First published on the Times Redbox
Putting aside all the usual criticism of his past, and acknowledging Ken Livingstone’s positives as a campaigner and a politician – not least his response to the 7/7 attacks in London – still does not explain his latest appointment to Labour’s defence review. At last night’s Left Book Club relaunch, he announced himself as co-convenor alongside Maria Eagle, the shadow secretary of state.
Of all the people Jeremy Corbyn could have appointed – for those not versed in Labour internal workings, most commissions have a National Executive Committee member as a co-convenor – he definitely has not gone for a representative of one the unions whose members’ jobs depend on the defence industry. He has even snubbed Margaret Beckett, the former foreign secretary, who nominated him in June and sits on Labour’s management committee.
No, Corbyn’s choice is Livingstone. And his choice was announced the day after Livingstone repeated the familiar, flawed leftist belief that tragic terrorist attacks such as those in Paris are the West’s own fault. He told BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, “the endless interventions of Britain and America and France in Arab countries that has come back to haunt us”.
Let’s not pretend that the former mayor of London’s appointment is anything other than provocative. It was designed to be symbolic, to send a message. The question is what message?
MPs agreed to serve in new leader’s shadow cabinet knowing Eagle was leading the defence review. Two months later the addition of Livingstone is another breach of trust between the leader and the parliamentary party and smack in the face for party democracy.
At Labour’s party conference, living, breathing delegates – elected by their local constituency Labour parties and the trade unions – had three opportunities to change our policy on multilateral disarmament. The democratic representatives of the party membership decided to take none of them.
But in this oh-so-new “straight talking, honest politics” era it did not stop the leader using his Andrew Marr pre-conference interview, his leader’s speech and post-conference Laura Kuenssberg interview to make clear his personal views. And the reason for this is that the key votes on the bulk of Trident renewal spending come ahead of Labour party conference 2016.
Team Corbyn are desperate to find a way to flip Labour’s policy on nuclear defence otherwise – for the first time – a free vote will be needed to allow the leader to vote against their own party’s position.
This means they are looking at any mechanism possible. Scottish conference was the first attempt – but it did not really work and has been much less successful at regional conferences elsewhere. A plebiscite among the members has been proposed by Corbynistas – this would be a death nail to Labour party conference and collective voice of trade unions in the party. Two things the hard left might live to regret.
Alternatively, the neo-Bennites will try to recreate the party of the early 1980s when their hero – Tony Benn himself – was chair of the home policy committee of the National Executive Committee. If they got these changes, the NEC convenor – potentially Livingstone or someone of his ilk – becomes de facto opposition chief whip and reduces the role of members of parliament to mere delegates and in turn orders them through the lobby to abolish Trident.
So what happens next? Well first a word of warning for anyone who underestimates Eagle’s tenacity and political acumen. The lack of subtlety in the Livingstone move will backfire. For the leader to put someone not exactly known for his defence policy expertise alongside the shadow defence secretary is the sort of political game that Corbyn would have cried foul about in the past.
For the party, the message is clear: all that talk of democracy is well and good but if Team Corbyn doesn’t like the way things are going, then one of the old guard will big-foot their way in and ensure the leader’s views get maximum amplification, so as to try and subvert due process.
As for the public, they will see Corbyn’s comments on security, combined with Livingstone’s appoint to write Labour’s defence policy, with at best bemusement and worst serious concern. Actually, delete that. My worry is the public have already heard enough from our leadership on security and made their mind up on Corbyn’s Labour.
Richard Angell is director of Progress