Not in my name: Alastair Meeks looks at Corbyn’s leadership style

Not in my name: Alastair Meeks looks at Corbyn’s leadership style


No compromise on issue regarded by him as matters of principle

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the burning topic of the day – literally, on occasion –  was religion.  In England, the cutting edge of religious thought was found among what we now call the Puritans.  This label was originally in fact a catch-all term of abuse for a variety of different hardline Protestant groups and not one that those so labelled would have welcomed.  One of the seminal figures was an Islington cleric called Robert Browne.  Unwilling to commune with the Church of England, they suffered fines and other indignities in the early seventeenth century.  They protested very heavily against this, given their deeply held beliefs.  Some emigrated to leave behind this persecution: the Pilgrim Fathers were Puritans.

In the wake of the civil war, Parliament was dominated by a Puritan majority.  But it transpired that the Puritans were not interested in offering freedom of conscience.  Instead they sought to impose their own consciences on the rest of the country, famously seeking to ban Christmas and Easter festivities and reforming the Church of England on presbyterian lines.  Freedom of conscience was only to be allowed to those with consciences functioning on correct lines.

What does that have to do with Jeremy Corbyn?  Well, quite a bit, and not just the Islington connection.  Labour spent the 1980s in a long term fight for the party’s soul.  The right of the party won and the left was purged, marginalised and subjected to constant invigilation by the victors.  Life was tough for the losers of that fight and members of the losing faction were constantly at risk of expulsion.  Seniority was no protection: Dave Nellist, Ken Livingstone and George Galloway were all shown the door at different times.  Leftwingers would constantly claim that they were being oppressed by the victorious right.  Valiantly they ensured that their consciences were respected, some with more vigour than others.  As has often been noted, Jeremy Corbyn rebelled more than 500 times against the Labour leadership (more often than David Cameron).

Now Jeremy Corbyn is leader and a cohort of leftist groups are in the ascendancy in the Labour party.  On becoming leader Jeremy Corbyn announced a kinder politics and set up a shadow Cabinet that included figures from across Labour’s political spectrum.  By installing John McDonnell as shadow Chancellor, he made it clear that he intended to set his mark on economic policy, but by appointing a multilateralist as shadow Defence Secretary and an interventionist as shadow Foreign Secretary, he seemed to acknowledge that he was going to have to allow a plurality of voices.

It rapidly became apparent, however, that while he was willing to include figures from across Labour’s political spectrum in his shadow Cabinet, he was not prepared to compromise with them on points of principle.  Baroness Armstrong said of Jeremy Corbyn:

“Politics is about compromise, and he never wanted to be put in a position where he was expected to compromise.”

He has continued this approach as leader.  He agreed to a review of policy on Trident but immediately announced that he would never authorise its use.  He equivocated about the use of drones to kill Jihadi John and about the appropriateness of a shoot to kill policy in the event of a hypothetical terrorist attack in Britain along the same lines as the Paris attacks, refusing to be reined in by colleagues who were evidently in complete disagreement.  He appointed a unilateralist to oversee the defence review jointly with the shadow Defence Secretary.  An action-packed opening three months culminated in the vote on Syria where more than a third of his own shadow Cabinet including the shadow Foreign Secretary opposed him (in a notionally free vote).

Jeremy Corbyn started the New Year with an attempted purge from his team of those who have publicly dissented from his world view.  A reshuffle after less than four months with no external event prompting it must be some kind of record.  This purge was only partly successful: Hilary Benn remains shadow Foreign Secretary.  But Jeremy Corbyn now has a unilateralist Defence Secretary and dismissed two ministers who had the temerity to contradict some of his more eyebrow-raising musings.

It seems that Jeremy Corbyn concluded that his new politics allowed for shadow Cabinet members from different political strands only if they voiced the same opinions that he held.  So he is reconstituting the shadow Cabinet so far as possible to silence points of view that he does not hold and to marginalise them when he cannot silence them.  He is not going to compromise his beliefs as leader any more than he did as a backbencher.

In many ways this is a more logical approach than the one that he originally adopted.  When the public hear a cacophony of voices from the government in waiting, they hear only chaos.  If they can speak more in harmony, they stand more of a chance of their messages being heard.  If you are the leader, you want them to hear your messages.

But what of Labour MPs who do not hold Jeremy Corbyn’s views?  It is now apparent that Jeremy Corbyn is not going to take an ecumenical approach.  He is going to return the marginalisation and invigilation with interest.  Despite the fact that he represents a tiny minority of the Parliamentary party he evidently intends to lead the party in accordance with the principles that he holds, regardless of how little support they command elsewhere.  The party is going to have to bend to his beliefs.

In justifying his actions, those speaking on his behalf have noted that Jeremy Corbyn rebelled exclusively from the backbenches.  Those who oppose him within the Labour party should take that as their licence to do likewise.  But to use that licence, backbench Labour MPs need to have a credo and to articulate it.  While it may not be popular, Jeremy Corbyn’s credo is clear.  What do his party opponents have to combat it?

Alastair Meeks

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