Jeremy Corbyn should remember that the best Labour cabinets draw from all sides of the party

A 'broad church' shadow cabinet would serve the party well


‘You must understand that I am running a Bolshevik revolution with a Tsarist Shadow cabinet,’ Harold Wilson quipped after filling his front bench with centrists, having been elected Labour leader as the candidate of the Bevanite left.

After Labour’s shock election performance, there were inevitably calls for Jeremy Corbyn to  make a similarly comradely gesture of reconciliation to his former critics and appoint high-profile, formerly hostile MPs such as Chuka Umunna and Yvette Cooper to his shadow cabinet. They got Owen Smith. Not so much a sop to the Tsarists as to the Mensheviks.

While it is understandable that Corbyn did not want to deliver a slap in the face to those that had stayed loyal by ditching them as soon power became a real possibility, he has missed an opportunity to make a break with the New Labour era and re-establish the Labour tradition of broad, progressive, coalition cabinets.

Appointing a such a frontbench would not be a capitulation to Blairites but rather a recognition of the fact that Labour’s most progressive and indeed socialist governments were not hegemonies of the left but diverse coalitions that lived up to that much pilloried label of ‘a broad church’.

Wilson managed to win four general elections and lead Britain’s first socially radical governments, abolishing the death penalty, decriminalising homosexual acts, relaxing laws on abortion and divorce, ending theatre censorship, making the first attempt to tackle racism through law and passing the equal pay act with the aim of ending the gender pay gap.

The first three of these reforms were championed and helped through parliament not by a radical but by a right-winger, the Home Secretary, Roy Jenkins. The two men that stood against Wilson for the leadership, James Callaghan and George Brown, would be appointed Chancellor and Foreign Secretary respectively. Both appointments were concessions to the right, but Wilson’s 1974 manifesto still promised ‘a fundamental and irreversible shift in the balance of power and wealth in favour of working people’.

It was the last time that Labour appeared to stand for anything, Tony Benn said twenty years later. Wilson gave Michael Foot, already a veteran left-wing agitator, his first senior role. He made Barbara Castle — whom Foot described as ‘the best socialist minister we’ve ever had’ — his Employment Secretary and she introduced the equal pay act. Wilson even allowed Benn to discuss with the Queen the idea of removing her head from British stamps.

Clement Attlee’s post-war government — the one that nationalised swathes of industry, introduced free universal education, the welfare state and the NHS — was even more diverse. He found room for Nye Bevan, George Strauss and Stafford Cripps, all prominent members of the socialist League which, in 1933, had passed a motion at Labour conference stating that party’s aim was ‘to eliminate all private enterprise as quickly as possible’.

Cripps had been readmitted to the party in 1945 after being thrown out for seeking cooperation with the Communist Party in an attempt to form a popular front against fascism. He served as Chancellor, succeeding Hugh Dalton, who also supported the idea of a popular front, although not to be formed with communists but rather Tories.

Attlee’s third chancellor was Hugh Gaitskell, a Blair without the initial charm who tried and failed to reform Clause VI. Ernest Bevin, an unashamed anti-Communist, served as Foreign Secretary and was instrumental in the formation of Nato. 

In contrast to the differences of ideas and ideology of the post-war government, Corbyn enjoys broad support among his MPs for his manifesto. Quibbles over the figures and priorities are nothing compared to the clashes Atlee had to deal with in an era when many Labour MPs questioned whether change could actually be achieved through the ballot box.

Attempts to exert the authority of one wing of the party over the other have not had happy results. As leader, in 1959 Gaitskell concluded that ‘unity was not enough’, but in trying to reform the party he left it neither unified nor more electable. His attempts to expel MPs who did not share his vision served only to highlight division and stoke resentment.  And while the achievements of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown’s governments were many, not few, the control-freakery of the those years and marginalisation of the left was a huge contributing factor to the hostilities that gripped the party in the last two years.

It would be a terrible irony if, in attempting to consign New Labour to history, the present Labour leader were to repeat its mistakes.

Patrick J Barrett is a freelance writer and Labour activist in Hackney

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12 Responses to “Jeremy Corbyn should remember that the best Labour cabinets draw from all sides of the party”

  1. Tony

    Chancellor Hugh Dalton: To his enormous credit, he led the opposition to the development of the atomic bomb. How right he was!

  2. Boffy

    Given how badly Wilson’s government let down those of the Bevanite left, as he became willingly or unwillingly captive of the right in that Shadow Cabinet, I think an unforced repeat of that would be disastrous, and a betrayal of all those hundreds of thousands who joined the party to support Corbyn, and oppose the Blair-rights and soft-lefts, not to mention all of those who stuck with the party during all of that period of the misrule of the Kinnocks, Smiths, Blairs, Browns and Milibands.

    The party was lucky to do as well as it did in the elections given the treacherous behaviour of the right-wing elements of the PLP and their counterparts in Council Chambers etc. One reason the media thought that Labour would do so badly was they relied on the words of all those same PLP elements who were half hoping for poor results, in order to launch a new coup against Corbyn, and who let their own mentality colour their view of the state of real public opinion. Not a small part of that was due to the fact that many of those PLP elements have no real contact with people, still preferring telephone canvassing for the real thing of interacting in real life with real people and their problems.

