The shadow cabinet is bracing itself for a “revenge reshuffle” in the aftermath of Labour’s victory in the Oldham byelection, with key senior figures voicing fears they will be sacrificed by Jeremy Corbyn to kill dissent.
Labour’s surprisingly emphatic win on Thursday has given Corbyn and his supporters renewed confidence, leaving some of his most high-ranking critics in the party uneasy about their futures. One shadow cabinet minister told friends: “I am expecting a busy Christmas, and a very quiet new year.”
Sources at the top of the party said there were fears that an emboldened Corbyn would now try to stamp his authority on the party and “pick off” dissenters. Frontbenchers have already been emailed with a reminder of their duty to respect the leadership’s wishes, it is understood. Corbyn’s office has also made it clear to the shadow cabinet that they “know who has been briefing” against the leader.
Meanwhile, in a sign of continuing tension following a tumultuous past week that saw the party split over airstrikes on Islamic State in Syria only to bounce back in the byelection, senior figures say chief whip Rosie Winterton is coming in for most private criticism from Corbyn allies.
Shadow culture secretary Michael Dugher, shadow Northern Ireland secretary Vernon Coaker and shadow defence secretary Maria Eagle are also considered vulnerable if Corbyn makes changes. Sources close to the leadership suggested that they believed Corbyn would conduct a reshuffle in the new year, having allowed sufficient time to elapse from last week’s row over Syria, in order to avoid deepening divisions.
It is understood, however, that attempts to remove individual members of the shadow cabinet could provoke a walkout by their senior colleagues, many of whom are exasperated by Corbyn’s attempts to mobilise members behind him in order to force MPs into line over Syria and other policy issues.
Writing in the Observer, the shadow chancellor and close Corbyn ally, John McDonnell, appears to reject any suggestion of recriminations, claiming the party is thriving through open expression of opposing views. But he demands that MPs at all levels of the party now “unite around the new politics”, adding “there is no going back.”
McDonnell says that ordinary Labour members will have more power, however much MPs may resist. He paints the change as part of a deliberate and sweeping reform of the party’s traditionally centralised operation. “The new leader was also elected with an overwhelming mandate on a political programme that seeks to take the party in a direction that reflects the current views of party members,” he writes.
“At the same time this platform explicitly seeks to transform the party from the traditional centralised party organisation into something more akin to a mass social movement, responding to the rising demand for greater activist engagement.” He adds: “Of course, people get anxious in these situations and can feel threatened. Who wouldn’t? Nevertheless the majority in every section of the party, including the parliamentary Labour party, are embracing this new energetic movement to update our party for the new century.”
Corbyn won the Labour leadership less than three months ago with a huge mandate from party members, but without the support of most MPs in the parliamentary party. He and McDonnell now see their grip on power as resting with a vibrant and active membership.
McDonnell also attacks those he says misrepresent lobbying of MPs by members and activists as threatening.
“The media has seized upon the lobbying tactics of some who clearly haven’t got it yet about our new politics,” McDonnell writes. “There is no place in political life for threats or abuse and we will not tolerate them. At the same time those that want to make mischief by misreporting or misrepresenting organisations and events do us no favours either.”
Meanwhile, the former shadow education secretary, Tristram Hunt, will make a major speech on Monday in an effort to claim that inequality is a centre ground issue that mainstream Labour MPs should see as central to rebuilding the party.
He praises a passage in Corbyn’s annual conference speech in which the Labour leader argued that people “don’t have to take what we’re given”. Hunt adds: “However, I should be clear that, whilst there may well be some within our party who see equality as an end in and of itself, I am not one of them … The fundamental task of progressive politics remains to ensure the opportunities enjoyed by the powerful are spread to the powerless.”
Hunt, who will call for a new focus by Labour on taxing unearned wealth, including an annual tax on property values levied on owners to replace the “unfair and outdated” council tax, will also say that both New Labour and Ed Miliband’s Labour failed to make an effective case against inequality. “We cannot afford to fail again. Reducing inequality is in the national interest. It is a just fight. A moral mission. What we need is to turn it into a winning argument.”
He will say: “Moral outrage about inequality – although important – is simply not enough. We need to demonstrate much more effectively how it blights ordinary lives, and how it stops people getting on and enjoying a better life. If we are serious about aspiration, serious about opportunity, serious about helping people get on and improve their fortunes, then we need to acknowledge inequality is a barrier to all of those things too. We need to mainstream political anger towards social inequality, and cultivate it into impatience for a better, more equal future.”
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