Andrew Whitaker: Jeremy Corbyn faces civil war threat

Jeremy Corbyn, MP for Islington North and candidate in the Labour Party leadership election, speaks to supporters outside Great St Mary's church on September 6, 2015 in Cambridge, England. Picture: Getty Images
Jeremy Corbyn, MP for Islington North and candidate in the Labour Party leadership election, speaks to supporters outside Great St Mary's church on September 6, 2015 in Cambridge, England. Picture: Getty Images
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CLEVER appointments to his frontbench team should head off a rebellion in Labour if the left-winger wins, writes Andrew Whitaker

THERE’S still a chance that the opinion polls and pundits could be wrong and that Jeremy Corbyn will not be elected as Labour leader on Saturday.

It’s possible, for example, that under the party’s election system, he could top the overall poll but be edged out when the second preferences for the other candidates are totted up – something that could yet hold out hope for Andy Burnham or Yvette Cooper, if not Liz Kendall.

However, in all likelihood Corbyn will win and perhaps do so convincingly, in a result that would be the first of its kind in Labour’s post-war history and probably throughout its entire 115 years of existence.

Traditionally Labour’s left-wing candidates have tended to fail to carry the day in leadership elections, as happened to the late Tony Benn on several occasions.

But this time it appears as though it could be different and when one thinks of all Labour’s post-war leaders – Ed Miliband, Gordon Brown, Tony Blair, John Smith, Neil Kinnock, Michael Foot, James Callaghan, Harold Wilson, Hugh Gaitskell and Clement Attlee – none have in truth adopted as radical and avowedly socialist a stance as Corbyn.

To go back further into Labour’s history, there may be some who argue that figures like George Lansbury in the 1930s or even Keir Hardie were coming from a similar place to Corbyn, although the party in those days was largely in its infancy and had yet to serve a full term in government.

But should Corbyn be declared as Labour’s leader at the party’s special conference on Saturday he will have to move swiftly to appoint a frontbench team, with some senior figures such as Chuka Umunna having hinted that they may not serve in a Corbyn shadow cabinet.

As well as clearly inspiring many people to sign up to Labour, Corbyn has conducted himself in a dignified way throughout the contest, running on an issue-driven platform rather than a personalised one despite often quite intense provocation from figures such as Tony Blair saying supporters of the long-serving Islington North MP were in need of a “heart transplant”.

Should he win, Corbyn would do well to follow the same measured approach he has taken during the lengthy leadership campaign in picking his frontbench team.

In fact, whoever wins the contest should follow such an approach and at the very least offer senior shadow cabinet roles to their rivals in the leadership contest, and to the five deputy leadership candidates – Tom Watson, Stella Creasy, Caroline Flint, Ben Bradshaw and Angela Eagle.

With suggestions that some in the Parliamentary Labour Party may seek to plot against Corbyn with the aim of ousting him two years or so into the job, it’s perhaps worth keeping in mind the words of fictional Mafia boss Michael Corleone, so memorably played by Al Pacino in the Godfather films: “Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer.”

It’s shadow energy secretary Flint, arguably the most avowedly Blairite of anyone in the field, who may emerge as a pivotal figure in the party should Corbyn win, irrespective of whether she is elected as the party’s deputy leader.

But it’s true to say that Flint has conducted her campaign like Corbyn, in an issue-driven and non-personalised way, albeit with a different political stance.

Although it’s likely Flint will attract much support from Blairites, she has as yet sensibly stayed away from making rash statements about refusing to serve in the shadow cabinet of a leader such as Corbyn.

In terms of her general effectiveness as a Labour shadow minister and overall performance in the deputy leadership contest, Flint deserves a top role on merit regardless of who is elected as leader.

Corbyn could seek to co-opt Flint with an offer of whichever shadow cabinet job she wanted – perhaps shadow foreign secretary – if she agreed to act to dissuade fellow Blairites from making trouble for the left-wing leadership.

Despite making counterproductive attacks on Corbyn, Yvette Cooper would be a good call as shadow chancellor, given her experience as chief secretary to the Treasury at the time the last Labour government nationalised part of the UK banking sector.

Cooper has probably been the most strident and effective in the leadership contest in rebutting suggestions that Gordon Brown’s government over-spent and caused the banking collapse.

As for Andy Burnham, Corbyn would have to least have to offer him one of the other big portfolio positions.

Tactically Corbyn as Labour leader could also do worse than offer senior positions to senior shadow cabinet ministers such as Rachel Reeves, Vernon Coaker, and Gloria De Piero – all of who have played leading role in the respective campaigns of Burnham, Cooper and Kendall.

The highly rated Dan Jarvis – a former paratrooper who many within Labour had wanted as party leader – would be well placed for a senior campaign role perhaps as chairman of the party or even as chief whip in the Commons, in charge of party discipline.

Some Corbyn supporters would perhaps baulk at the idea of giving so many top roles to Labour figures of a centrist persuasion and would instead want as many Corbyn allies placed in as many senior roles as possible. But Corbyn’s measured approach during the leadership campaign suggests that he will be keen to carry people with him as leader.

Interventions in the contest from New Labour ultras such as Blair, Lord Mandelson and Alan Milburn suggest that there are those who will never accept a Corbyn-led Labour Party.

However, given the nature of the UK’s first past the post electoral system, which makes it very difficult for smaller party to thrive, it is unlikely that there will be a repeat of the right-wing split from Labour in the early 1980s which saw the creation of the ill-fated SDP, whatever noises may be made.

With large sections of the media likely to savage his leadership from day one, Corbyn will know that having a fight on a second front within his own party would divert him from his primary aim of winning a general election.