At a moment when it should have been able to seize the political initiative, the Labour leadership has talked itself into a strategy of retreat. Boris Johnson has driven a train of sleaze through the Conservatives’ reputation as a stable party of government. After a decade of falling pay, wages are now plummeting in real terms. Energy bills are forecast to hit at least four thousand pounds a year by 2023, while BP and Shell have announced yet another round of record profits. The Bank of England’s interest rate hike, and predictions of a long recession, will mean more hardship for working-class people. Many, unsurprisingly, have had enough. But rather than seizing on the strikes as a way to talk about the injustices of Tory economics, the Labour front bench has squirmed.
The old Labour establishment’s loud objections to Jeremy Corbyn’s reshuffle betray a belief that shadow cabinet members have a moral and democratic right to their jobs. Had Corbyn, like almost any party leader in history, appointed a shadow foreign secretary who shared his foreign policy, dismissing Hilary Benn would have prompted even more outrage from Labour’s centrists. The outrage has no democratic basis. The power to reshuffle and remove shadow ministers is, to be sure, a power from above, but it has been granted to Corbyn by the biggest popular mandate any Labour leader has ever had. Michael Dugher, Pat McFadden, Hilary Benn and Maria Eagle, on the other hand, were not elected by anyone to speak for the Labour Party as a whole. Their only mandate is from their constituents, which gives them the right to a seat in the Commons for the duration of this parliament, not a place in the shadow cabinet.
Before Hilary Benn sat down from his contribution to the Syria debate in the House of Commons last night, the political echo chamber was reverberating. Over the applause, microphones picked up outbursts of praise from the Conservative benches that were echoed through the commentariat: ‘superb’, ‘historic’, ‘career-defining’. It was certainly an impressive feat of rhetoric, all the more so for having been written largely during the debate. But at the core of the rhetoric were two distortions, which aped the language of socialist internationalism while arguing for its opposite.