Tom Richmond: Will Labour learn politics is no game for lightweights?

HERE'S a general knowledge question to begin proceedings: Who are Rebecca Long-Bailey, Angela Rayner and Jon Ashworth?

Is time running out for Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn?

Struggling? Don’t worry, I was when the same question was put to me. Here’s a helping hand. Are they:

the latest nonentities from Celebrity Big Brother or some other reality TV rubbish;

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

unsung heroes from Team GB’s Olympic and Paralympic teams;

cast members of the Bafta-winning film La La Land;

prominent members of Opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn’s dysfunctional Shadow Cabinet?

For the avoidance of the doubt that clearly exists, they are indeed the latter and, at the time of writing, are the respective shadow business, education and health secretaries.

The convulsion in the Opposition’s ranks means it is also not beyond the realms of possibility that their status could have changed overnight.

Yet the fact so many people struggle to name these postholders speaks volumes about the parlous state of the Labour Party. These aren’t minor roles. They’re the MPs who will be running the country in the unlikely event of Labour winning any snap election. Indeed, the past week has seen speculation that Ms Long-Bailey and Ms Rayner have been subjected to ‘focus group’ special treatment to see if they are future leadership material.

However the fact that this triumvirate don’t even feature on the public’s radar is deeply disturbing. In previous political eras, shadow ministers – whether Labour or Tory – were household names who commanded respect. Not any more.

This trio have not been appointed on merit; they’re the only people prepared to serve in Mr Corbyn’s shadow cabinet because they’re the only MPs not to have been sacked or resigned. He’s so weak he can’t even dismiss the whips who rebelled over the triggering of Article 50, even though it is their job to uphold discipline.

It explains why Ms Long-Bailey is, following the latest reshuffle, the fifth person to hold Labour’s business brief since the last election. I’ll spare you from naming the previous four incumbents (Chuka Umunna, Angela Eagle, Jon Trickett and Clive Lewis).

It’s not much better at education, where Ms Rayner has made a virtue out of her lack of academic qualifications. She’s the fourth portfolio holder since 2015 after Tristram Hunt, Lucy Powell and Pat Glass.

And the revolving door to and from the shadow health secretary’s office has seen Mr Ashworth succeed Andy Burnham, Heidi Alexander and Diane Abbott.

I wouldn’t trust some of these appointees with the local parish council.

No wonder the party’s poll ratings go from bad to worse as Labour fights to hold the Copeland and Stoke Central seats in next Thursday’s by-elections.

They are pivotal. If the Cumbrian seat of Copeland falls to the Tories after former shadow health minister Jamie Reed decided his prospects were best served by a job at the Sellafield nuclear plant, it will be the first time a governing party has won a seat off the main opposition since the Tories exploited the Labour / SPD split and took Mitcham and Morden from Labour in 1982 – the only other post-war occurrences were at Sunderland South (1953); Brighouse and Spenborough (1960) and Bristol South East (1961).

Equally embarrassing would be the loss of Stoke Central to Ukip leader Paul Nuttall after Tristram Hunt chose to become director of London’s Victoria and Albert Museum – it would send political shockwaves across the North.

Yet these are not marginal seats. They’re traditional working class constituencies that Labour should be winning by a landslide, and narrow victories will, at best, only provide temporary respite for the party.

However the ineffectiveness of shadow ministers means the only tangible opposition to Theresa May is coming from the media, her own backbenchers on the question of Brexit, the Scottish Nationalists and the Labour ‘big beasts’ who feel unable to serve Mr Corbyn. And it is the reaction of this latter group that will shape the fallout from the by-elections which are effectively votes on Mr Corbyn’s leadership.

Prominent individuals who have previously not been afraid to express their disquiet at Labour’s lurch to the hard left, they have tempered their language of late by highlighting their leader’s stance on the NHS and his rare triumph over Mrs May at PMQs last week.

The reason for this Faustian pact is this: they want Mr Corbyn to accept responsibility when the public deliver their verdict and do not want to afford him any ‘get out of jail free’ cards.

By doing so, they hope Mr Corbyn will accept the invidiousness of his position and have the humility to step aside, even if this necessitates a third leadership contest in as many years and the risk of another left-wing candidate being selected after the trade unions, and socialist groups like Momentum, exploited changes to membership rules 
to increase their influence.

Party politics shouldn’t be a game. Good governance demands effective opposition. Yet, by abdicating its responsibilities and appointing lightweights to heavyweight positions, Labour is increasingly viewed as unelectable by everyone except the most diehard socialists.

The sooner Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership is put out of its misery, the better. The tantalising question is by whom? If only I, or anyone else, knew the answer...