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Age is not just a number: Corbyn’s greying pals

September 1st, 2018

When does he bring the next generation through?

Stalin liked a good purge. Leaving aside his sadistic and psychopathic tendencies, and the fact that they kept population, politicians, military and everyone else in greater or lesser states of constant fear, they also raised him closer to the god-like status he presumably aspired to. Not just because he was ultimately directing events, nor the pseudo-religious worship but the fact that by the late 1930s, he alone remained of the revered revolutionary generation. Everyone else had died naturally, been executed or exiled.

Perhaps surprisingly, the revolution didn’t eat him, despite his own fears. It did, however, eat his methods. After his death, never again would any one man be allowed to become so powerful within the Soviet Union: collectivism was the new order of the day. In future, political infighting would be metaphorical, with those losing out forced into retirement (Khrushchev) or obscurity (Malenkov and Molotov, for example) – though even there, the political divisions after the immediate post-Stalin years were markedly less sharp.

There was a consequence to that mutual protection society though: the ruling generation – men who came of age filling the gaps created by the Great Purge and then the even greater war – all grew old together. By the 1980s, Moscow was a gerontocracy.

That dynamic isn’t unique to dictatorships, though it does tend to be more prevalent in them as the opportunities to challenge are fewer and the ability for a leader to keep his old trusted colleagues around him longer is greater. Even so, it can happen equally in democracies. It might well be happening in Labour, and for similar reasons.

Corbyn is unassailable as Labour leader for the foreseeable future, no matter what political or polling problems might attend him. Given his strong loyalty to people he sees as on his side, his willingness to overlook their faults and failings because of that solidarity, and Labour’s decision under Ed Miliband to do away with Shadow Cabinet elections, this means that the Shadow Cabinet is unlikely to change much at his instigation.

In particular, his two closest associates – John McDonnell and Diane Abbott – are likely to remain in place in two of the most senior jobs. In the case of McDonnell, that’s not too surprising. He is comfortably the most capable of the three and unlike Corbyn – who remains primarily a protest-politician, defined by what he’s against and happiest when speaking passionately in opposition to his grievance of the day – McDonnell is interested in and adept at using the mechanics of politics to deliver his preferred ends. Even so, by the 2022 general election, McDonnell will be 70 and were Labour to win, he’d become the oldest Chancellor since William Gladstone.

Abbott, by contrast, despite a stellar youth (few black girls went to Cambridge in the 1970s, or were accepted onto the civil service fast-track; she achieved both), has proven woefully ineffective as Shadow Home Secretary. Leaving aside her dismal performance in last year’s general election, her invisibility and lack of impact on both the Grenfell Tower fire and the Windrush deportations allowed the government a much easier ride than could have been the case. By 2022, she will be 68 and, were Labour to win, could easily become the oldest Home Secretary in the 240 years of the office’s history. Even so, Corbyn won’t sack her as it’s against his political style, and if she hasn’t stepped back after what’s already gone, neither will further criticism prompt a resignation: quite the opposite, probably.

Nor are these three alone. Barry Gardiner (61), Andy McDonald (60), Valerie Vaz (63), John Trickett (68), Christina Rees (64) and Tony Lloyd (68) are all into their sixties already, two of whom will be top-side of seventy by 2022.

By contrast, only three of the cabinet are currently eligible for their free bus pass, the oldest of whom is 62 (Philip Hammond), and there’s a very good chance that at least two of those three will be gone by the general election.

Some will argue that age is just a number. To some extent, it is – but not entirely. A brief scan of political leaders in this country or abroad who served beyond seventy, or even sixty-five, is generally to see a list of unpopularity, failures and division. Certainly there are exceptions but they’re notable precisely because they are exceptional. Being a senior politician is hard work and requires high levels of mental, physical and often emotional energy.

Being a government minister – with all the depth of detail demanded and with far less capacity to cheery pick pet topics – is harder still. In addition to constituency duties (which don’t go away although might be picked up more by aides), there’s a treadmill of meetings, receptions, duties in the House, and overnight boxes – and a media and an opposition more than ready and willing to publicly trip the minister up and claim a scalp.

This begs the question: will Corbyn allow his shadow cabinet to age, Soviet-style, or will he look to bring a new generation on? And if so, when? Although his leadership was marked by extreme instability in his front bench during the last parliament, it’s settled down since the election. That instability though was almost entirely down to resignations; he didn’t sack many. We have to assume that the combination of his enhanced mandate and his having a team more ideologically aligned to his own beliefs will limit future resignations. If he doesn’t feel inclined to wield the knife, and it seems unlikely, then yes, that generational change may have to wait until after the election, one way or another. Not for the first time in his life, it’s comfort-zone politics.

Perhaps for the election it won’t matter – the 2017 result was built around Corbyn and just about him alone. 2022 may well be similarly centralised, particularly if there are full-on leaders’ debates next time, as is likely. Maybe he can engage as before but it’s rare in the extreme for such an elderly opposition – not just the leader but so many of his team – to win back power. That’s not to say that Corbyn can’t once again overturn received wisdom but he’s not making it easy for himself.

David Herdson