This week has seen some curious developments in both the Government and Opposition. The most curious was Jeremy Corbyn’s attempt to reshuffle his front bench. He took three days to sack two Shadow Ministers – Michael Dugher and Pat McFadden.
This had nothing to do with their competence and everything to do with their disagreements with him, which were deemed to be evidence of disloyalty. Three other less senior members of the Shadow team resigned in response. Maria Eagle, the Shadow Defence Secretary, was moved to the Culture, Media and Sport brief and replaced by Emily Thornberry, who shares Corbyn’s views on defence.
Underlying these changes were differences of opinion about Trident and the decision to authorise air-strikes against Daesh in Syria. Current party policy, published in the election manifesto, supports replacing Trident but Corbyn wants to scrap it altogether. He has said that if he were Prime Minister he would never use nuclear weapons so there is no point in having them. That is a principled position but if he wants party policy to be changed he should initiate an open debate with the many Labour MPs who disagree. In his party conference speech Mr Corbyn said his election as leader was ‘a vote for change in the way we do politics’. He wanted ‘politics that’s kinder, more inclusive.’ He hoped for ‘real debate, not necessarily message discipline all the time – but above all, straight talking’. He was right, which makes sacking those who disagree with him on specific issues totally inconsistent.
Some commentators are suggesting that Corbyn is more interested in the party’s grassroots which is the powerbase that voted him into leadership, not the Parliamentary party many of whom did not vote for him. It is alleged that he wants to shift the primary responsibility for policy making away from MPs to the party’s National Executive, where he has stronger support. The problem with this is that the MPs are democratically elected by their constituencies whilst the NEC is not. That does not matter whilst the party is in Opposition, but it would if it is ever to win office again.
The other curiosity was David Cameron’s announcement that Ministers could campaign for Britain leaving the EU without resigning from the Government. That breaches the long established convention of collective responsibility which requires Ministers to resign if they disagree with Government policy. Some reports suggest that Cameron was forced into this announcement but Downing Street denies this. It is no secret that a significant number of Conservative MPs and a handful of Ministers want us to quit the EU, but their election manifesto promised renegotiation of Britain’s EU membership and a referendum before the end of 2017. If they now back leaving regardless of the outcome of the negotiations, should they not have the courage of their convictions and resign before campaigning against Government policy.
Cynicism about politicians is widespread and these developments do nothing to change that. A stronger culture of servant hood by those who govern us, would help to breathe new life into British democracy and encourage more of us to take our civic duties seriously.