As a second, Corbyn victory might happen, it is time to consider where the Party goes from here if it does. Having held onto power, Corbyn now needs to find a way to weld the Parliamentary Party he has into an election winning force. In doing so it is important that Corbyn and his inner circle start to recognise the electoral mandates of individual Labour MPs. Labour is not an absolute monarchy, and power in the Parliamentary Party does not rest solely on the Leader’s office. I see only one way of satisfying this need without totally alienating the bulk of his supporters in the Membership. That is the partial reintroduction of Shadow Cabinet elections.
At the time of writing, the PLP have voted for the reintroduction of full Shadow Cabinet elections. While, in theory, this is a good first step in ending the ongoing conflict within the Party, forcing different factions to work with each other, many Corbyn supporters are understandably worried that this will hamstring his leadership. As a compromise position, I would suggest the following template for dividing Shadow Cabinet appointments between the PLP and the Leader’s office.
To start with, Shadow Cabinet appointments should be grouped into seven categories:
- The first and most obvious category, the traditional Great Offices of State, including; the Home Secretary, the Foreign Secretary and the Chancellor of the Exchequer.
- Second, the big budget departments which consume the majority government spending, namely the Secretaries of State for; Defence, Education, Health and Work and Pensions.
- Third, come appointments such as Business, Innovation and Skills, Energy and Climate Change, Justice, Transport and Women and Equalities; which, despite their comparatively small budgets, deal with significant areas of legislation affecting broad swathes of society.
- Fourth, the regional offices of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
- The fifth category consists of positions relating to party discipline, primarily the Chief Whips of both Houses and their subordinates.
- Sixth, are the administrative and ceremonial roles that hold seats in cabinet, consisting of the Attorney General, the Leaders of both Houses and the Minister for the Cabinet office, amongst others.
- And finally, the seventh category, the minor appointments which have neither prestige nor large budgets, such as Communities and Local Government; Culture, Media and Sport; Environment, Food and Rural Affairs; International Development and International Trade. Also included in this last category are the junior ministerial posts which hold seats in cabinet, such as Chief Secretary to the Treasury and the Minister for Mental Health.
As far as possible, the appointments in the first three categories should be split equally between the Leader’s Office and the PLP, with the PLP coming out slightly ahead in overall numbers, while the Leader of the Party would have the opportunity to fill many of the most prestigious roles. On this basis, two of the three Great Offices of State would be appointed by Leader of the Party, with his office able to dictate which two positions he was able to fill. The next two categories, big budget departments and departments dealing with significant legislation, would be split in a similar fashion, with Leader’s Office appointing three out of four and two out of five respectively. This division of seats should serve as an effective means of sharing power, allowing the Leader of the Party to guide the direction of most important areas of policy, while still giving concessions to the PLP.
In contrast, the Shadow Secretaries of State for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland should be elected solely by the PLP. Partially this is to help provide a slim theoretical majority for PLP backed candidates in cabinet reports, but there’s also an issue of symbolism. Allowing a leader who is, with the best will in the world, a white southern middle-class man who represents a cosmopolitan London constituency, to pick the people who would represent the other constituent nations of Britain is at best problematic. At worst it will reinforce the perception that Labour is a London centric party that doesn’t care about the concerns of working-class people. Where possible the relevant shadow secretary should be elected solely by Labour MPs from the same constituent nation, that is say that the Shadow Welsh Secretary should be chosen by Welsh MPs. However, I recognise that this is no longer a valid approach for Scotland and was never a valid approach for Northern Ireland. In both these cases, assuming Ian Murray refuses to serve, these positions should be elected by the PLP as a whole. As well as increasing the influence of the PLP in the shadow cabinet, this will help fight the perception that we are London centric party by including the opinions of MPs representing a wide range of different areas across the country.
However, the selection of Whips is one set of appointments that should remain entirely under the control of the Leader of the Party. Large backbench revolts have been a major part of Corbyn’s leadership thus far and are embarrassing not just for him, but for the entire Party. Keeping this in mind, it would seem prudent to give him the tools necessary to head off any such rebellions in the future, or at least reduce the size. Further, placing such important role in the hands of the Leader of the Party would also serve as a concession to Corbyn supporters in the membership, while making it harder to blame revolts on disloyal cabinet members.
Finally, for the last two Categories, ceremonial and administrative roles and minor departmental appointments/junior ministerial roles, the majority of these positions should be chosen by the PLP, with MPs appointing four out of six and six out of nine positions from each category. By filling these positions with mainly PLP approved candidates the Parliamentary Party gains a slim theoretical majority in shadow cabinet votes, without completely dominating major areas of policy. At the same time, by setting aside a small number of these appointments for the Leader of the Party, Corbyn would still be able to appoint allies to the new positions he has created such as Minister for Mental Health and Minister for the Constitutional Convention.
Taken together with the other categories, this settlement would give seventeen out of thirty-two shadow cabinet posts to PLP backed candidates, giving them a slim theoretical majority of two. This would mean that, provided he is willing to compromise and work in good faith with the PLP, Corbyn should never find himself outvoted in cabinet.
Although I am confident that in the long term a plan of this sort would reduce tensions within the Party and allow us to bring the fight to the Tories, I worry that any sort of compromise will satisfy no one. Regardless, there is still a desperate need for compromise on both sides. There is a need for some in the PLP to recognise that, in terms of policy, the direction the Party has radically shifted over the past year and that trying to drag it back to where it was helps no one. However, it is just as important that Corbyn and those who support him realise that however big his mandate from the membership, he can’t just ignore the much larger collective mandate given to his MPs by the electorate. Both sides need to back down and reconsider their position and, barring a minor miracle, this seems the best way to initiate that.
Leon McLaughlin is Young Fabians member