Westminster Watch

After an eventful week in Parliament, Mark Hatcher looks at Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership triumph, the end of New Labour and the legal landscape of all the parties

Who would have thought that two of the less well known members of the Commons’ Justice Committee in the last Parliament could or would transform politics at Westminster? 

The triumph in Labour’s leadership battle of Jeremy Corbyn, the rebellious 66-year-old member for Islington North, and the appointment of John McDonnell as Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, signalled the end of New Labour. Corbyn has spent 30 years on the backbenches. The Leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition, dubbed as a socks and sandles eccentric who named his cat after Harold Wilson, has had no ministerial experience or ever sat on the Opposition front bench. McDonnell, the veteran Labour left-winger who co-ordinated Corbyn’s election campaign, was said in the 1980s to be too left wing even for Ken Livingstone.

For two decades Labour and Conservatives have competed over the centre ground in British politics. Corbyn’s election as the alternative Prime Minister heralds a lurch to the left, back to old Labour. But the 60% mandate from the grass roots members for the new kind of politics and the “fairer, kinder Britain” that Jeremy Corbyn espouses has not been matched by equivalent support in the parliamentary party. Most Labour MPs did not back the new Leader. They believe he will lead them to electoral annihilation in 2020, barring a leadership coup or some spectacular mismanagement by the Conservatives.

Assembling the 16 women and 15 men who comprise Labour’s shadow cabinet was a chaotic affair by all accounts. A number of younger, talented members were simply not prepared to change tack and support a resuscitated old Labour prospectus of state control, high taxation and a command economy.

The re-appointment as Shadow Lord Chancellor of Lord Falconer, who served as Lord Chancellor and the first Secretary of State for Justice under the Blair government, made sense following his appointment to the role by Harriet Harman as acting leader when Sadiq Khan stepped down to pursue his ambition to become Mayor of London. Formerly of Fountain Court Chambers before becoming a partner of US law firm Gibson Dunn & Crutcher, Falconer did much with the then Lord Chief Justice, Lord Woolf, to develop a new relationship between the Judiciary and the Executive under the Constitutional Reform Act 2005. In 2006 he introduced the Bill which became the Legal Services Act 2007, designed to liberalise the provision of legal services and fundamentally re-design the regulatory apparatus of the profession. His experience in government will be much needed and should provide a stabilising influence.

The erstwhile Shadow Attorney General, Emily Thornberry, who nominated Jeremy Corbyn for the leadership, might have expected to be rewarded for her trouble but she was not included in the Shadow Cabinet. On the other hand Catherine McKinnell, who worked as an employment solicitor in a firm in Newcastle before becoming the member for Newcastle on Tyne, has done better. Rapidly promoted to Ed Miliband’s first front bench team as Shadow Solicitor General in October 2010, she has become Shadow Attorney General, replacing Lord Bach.

What effect the leadership changes will have on the justice agenda is currently unclear. As a former Justice Committee member, Corbyn’s awareness of the impact on access to justice of the cuts in both scope and rates of legal aid under the Coalition Government’s LASPO Act, together with his interest in human rights may prove useful in Shadow Cabinet meetings, as will Shadow Chancellor McDonnell’s interest in civil liberties issues. But Labour will be unable to remain permanently in deficit denial.

It is difficult to see how far Labour’s approach to the justice agenda, particularly on funding decisions, might differ from the Conservatives. How Labour responds to the outcome of the forthcoming Spending Review, to be announced on 25 November, will show just how far idealism and pragmatism can combine in practice over the remainder of the Parliament. According to figures published in the Summer Budget 2015, departmental spending is set to fall by £18 billion or 6% between 2015/16 and 2019/20 in real terms, with the result that many departments (health, defence and international development excepted) will see more cuts in their budgets on top of reductions brought in during the previous Parliament.

Corbyn’s first task must be to unite the Labour movement. If he can narrow the current yawning gap between the grass roots and the parliamentary party and if Labour can put up a respectable fight in the May 2016 elections for Mayor of London, the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly, then the lengthy process of recovering from the General Election defeat this May can begin. There is plenty on which party conference delegates returning to Westminster from Brighton will be able to focus their hearts and minds over the coming months, as the party works out what it is for and rebuilds itself.

In the meantime as they gather in Manchester for their conference, the Conservatives will want to avoid the risk of coming across as complacent in the face of Labour’s efforts to address its existential crisis. They have their own share of weaknesses. The perception that the Conservative Party is the party of the rich has increased over the past five years. This needs to be addressed if the party is going to be able to use Labour’s lurch to the left to occupy the centre ground and cement its electoral position in 2020.

The Conservatives will want to project themselves as competent managers of the economy moving out of austerity, into growth. By seizing many of Ed Miliband’s ideas like the “living wage”, there is all to play for if the party is to claim it can genuinely represent “the workers of Britain” of the future. Questions about how far public services can be delivered most fairly and efficiently, the extent to which government should intervene in free markets and what a renegotiated EU membership package might look like for the UK all need to be debated without the party tearing itself apart along old fault lines. The Conservatives also risk adding to their own internal divisions if, as expected, David Cameron fulfils his promise of stepping down before the next General Election.

If so much of life in the village of Westminster is unpredictable, our forecast (Counsel, April 2015) that the former Justice Committee chairman, Sir Alan Beith would move to the House of Lords, proved correct. He joined no fewer than 45 new peers nominated by the party leaders in the dissolution honours list. There are now more than 800 members of the House of Lords, making it the largest parliamentary chamber in any democracy, surpassed in size only by China’s National People’s Congress. The size of the Upper House has prompted calls, including from former BSB Chair, Baroness Deech, to reduce the numbers. One suggestion is to remove Peers who have not spoken which could encourage every peer to try to speak on every subject to retain their seat. An alternative proposal, advocated by David Cameron’s father-in-law, Viscount Astor, is that it might be better to remove some Peers who never stop speaking. ●

It was essential, Gove said, to preserve and strengthen the Bar’s independence

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Mark Hatcher

Mark Hatcher is Special Adviser to the Chairman of the Bar. After working at the Law Commission and in the House of Lords, he became Head of Global Public Affairs at PwC. He is a Bencher of Middle Temple, as well as being a priest. He is Reader of the Temple.