There have been few more pathetic displays of political impotence than the tweets sent by shadow cabinet members paying tribute to Michael Dugher after his sacking by Jeremy Corbyn. Dugher, a classic northern Labour fixer, had taken on the role of shadow cabinet shop steward. He spoke out against Momentum, the Corbynite pressure group, warned against a ‘revenge reshuffle’ and criticised negative briefings against the shadow cabinet from the leader’s office.
But rather than protesting at his sacking through a walkout, shadow cabinet members confined their solidarity to a 140-character gesture. Their tweets, rather than looking like brave defiance of the boss, actually showed just how cowed they are.
Dugher’s sacking indicates how much Corbyn’s position has strengthened since he won the leadership last September. He is still not in total control, as demonstrated by the survival of Hilary Benn as shadow foreign secretary despite his disagreement with the leader over Syria. But he is more secure than in his first days in the job, when chief whip Rosie Winterton was effectively instructed to get bums on the front bench by any means necessary. The result was a shadow cabinet that included people who had never met the leader and others who were bitterly opposed to his politics. Now, Corbyn has a team with views closer to his own. Crucially, the new shadow defence secretary, Emily Thornberry, is another unilateralist.
The events of the past few months have vindicated those who simply refused to serve under Corbyn because they so profoundly disagreed with him. Labour figures who took the opposite course lent credence to the idea that the shadow cabinet would represent the full spectrum of Labour opinion. But the sackings of Dugher and the Blairite Europe spokesman Pat McFadden show that Corbyn intended to have such people on his front bench only for as long as necessary. And as his strength grows, more moderates will be discarded. By accepting a job, then being sacked, Dugher and McFadden confirm that if anyone is in charge of today’s Labour party, it is Corbyn.
The removal of Dugher has also demonstrated that Tom Watson, the deputy leader, cannot protect those who fall on the wrong side of Corbyn. Many in the parliamentary Labour party were relying on Watson, the only person other than Corbyn with an individual mandate, to shield them from the leader and, perhaps more importantly, his supporters. The removal of Dugher, one of Watson’s best friends in the shadow cabinet, shows the limits of the deputy leader’s power.
Corbyn’s consolidation of his position has not been accompanied by any public surge in support for him. In fact, the opposite has happened. According to the latest YouGov poll, 60 per cent of voters now think he is doing a bad job as Labour leader. And it isn’t just the opinion polls; Labour is doing even more badly in local council by-elections than it was in the last parliament.
Nevertheless, Corbyn looks more and more likely to carry on as leader until 2020. The Labour ‘selectorate’ remain enthused by him and there is no sign of the moderates recruiting more than the 100,000 new members they would need to challenge him successfully. At the same time, the parliamentary Labour party is showing no interest in a procedural coup to remove him. Indeed, the lesson of the Syria vote was that grassroots pressure was effective in deterring Labour MPs from rebelling against the leadership. It is hard to imagine many of them having the stomach to topple the party’s democratically elected leader.
For their part, the trade unions won’t mobilise against Corbyn collectively because the general secretaries know that their own re-election depends on maintaining a certain level of Corbynite support.
What is so frustrating for veteran Labour types is that there is no shortage of targets that the opposition is missing as it fixates on these internal battles. On a day-to-day level, Labour failed to land a glove on the government over the floods. Strategically, Labour’s reshuffle chaos allowed David Cameron to announce that he will suspend collective cabinet responsibility for the EU referendum without paying any political price. Given what is happening inside Labour at the moment, Corbyn can hardly attack the Tories for being divided. Longer term, there is also the fact that Labour is nowhere on the economy despite indications that the world economic outlook could give Britain a very bumpy ride over the next few months.
Senior Tories accept that there is a market for an anti-austerity politics. They are acutely aware of how effective it could be if the economy hit the skids. But they believe that it would require a youthful, charismatic figure akin to the Greek leader Alexis Tsipras to capitalise on this. They calculate that not even a global recession could make Corbyn appear a plausible Prime Minister.
If Corbyn is leading his party to electoral disaster but he can’t be removed, what do Labour moderates do?
One school of thought is that they just write off the 2020 election as a bad job and hope that an even heavier election defeat will bring the membership to its senses. But there are whispers that a new party is needed, that now that Corbyn is leader it will never be possible to put the hard left back in its box again.
The obstacles to setting up any new party are formidable — as the failure of the SDP demonstrated. The last election, in which Ukip gained only one MP despite winning more than 12 per cent of the national vote, was a reminder that it hasn’t got any easier to break the mould of British politics. But, intriguingly, the EU referendum campaign might be providing the vehicle for the creation of one. The ‘in’ campaign has brought together ‘Blairite’ Labour types and Lib Dem ‘Orange Bookers’, and the two groups have found that they agree on nearly everything. There is much joking about forming a new party. One wonders if this banter might become something more serious if politics continues on its current trajectory.