Euan McColm: Corbyn's shadow cabinet is not fit for purpose

Richard Burgon typifies Labour's front bench team - he's loyal, available, and over-promoted writes Euan McColm
Shadow Justice Secretary Richard Burgon would not answer from John Humphrys over whether he would support illegal strike action.Shadow Justice Secretary Richard Burgon would not answer from John Humphrys over whether he would support illegal strike action.
Shadow Justice Secretary Richard Burgon would not answer from John Humphrys over whether he would support illegal strike action.

Richard Burgon doesn’t have much by the way of presence, does he? On a good day, he has the demeanour of a teenager delighted that it’s Findus crispy pancakes for tea. On a bad one, he’s like that same teenager, cross that his X-Box has been taken away.

This would be well and good were he, say, playing the part of an errand boy in Last of the Summer Wine. But Mr Burgon, as Labour’s shadow Justice Secretary at Westminster, holds one of the most senior positions in the official opposition.

It is a position for which he is evidently unfit.

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Yesterday morning, the shadow Justice Secretary (imagine!) made a brief appearance on Radio 4’s Today programme and was asked whether he would support illegal strike action of the kind that had, just moments before, been discussed on air by union leader Len McCluskey, General Secretary of Unite. Mr McCluskey had said that if the Trade Union Act - which, among other things, requires a turnout of at least 50 per cent in a strike ballot - pushed his organisation outside the law, the Government would have to “stand the consequences”.

Mr Burgon bumbled and blustered, repeatedly refusing to answer the question. This was all hypothetical, he said; what mattered was standing up for the rights of workers and, well, I’m sure you get the picture. You’ll have heard a politician being evasive before.

Today presenter John Humphrys was quite right to pursue Mr Burgon on this matter. We have the right to know whether the shadow Justice Secretary is in favour of illegal acts and, if he is, what scale he’s using.

Mr McCluskey is a high-profile ally of Mr Burgon’s patron, Jeremy Corbyn, which added extra piquancy to the question and made a clear and unequivocal answer all the more necessary.

Doubtless this was a tricky area for Mr Burgon, who represents that strand of the Labour Party which believes that the path to power must be a radical one. Among the shadow justice secretary’s supporters are many who would see no problem at all with the flouting of trade union laws.

But one’s views on the Trade Union Act are neither here nor there, the fact remains that one of the most senior members of the opposition was absolutely incapable of giving a simple answer to a straightforward question.

If you have concerns about the direction in which the current Conservative government is moving under the uncertain leadership of Theresa May then look upon Mr Burgon and despair for he is what passes for “the brightest and best” under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn.

The instinct is to assume Mr Burgon - a heavy metal enthusiast who recently lent his vocal talents to a recording by the little known band Dream Tröll - was being evasive because he had something to hide. But anyone who has witnessed previous interviews with the shadow Justice Secretary might wonder whether the truth is that he simply lacks the confidence and expertise to be able to say anything that deviates from the script handed to him by the leader’s office and so he prefers to say nothing.

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Devoid of presence, slow of wit, Mr Burgon would be a deeply unimpressive middle manager in an out-of-town storage facility. That he holds such a senior position in the parliamentary Labour Party speaks volumes about the calibre of those closest to Jeremy Corbyn.

Labour’s front-bench is quite remarkably poor. Shadow chancellor John McDonnell, shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott, shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry - the cabal of incompetents at the top of the Labour Party takes the breath away.

So lacking in finesse are most of the shadow cabinet that we are asked to consider shadow Brexit Secretary Sir Keir Starmer as a political star. No harm to Sir Keir but he is being judged against a very low bar, indeed.

To the still intensely loyal supporters of Mr Corbyn, anyone who is loyal to the leadership is all right. The glee with which Corbynistas last year watched a raft of talented, experienced former ministers leave the shadow cabinet confirmed that - for many, for now - the Labour Party is Jeremy Corbyn.

To these supporters, Mr Corbyn is always correct and, therefore, anyone he appoints to any position must be exactly the right person for the job. This, when it comes to the majority of members of the shadow cabinet, is clearly not the case.

And just as the Corbyn seal-of-approval defeats any concerns over competence, so scepticism about the leader of the opposition’s capabilities is a mark of political death; many Corbynistas would gladly see former ministers from the last Labour Government (and, for that matter, anyone else who failed to nominate Jezza for leader back in 2015) deselected and replaced by candidates who sing from the currently approved hymn-sheet.

Richard Burgon - a man who looks perpetually as if he is about to exclaim “hiya!” - is over-promoted because he was A) loyal and B) available. The same may be said of any number of those who sit with him at the shadow cabinet table.

The Labour leader’s acolytes continue to work themselves into a frenzy over his great victory in June’s general election which he lost; their shells are impervious to reality, which bounces off and drops dead in the dirt.

But those who’ve put their faith in Jeremy Corbyn should stop and ask themselves whether his team even vaguely resembles a government. Right now, it most assuredly does not.