the PLP may not necessarily support him. Lisa Nandy has been floated as a potential leadership candidate due to her support on the left of the party, and she could prove a serious thorn in Corbyn’s side in the future.
Owen Smith is a staunch party loyalist, on the same level as Andy Burnham, so his resignation was very significant indeed. This shows that some people whose main priority seems to be holding the party together (and spending the majority of time attacking the Tories, rather than each other) believe that Corbyn is the one splitting it apart, not the resigners from the Shadow Cabinet. So Smith, a noted unifier, decided to join the resigners. Corbyn has often relied on Labour members and MPs calling for party unity to support his leadership from a non-factional perspective. Owen Smith’s resignation makes this far more difficult.
Angela Eagle’s resignation was particularly important of all the resignations. As Shadow First Secretary of State, she was the second-in-command of the PLP. She stood in for Corbyn when Cameron was away at PMQs, making a number of impressive performances – including exploiting Tory splits on the EU before the referendum, which went down well in the media. Again, her resignation is a clear illustration of how badly Corbyn has lost support in the soft left areas of the party. She also has been floated as a possible leadership candidate, so much has she impressed Labour moderates. During her time as Shadow First Secretary of State and Shadow Business Secretary, she has sometimes refused to directly praise Jeremy Corbyn, however she has focused on attacking the Tories and has certainly been a key unifier. Apparently she spent over 24 hours trying to contact Corbyn’s office before she resigned but got no response. She has also, since resigning, decried Corbyn for refusing to effectively respond to any criticisms she has made of him.
Her exit from the Shadow Cabinet should’ve prompted Corbyn’s resignation, but Corbyn has been too stubborn to be moved, knowing that his shadow ministers (even if they have Labour interests at heart) are only resigning en masse to try to remove him from the ballot of the next leadership election. For the sake of his own position, Corbyn can afford to wait.
Angela may run in a leadership race, according to breaking reports. However, going from fourth in a deputy leader election to beating Corbyn in a leadership election in just 10 months might be a step too far for the Wallasey MP.
Other Shadow Ministers
Not many of the shadow ministers who don’t attend Shadow Cabinet are particularly well-known, however Stephen Kinnock, son of Labour leader Neil Kinnock who battled against Militant entryists in the 80s and 90s and perhaps viewed as on the soft left of the party, was one of the more notable resigners. He represents Aberavon and has battled for his constituents in the steel crisis, fighting for government intervention to save the Port Talbot steelworks. Given that this is calling for a heavier government hand in the steel industry and even an element of protectionism to prevent Chinese steel dumping, this has placed Kinnock somewhat close to Corbyn’s views on this issue – thus, it is notable that he has resigned despite Corbyn’s Labour’s support of #SaveOurSteel. Kinnock was the Parliamentary Private Secretary to Angela Eagle, the former Shadow Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills and Shadow First Secretary of State. He resigned before she did.
Another well-known junior shadow minister who resigned is Jess Phillips, the member for Birmingham Yardley. She was a parliamentary private secretary to Shadow Education Minister Lucy Powell. She opposed debates in Parliament in honour of International Men’s Day, suggesting that it was women who weren’t represented well enough anyway, not men, and she has spoken out sharply against sexist abuse that has been made at her. In an interview with Owen Jones, she said that she wouldn’t stab Corbyn in the back, but in the front (and only if he wasn’t helping the Labour movement), and she has clearly done this, with an honest, straightforward but respectful (as far as one can be respectful when metaphorically stabbing someone) resignation letter.
The new shadow education secretary has also revealed that she will not be seeking re-election, causing more selection headaches for the leadership.
What happens now?
We now essentially have two Shadow Cabinets in exile. The former being a group completely intolerant of Corbyn (thus, generally speaking, from the centre of the party). This group includes Cooper, Kendall, Reeves, Harman, Leslie etc. The latter being a group which could only tolerate him for slightly under a year (thus, generally speaking, from the soft left of the party). This group includes Benn, the Eagles, Owen Smith, Powell, Heidi Alexander etc.
Since it seems that Corbyn will not resign due to Shadow Cabinet resignations, because there are just about enough pro-Corbyn MPs in the party to fill the Shadow Cabinet, even if they are clearly not the best candidates for their roles, it is up to the centre (or, ‘right’) and soft left of the party to find a candidate who can beat Corbyn in a leadership election and who can make significant progress to solving Labour’s myriad of existential problems. This includes:
- An appropriate response to Brexit which can attract metropolitan Labour Remainers and working-class Labour Leavers
- A stance on immigration (taking into account the (perhaps unlikely) possibility of ending free movement via Brexit) which, again, can hold Labour’s more socially conservative working-class and more socially liberal metropolitan supporters together. But equally, whilst this policy should not ignore anti-immigration sentiment as Corbyn’s approach has seemed to do, it should not be an unconvincing fudge which pleases no-one like Miliband’s policy
- A radical reforming stance on the economy (with big, new, perhaps centrist, ideas) but one which is more fiscally credible than Miliband-Corbyn’s ‘capital account deficit and current account balance/surplus’ policy – or, at least, someone who can clearly communicate better than Ed and Jeremy and can convince people that this really is fiscally credible
They also need someone who can look like a leader – this will be very subjective indeed, but someone who can communicate with the media rather than attack them would be a good sign of someone who the media could portray as a good leader. The fact is that we do have to take the media’s response into account when choosing a leader, because we will be largely relying on the media to communicate our message in a favourable manner. Attacking them simply doesn’t work, as Corbyn has demonstrably proven.
Corbyn’s strategy from now on will be to consolidate his power further by using his considerable support from the membership (who remain sovereign in the Labour Party). A leadership election between him and a more moderate candidate could be very close indeed, if he wins then the only way he can ensure he has a supportive PLP and a perhaps credible left-wing Shadow Cabinet is by starting MP deselections. This is, of course, a last resort, but Corbyn has no choice after essentially losing two unity Shadow Cabinets and losing a vote of no confidence by an unprecedented 172-40. The PLP has run out of patience for Corbyn, and if Corbyn wins the leadership election then he will be quite right to have lost patience with the PLP.
If Corbyn does win the leadership election, then it is anyone’s guess what the rest of the PLP will do. Mass defections to Farron’s Lib Dems will certainly be on the cards, as will creating a new party SDP-style. They also seem to be already seeking to form a ‘proper’ Official Opposition (one which represents the majority of Labour MPs), but how successful they are in that completely relies on Speaker John Bercow’s receptiveness to the idea. Still, it was interesting that in response to Cameron’s EU statement on Monday, so many of Labour heavyweights such as Harriet Harman, Yvette Cooper and Hilary Benn (who received a particularly loud cheer) made speeches. Perhaps making a point that the Labour frontbench does not really represent the Labour party as a whole. Cameron seemed to help them, not talking about the Labour crisis directly, but instead thanking individuals for campaigning with him to make a clear, united case to Remain; making implicit digs at Corbyn for not doing so (and, perhaps, losing the referendum for Remain).