Andrew Whitaker: Labour figures coming in from cold

Jeremy Corbyn with Jim McMahon after his win for Labour in the Oldham West and Royton by-election. Picture: PA
Jeremy Corbyn with Jim McMahon after his win for Labour in the Oldham West and Royton by-election. Picture: PA
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JEREMY Corbyn could bring senior party figures back from exile ahead of next year’s elections, writes Andrew Whitaker

Labour’s unexpectedly decisive by-election win in Oldham West and Royton last week gave party leader Jeremy Corbyn room to breathe to such a degree that speculation has been rife about a reshuffle of the shadow cabinet.

Despite it being less than three months into his leadership, it was suggested by some commentators that Corbyn was well placed to spend some political capital by ­moving a few more of his allies into senior positions and shifting the pack a little among those of a less supportive persuasion.

It may or may not be too soon to make changes, but were Corbyn to go down such a route it could offer him another opportunity to hold out an olive branch to senior figures in the party who rejected his invitation to serve on the frontbench soon after his election as leader in September.

Big Labour hitters such as Yvette Cooper, Caroline Flint and Rachel Reeves are unlikely to go back on their decision to leave the shadow cabinet simply because Corbyn makes them a second offer, although such an approach would at least show a willingness to build bridges with figures who made no real effort to work with him.

However, there’s another approach Corbyn could make that may force the hand of the senior Labour figures in self-imposed exile that might strengthen his position and make it less likely he’ll face many rebellions in the Parliamentary Labour Party.

With critical elections due next May for parts of local government in England, plus the UK’s devolved parliaments and assemblies and what is likely to be a closely-fought election for London mayor, Corbyn could call on those marooned on the backbenches to come out of the cold and help out the party.

Offering figures like Cooper, Reeves and Flint, all effective operators, the chance to take on lead roles in the campaign on the basis that they could help speak to floating voters or those who it is claimed have drifted away from Labour may be worth a roll of the dice from Corbyn.

Such offers would be hard for the now backbenchers to turn down, given that they are simply being asked to use their skills to help Labour win crucial elections and not just fill a policy portfolio role that involves speaking on behalf of Corbyn and his political platform in the Commons.

It’s also possible that handing the MPs such roles could also enhance Labour’s electoral prospects, given the association of figures like Cooper and Flint with the party’s three general election wins in 1997, 2001 and 2005.

At the same time, Corbyn would have to take great care to ensure the positions offered were substantial roles with the opportunity for whoever is appointed to have a real say over how Labour conducts a particular campaign.

Even for Corbyn-sceptics, Labour’s Oldham West and Royton by-election victory, with its 10,722 majority and increased share of the vote compared with May’s general election, offers an opportunity for the Labour leader to say to doubters that the result at least showed he is not harming the party’s electoral prospects.

It has been suggested by some of Corbyn’s detractors that a challenge to his position could come if Labour fails to gets its candidate, Sadiq Khan, elected as London mayor. Were the ­Conservative MP and multi-millionaire Zac Goldsmith elected, Corbyn would be in for a torrid time for failing to win a city which was one of the areas where Labour fared well in May’s general election under Ed Miliband.

There could also be some benefits in such a worst case scenario of co-opting non-­Corbynite MPs to the official Labour machinery as a way of protecting the leadership against plots to oust it. But in any case it should not be assumed that Corbyn will preside over losses next May, as it’s entirely possible there will be many­ ­voters who want to give the Labour leader a fair hearing due to his challenging the pro-­austerity consensus that appears to be affecting many people not normally on the receiving end of cuts.

Chancellor George Osborne almost certainly took the decision to scrap his controversial plan to cut tax credits – which many said would cost the average working family £1,300 a year – amid concerns it would have an impact on middle income voters inclined towards supporting the Tories.

To harp back to the Oldham West and Royton by-election again, perhaps the election of its new MP, Jim McMahon, who was viewed as having been a highly effective standard bearer for the party, may make it easier for some of the former frontbenchers to take on a more active role once again.

After all, McMahon voted for Labour’s former care spokeswoman, Liz Kendall, in the party’s leadership election – a candidate viewed by many as the most Blairite of all four of those who stood in the contest to succeed Ed Miliband before she quit the shadow cabinet.

If McMahon can do it, why then can’t Kendall? She is in fairness a real talent, despite backing positions that at time seemed distinctively “un-Labour”, such as the Tory government’s welfare benefits cap.

We are forever hearing stories about attempts by Corbyn’s supporters to purge MPs not in tune with the leadership’s thinking, and moves by activists in the pro-Corbyn organisation Momentum to move against them.

For sure there appeared to be some unpleasantness last week directed at Labour MPs, including former deputy leadership candidate Stella Creasy, with allegations of Twitter abuse directed at the Walthamstow MP for her decision to back the expansion of airstrikes to Syria.

But it’s worth pointing out that Corbyn was swift to condemn such activity and there’s no evidence to suggest there is anything even remotely sinister at all about Momentum.

As well as being the right thing to do in terms of leading an inclusive party, offering campaign roles in time for the start of the New Year could also dramatically improve the atmosphere within Labour and go some way to eroding bad feeling.

Former Labour cabinet minister Alan Johnson, who has in the past been associated with the Blairite wing of the party, has already taken on the role of leading his party’s campaign to stay in the European Union.

But while a small minority in the Corbyn camp may feel it would be a mistake to make overtures to those who effectively walked out on the shadow cabinet, there’s also no obvious reason why taking such an approach would lead to any sort of drift to the right in policy terms.