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On September 6th Labour MPs voted overwhelmingly to restore elections to positions within Labour’s Shadow Cabinet. They ushered in the return to elections by a margin of 169-34, reversing Ed Miliband’s 2011 decision to make Shadow Cabinet posts appointment-only. The motion was proposed by MP Clive Betts, seemingly a non-partisan figure according to his voting record. Betts seems to be neither a Corbynite, nor or a card-carrying member of Blue Labour. The measure, he says, is intended to restore party unity and nobody publicly opposed it.
Moreover, the return to Shadow Cabinet elections is backed by Tom Watson. This being the same Tom Watson who described members of Momentum as ‘rabble’ – not exactly indicating a reasoned willingness to engage with either Corbyn’s supporters or their ideas. Come to think of it, Watson is one of many senior Labour Party figures who seem reluctant to engage with Corbyn – their democratically elected leader – never mind with his ideas or his groundswell of support.
It would also, if approved next week by Labour’s National Executive Committee, serve a few other, less democratic purposes.
If approved at next week’s NEC meeting and at Conference, much of the power to select Shadow Cabinet members would lie in the hands of Labour MPs rather than the elected leader, Jeremy Corbyn. The Parliamentary Labour Party, however, isn’t a body known for its unflinching support of Corbyn and would thus be handed considerable power to impede his efforts to lead by interfering with his choices for Cabinet posts. It’s been called an attempt to restore party unity by some and a naked PLP power grab by others.
Restoring the PLP’s ability to largely dictate Shadow Cabinet membership would undoubtedly boost their power within the party. Given their blatant hostility to Corbyn and their serial attempts to undermine him and get rid of him altogether, it’s not surprising that Corbyn supporters view this idea with no small measure of alarm. The implications of the power struggle have also taken a new twist. A Tweet from senior political journalist Michael Crick points out that if the PLP regains control of the Shadow Cabinet, they also gain the right to choose which three front-benchers would serve on the NEC.
A big reason for today's PLP ballot on electing Shadow Cabinet is for MPs to regain control of which 3 front-benchers are sent to Labour NEC
— Michael Crick (@MichaelLCrick) September 6, 2016
Corbyn’s majority on the NEC is already thin and unflinching support is by no means a certainty. Were the PLP to control the MP presence on the NEC then they would be in an even stronger position to obstruct Corbyn’s leadership. They would also be in a position to restrict or reshape Labour’s internal democracy in their favour which, given their hostility to Corbyn and old-school socialism, wouldn’t come as any surprise.
Corbyn’s main powerbase comes from the grassroots, rank-and-file membership, not the PLP which seems more hostile to him by the day. Already there has been much anger and bitterness amongst a great many people who have joined the party since Corbyn was elected leader. There’s anger at the smear tactics, scaremongering and insults directed at Corbyn and his followers by their opponents. There’s outright fury among a great many people who, applying to join the party since Corbyn’s election, find themselves refused membership in large numbers, and often on the most spurious of grounds.
Despite what might be considered undemocratic and unethical tactics used by his opponents, Corbyn himself has shown (publicly at least) a relative restraint. Where opponents have regularly resorted to the dark arts to either damage or remove him, Corbyn has (probably to their consternation) floated the idea of extending party democracy by perhaps allowing the rank-and-file Labour membership to have a say in electing Shadow Cabinet members.
The PLP, whilst wanting a return to increased party democracy, seem strangely reluctant to engage with the idea of extending party democracy to its logical progression by allowing ordinary members to have a say in who leads the party that they belong to, and whose day-to-day efforts keep functioning.
Given the anti-Corbyn lobby’s many varied and less-than-honourable efforts to depose the leader their own members democratically elected, it is not surprising that the impression amongst Corbyn supporters and those wanting to join Labour since his election is that Corbyn’s opponents don’t want him, his ideas, or his supporters.
Seemingly, if MPs can’t get rid of him then they’re quite prepared to damage his standing as a democratically-elected party leader by making it as hard as possible for him to actually lead.