Labour took six weeks to inform MP she was not a shadow minister

Jeremy Corbyn Global Justice

Thangam Debbonaire, the Labour MP who was mistakenly appointed to a shadow ministerial role by Jeremy Corbyn, said she spent six weeks working on her brief while having treatment for cancer before she was told she did not have the job.

Debbonaire, who has since overcome breast cancer, shared her experience on her Facebook page, saying she had been appointed as shadow arts and culture minister without being asked, and was only contacted six weeks later by the Labour leader’s office, who then told her the announcement had been a mistake.

“I told Jeremy: ‘If this is how you treat me when I’ve got cancer, how will you treat me when I haven’t?’” she told the Guardian.

She said she only became aware that she had been given the role when journalists began to call her office. Before publicly denying the story, she rang the Labour whips’ office to check the facts. They told her that it was true, and that Corbyn would be in touch. “It’s a conversation you’d remember,” Debbonaire said. “But he didn’t ring me and continued not to ring me.”

Debbonaire, who is now backing Angela Eagle for the leadership, said she would have turned down the position had she been formally offered it, because of her cancer treatment. She said she would not serve on Corbyn’s frontbench even if he were to win the leadership battle.

Debbonaire said she had feared turning down the role because she anticipated a backlash if she was perceived as being anti-Corbyn. The MP for Bristol West left Twitter after one Corbyn supporter compared her time off for cancer treatment to Corbyn’s week-long holiday during the EU referendum campaign. “If you say anything in public that could even be perceived to be a criticism of Jeremy, they pile in,” she said.

“In my constituency, many people are supporters of Corbyn, and most of them are good, hardworking Labour supporters, but a vocal minority make it their business to criticise. Once I was accused of not supporting him when I wasn’t at a vote, and I was having chemotherapy.”

Over the next six weeks, she said there was no word from Corbyn, so Debbonaire’s office began setting up meetings with arts organisations and began working on a new draft of the arts policy.

Her immediate boss, Maria Eagle, then the shadow culture secretary, tried to deter her, she said. “She kept saying: ‘Jeremy needs to speak to you’ – and the reason, I found out, is because she knew already that I had been removed, but protocol is that the person who removes you has to tell you, quite rightly,” she said. “But I felt a responsibility to start doing something … Jeremy clearly felt no responsibility.”

Corbyn phoned Debbonaire in late March and said the shadow arts and culture minister role would come under Eagle’s brief. He had no further explanation for the miscommunication, Debbonaire said.

“This is not the worst thing in the world – cancer is way worse – but I felt I had to say something because Jeremy is making a big deal in public about how ‘if anyone has a problem they can come talk to me’, but it took him six weeks to phone me and tell me something everyone else already knew.”

In the days after the phone call from Corbyn, a member of his office said Debbonaire could continue with the shadow arts minister brief after all. She ultimately resigned three weeks ago, not because of the miscommunication, but out of anger at Corbyn’s statement the day after the vote to leave the EU that article 50 should be triggered immediately.

“My constituents voted overwhelmingly to stay in the EU,” she said. “Jeremy that morning asked for the earliest possible exit. It was very alienating – it would be a disaster for jobs and trade.”

A spokesperson for Jeremy Corbyn said: “There was some miscommunication over Thangam’s appointment as shadow minister for the arts, and the parameters of her role were subsequently negotiated, but at no point was she sacked.”

Debbonaire’s Facebook account of her hiring and firing was followed less than 24 hours later by a post from the former shadow transport secretary Lilian Greenwood, who described feeling undermined by the leader’s office. Posting a speech that she had given to her local party on her blog, Greenwood said being shadow transport secretary was her dream role and that she had wanted to make it work, despite not having voted for Corbyn’s leadership.

Greenwood said she was furious that a shadow cabinet reshuffle began on the day of rail fare rises, which she and her staff had spent weeks preparing to campaign on. “It let me down, it let my staff down, but most of all it let down the Labour campaigners and trade union members, people like you, who had given up their time to go out campaigning for us that morning,” she wrote.

Greenwood also said she had been assured by Corbyn’s director of policy that he would support HS2, but the Labour leader later suggested to a journalist that the line should not stop in central London. “When I raised my concerns, it was simply shrugged off,” she said. “It undermined me in front of colleagues and made me look weak. It made me feel like I was wasting my time.”

Angela Eagle said in an interview for the Guardian last week how frustrating she had found her work in the shadow cabinet, with Corbyn and the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell. “When I took the business brief, I tried to set up a weekly meeting. They were always in the diary, with John McDonnell, to talk about the economy,” she said.

“Every single one, bar one, in nine months was cancelled. I would wake up and find out that things had been announced in my policy areas in speeches that no one had even asked me about, much less asked what my opinion might be.”

One proposal she said she had never been consulted on was the pledge to bar or restrict companies from distributing dividends unless they paid all workers the living wage, criticised as unworkable even by left-leaning economists such as Danny Blanchflower, who had been on the party’s economic advisory committee.

Eagle said company dividends was a good area for Labour to be looking at, but said the proposal was “a stupid way of doing it, and if anyone had asked me, I’d say it was a good aim but you can’t do it like that – it’s nonsensical”.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Jessica Elgot, for theguardian.com on Monday 18th July 2016 19.58 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010