Saturday 1 October 2016

Labour loyalties will be tested by challenges ahead

Shane Richards

Published 15/09/2015 | 02:30

John McDonnell
John McDonnell

Leadership and loyalty is one of the great Shakespearean themes. To whom, or to what, is a leader loyal? Do his or her personal convictions matter most? Must a leader be loyal to friends and allies? Is there a wider loyalty to the party and the country that can conflict with a leader's other deeply held principles?

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The leadership of Jeremy Corbyn is already a Shakespearean epic. He is being tested - and so too will those internal critics being feted by a media hostile to the new leadership. And where do their loyalties lie?

The appointment of John McDonnell (below) as shadow chancellor is making waves. There are many Labour MPs who cannot believe their economic policy will be framed by a figure who some regard as being to the left of Corbyn. Ed Balls had worked 18 hours a day since 1993, navigating the wild seas of economic policy for Labour; McDonnell pops up as if from nowhere.

Various sympathetic figures had urged Corbyn to appoint Angela Eagle, a former treasury minister and a far less provocative choice. But reflect on loyalty and the appointment is understandable. McDonnell is a close friend of Corbyn's and one with a long interest in economic policy. With a more overwhelming mandate than the one secured by Tony Blair in 1994, Corbyn is in a strong enough position to be loyal to his convictions and his friend.

McDonnell's elevation is almost as remarkable as Corbyn's, but for a leader who stood and won with an alternative economic policy forcefully advocated by McDonnell it would have been even more surprising had Corbyn not made the appointment.

A new leader is never stronger than at the beginning. This is a moment for Corbyn when loyalty can be relatively uncomplicated.

Making McDonnell his shadow chancellor must have been as obvious for Corbyn as it was when Tony Blair made Gordon Brown his in 1994. The fact that Corbyn hesitated, with some of his advisers urging him not to take the risk, shows the new leadership is at least a little sensitive to the complex world it has entered.

Corbyn has gone some way to selecting a politically balanced front bench. The lack of women at the top looks awful, but it is not his fault that party members appointed a male deputy and a male mayoral candidate. He cannot be blamed either for the complex reasons that Harriet Harman, Yvette Cooper, Liz Kendall, Caroline Flint and Rachel Reeves choose not to serve in the shadow cabinet.

As far as a leader is concerned, loyalty takes many forms and can change depending on the political context. Even with a landslide majority, Tony Blair sacked his close friend Peter Mandelson twice. In the face of a media onslaught against Mandelson, Blair did not feel strong enough to remain loyal.

Corbyn will be unmoved by media onslaughts as he works on the safe assumption he will not get a fair hearing. Blair felt that having a supportive media was a precondition to electoral success. Mandelson was sacrificed on that basis.

So Corbyn's test will come as he faces the wider responsibilities of leadership. When Neil Kinnock was interviewed in the late 1980s, he was asked: "As leader of the Labour party, what is now your personal view of unilateral nuclear disarmament?" Kinnock replied: "As leader of the Labour Party, I am not allowed personal views. Personal views and being leader of the Labour Party are almost a contradiction in terms." (©Independent News Service)

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