    The odd member of that old guard in the Shadow Cabinet is okay, so as to keep the rest competing for a small number of places, and thereby keep them divided, but the real way for Labour to move forward is to have a clear, consistent, and unified voice. To do that the Shadow Cabinet needs to reflect the views of the Corbynistas, and the party in the country, and the quicker we can clear out the old guard elements from the PLP, the party apparatus, and other structures via mandatory reselection the better.

  3. Craig Mackay

    It is vital that Labour recognise that remarkable though the election campaign was, it did expose weaknesses and deficiencies in the manifesto and their approach to winning an election. There is little doubt that another election must be on the horizon relatively soon. Time is short. Complacency by Labour would be fatal. They need to reach out confidently to the many who doubted Jeremy Corbyn was even slightly serious. His personal ratings have soared and the position of the Labour Party is stronger that has been for many years.

    Yet there is plenty to do. The Tory party will not give up without a struggle. Never forget that they are the nasty party. They have a great capacity to become even nastier.

    Some ideas about what Labour needs to think about as a matter of urgency can be found here:

  4. Martyn Wood-Bevan

    The #chickencoup was, and is unforgivable. Twice these people have refused to properly work in a Corbyn cabinet so are surplus to requirements. We are better off promoting new talent and leaving uncooperative right-wingers to occupy special committees and contribute in other ways to the political debate. People have to be loyal and trustworthy first and foremost.

  5. David Oakensen

    Patrick Barrett seems to forget that it is now 2017 not 1963, 54 years on fro his reference. We must look forward not backward; but if you must look to the past try to remember the failure of confidence and hope after 1997. Yvette Cooper and Chuka Umunna are failures from the past and time has moved on beyond them.

  6. brian nugent

    What we need is a new General secretary. Labour HQ did not cover itself in glory along with the PLP. Fortunately the PLP seems to be coming into line, for now but the amateurish campaign masterminded by HQ et al was dire, as was the role of HQ in cahoots with ‘Disgruntled from West Midlands’ of trying to run a party within a party. Not so much ‘Entryism’ but more like ‘Club-ism”. Unfortunately for them, the new members are not going away and they are the ones paying the wage bill!

  7. John

    Thankyou for your comments Craig MacKay with the link – a good article.

  8. patrick newman

    It is a pity Andy Burnham disappeared up North to do some non job! Corbyn did not have have a lot of choice for the Shadow Cabinet and in some cases their lack of experience showed in the very tough environment of a general election. In the context of Momentum I dont think it would be disloyal to those who stepped up when the epidemic of resignations took place to have slightly broadened the Shadow Cabinet. We were lucky in the General Election to get away with some truely awful media events. Labour does need to look and sound like a party that has a grip on policies and facts and figures – not relying at all May’s tendency to be accident and guff prone. Experience does have a value.

  9. Martin Benham

    I am neither a Blairite nor a Corbynista – I find the divisions in the Labour party frustrating whilst I understand the ideological differences different factions appear to have. In my constituancy we were abandoned by Momentum at a critical time and the majority of the campaigning was undertaken by old and young members inspired by a desire to return an MP to parliament. We are a “broad church” and most of the activists were probably from the centre right of the party. We achieved a majority of 2 1/2 times the size of our previous one and we were, I understand, written off as not likely to hold our seat.
    My view is we need to unite – we need to be able to forgive and move forward – there is much nastiness and vitriol going around that is frankly disgusting and is an antithesis of everything we, as a Labour Party, should be about. If you want a purely socialist party that is extreme left then
    go and join the Communist Party or some other such organisation. If you want to fight the Tories and stand up for the people of Britain then we need to come together – live with our differences, unite together and bring about real social and economic change to the people we were founded to represent. If we continue hurling insults and innuendo all we will do is implode and lose the momentum that has built over the last few weeks and given hope to all members of the party and, increasingly, the people of this country.

  10. Martyn Wood-Bevan

    You simply demonstrate your economic cluelessness by criticising socialism. The policy presented in the Labour Manifesto was “Investment-Led Growth” a centrist economic policy to right the failures of right-wing Neoliberal Capitalism, as practised by Thatcher, Blair, Brown and Cameron. Jeremy Corbyn is backing a Nordic Model – a mixed economy where key industries are under public control and the private sector coexists alongside. Using the term “Extreme Left” is very offensive to most members of the Labour Party, which is supposed to be a “Democratic Socialist” Party. You could stop using such divisive language if you actually care about party unity!!!!!!!!

  11. Janet Marks

    The people who have not supported, and actively undermined Corbyn, right up until this GE must give some thought to the lack of unity in the Party and their own role in maintaining it. Corbyn started out as leader of the Party back in 2015 by appointing a ‘broad church’ Shadow Cabinet. It was not his doing that this didn’t work. I think it will take a bit longer than this turnaround after the GE for trust to be rebuilt.

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