Andy Sawford: Labour's reshuffle debacle points to worrying signs for party's image

Labour needs to learn lessons from its high-profile shadow cabinet reshuffle this week, writes former Labour MP and shadow minister turned PR Andy Sawford

Team Corbyn has a lot to learn about winning arguments, says Andy Sawford
Team Corbyn has a lot to learn about winning arguments, says Andy Sawford

What surprised me most about Jeremy Corbyn's reshuffle was how much attention the Westminster village paid to it.

As journalists stood in the corridors by the Leader of the Opposition's office for 48 tortuous hours waiting for news, the PM announced his ministers would have a free hand in the EU referendum, the Chinese stock market was suspended, Obama tearfully asserted he would introduce greater gun control and North Korea (allegedly) tested a hydrogen bomb. Through all of this, the Twittersphere, political blogs and even the BBC nightly news seemed gripped by the latest machinations from team Corbyn.

Were they, and perhaps we, right to care? It is still more than four years out from the next election, and even if Corbyn makes it that far as leader, many of the shadow cabinet won't, so the reshuffle is not really shaping a future government.

Oppositions do matter though; they can help create the weather, as we saw when Labour helped force George Osborne's climbdown over tax credits.

There is a link between the big picture news stories this week and the reshuffle. On Europe, in the lead up to the referendum, Labour has retained a noisily pro-EU foreign secretary in Hilary Benn, despite losing a brilliantly talented Europe minister in Pat McFadden, who, it seems, was sacked for comments about terrorism.

And talking of nuclear bombs, as they are in Pyongyang, Labour now has its first unilateralist defence secretary in more than 30 years, to help Corbyn oppose Trident renewal. When the Trident 'maingate' decision comes, the parliamentary arithmetic will be tighter if Labour whips against renewal and the SNP joins it in the lobbies, but it won't have enough votes to defeat the Government.

In other changes, I am very sorry to see Michael Dugher, Jonny Reynolds and Stephen Doughty leave the frontbench; they are all very talented and it is a worrying sign of the state of the Labour Party that they are being squeezed out.

Similarly, Kevan Jones' understandable decision that he couldn't remain in the shadow defence team is a loss. John McDonell's awful reaction to the resignations, seeking to demean his former colleagues by saying they are part of a "right-wing sect", only served to diminish the shadow chancellor himself. What he, and the rest of team Corbyn, need to learn fast is that you don't win arguments by putting your fingers in your ears and sticking your tongue out at those who disagree with you – and you certainly don't win elections that way.

Andy Sawford is CEO of Connect Communications. He was Labour MP for Corby from 2012 until 2015 and was shadow minister for local government and cities

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