First published on the Huffington Post
Emily Thornberry, keen to prepare the ground for moving on from the ‘chaos and distraction’ of the leadership election, has written a very private message to all her Islington South and Finsbury Labour followers on Facebook, a message which managed to find its way to the Guardian. It contains a ‘plea’ to her ‘fellow MPs’ to ‘stop the internal division, unite as a party, and take the fight to the Tories together’. Given that Thornberry now occupies a senior position in the party, as shadow foreign secretary, her words matter for how the party regroups after the election result.
Yet, the first thing she does is in her message is to attack her colleagues. She writes that, ‘where I have had disagreements with [Jeremy Corbyn], I have always found him and his team willing to get around a table, listen, reflect and discuss a way forward. Perhaps she even believes what she is saying. But she still adds to this the mother of all caveats: ‘And as long as that is possible, I would never consider walking away from that table.’
So if Corbyn was not ‘willing to … listen, reflect and discuss’ she would resign. Is that not exactly the experience of Heidi Alexander, Lillian Greenwood, Thangam Debbonaire and Chi Onwurah? Maybe Thornberry simply does not mind an occasional sit-in outside the leader’s office to get a response on her policy area. Her fellow MPs should not have had to do just this, but apparently they should have remained loyal to incompetence anyway.
Meanwhile, though Thornberry calls for total loyalty to the democratically elected leader come what may (the point at which MPs are to again use their own judgement and form their own views remains unclear), she has a different standard when address the democratically elected Deputy Leader, her fellow shadow cabinet member who she feels content to attack as part of the new politics.
Her readers are called upon to remain loyal to the shadow foreign secretary’s constituency neighbour rather than to the party whose banner has allowed them both to serve in parliament for so long. In particular, Thornberry exhibits a deep shame at being Labour and falls into the trap of attacking the party rather than celebrating it. Her suggestion that 2004 was Labour’s low point is insulting. Ignore that, just one year later, Labour won a majority of 60 that David Cameron or Theresa May would have given their right arm for.
Ignore too that 2004 was the culmination of seven years of a Labour government that did much to make members proud and to convince voters to keep backing it. Ignore that in 2004 the government passed the Children’s Act, allow legal recognition of gender reassignment and passed the hunting ban and much, much more. Ignore that there were still six more years of Labour in which great advances were made like civil partnerships, the 0.7 per cent international aid spending commitment and the creation of the Future Jobs Fund. Instead, in a further display of party leadership’s absorption with themselves rather than with serving the public, she argues that in those days the party ‘hierarchy and leadership were totally detached from the party’s membership’. She cannot have it both ways; the party members were either ‘alienated, demoralised and ignored’ or they were ‘knocking on doors’ and returning Labour MPs, like her own narrow victory against a Liberal Democrat in 2005.
Equally, it is simply an insult to all concerned to suggest that tuition fees, let alone anti-terrorism legislation following 9/11or 7/7 and the Iraq war, were proposed in order to somehow ensure that Labour party ‘members were deliberately antagonised’. For someone who backs up a party leader who has overseen such divisiveness in just one year and lost Labour 2.5 million voters in the same time period is a joke.
Finally, Thornberry does her best to channel Donald Trump with an anti-establishment rhetoric that more than jars with her occupation of the role of shadow foreign secretary. Her railing against the National Executive Committee in particular is bizarre. Corbyn enjoys a 19-14 majority on the NEC. To Thornberry’s annoyance, the leader and some of his supporters cannot sit in the meeting long enough to see through their role as the new Labour establishment. I even hear that on the occasion those who are loyal to Corbyn on the NEC do not agree with every single word and vote not as they are told. Who would have thought it? Corbyn is not just on the ballot as the leader, he remains in post with over £5m of Short Money at his disposal.
She pleads that it is ‘time to unite as a party’ and then demands the status quo that is so clearly not working. How do Alexander, Greenwood, Debbonaire and Onwurah go back and serve having been treated so badly? How would Angela Eagle, who has had a brick through her office window, or Hilary Benn who was sacked in the middle of the night? The list goes on.
The shadow foreign secretary could have been part of Labour moving on from this failed experiment. Instead, as time will tell, she has called it wrong, again.