Unity or uniformity: the shadow cabinet decides

First published on Progressonline

It seemed clear to me at Labour party conference that Jeremy Corbyn did not know how to lead. His shrill demands for followership are not a replacement for leadership. ‘Unity’ demands something to unite around – a programme, a political strategy and plan for getting Labour into government.

But leadership is also about being both shepherd and sheepdog. Not just setting out a path – which Corbyn is still yet to do – but finding ways to bring the stragglers along with you – which, it seems, he is yet to try.

In trying to sack Jon Ashworth from Labour’s National Executive Committee he rides roughshod over the all-important Labour rulebook and sticks up two fingers to those who backed Owen Smith this summer. Those who, he says, should unite behind him.

For the 62 per cent who voted Corbyn this summer, they get their leader at Labour’s top table and two out of the three NEC members chosen by the shadow cabinet. But that is not enough for this leader. As he seeks to strip, via press release, Ashworth from the party’s ruling body, he reveals his true hand: that he believes leadership is a winner-take-all game. That he has little respect for those who once dissented but are willing to return. That he views his colleagues who are prepared to rejoin his frontbench not in good faith but as fodder against the Tories and nothing more.

But in its meeting tomorrow the shadow cabinet has the chance to show the unity preached on our television screens. Who represents them on the NEC is in their gift, not the leader’s. As Ashworth has not resigned from the shadow cabinet, they have a choice. Either unity – by allowing Ashworth to continue – or uniformity – and sending out the message that there is only one view from here on in. If they go for the former the shadow cabinet, as a collective body, have a responsibility to show that diverse opinions are respected in Labour and that they will not simply rubberstamp the leader’s every edict.

Corbyn and his supporters like to paint themselves as the victims, but in sacking Ashworth, who stayed loyal all summer, they present themselves as the aggressor. It is neither attractive nor the force for unity they are trying to demand. Will the shadow cabinet stand up and be counted, or stand by while one of their number is sacked with their consent?

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Richard Angell is director of Progress. He tweets at @RichardAngell

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