While the debates got under way between Labour’s current leader Jeremy Corbyn and his challenger Owen Smith, the attention of the outside world was on other matters, prominent among which was the release of Young Dave’s resignation honours list. Or rather, that attention should have been focused thus, but instead the media has homed in on the one Labour nomination for a gong, former director of Liberty, Shami Chakrabarti.
Shami Chakrabarti ((c) BBC)
There are few better qualified to bolster the ranks of Labour’s peers than Ms Chakrabarti, and we should not lose sight of that. But the way this appointment has been handled speaks volumes about the current state of the party, the appalling lack of communication by the leader’s office, the inability to tackle issues when they first appear (rather than leaving them to gain traction), and a tone deafness to real world opinions and events.
Let’s take the problems for Labour one at a time.
Corbyn had previously said there was no need to nominate peers. His first instinct was to concentrate on reforming the Lords, but now he has changed tack. He didn’t give a promise or commitment, as some of the opportunists are claiming today, but as with so much about this appointment, it does not look good.
The peerage nomination was leaked. Ms Chakrabarti was asked a number of times about whether her name had been put forward for a peerage in the weeks leading up to her report on anti-Semitism in the Labour Party being presented. This became an open secret. That is not good enough.
Tom Watson was kept out of the loop. The decision to put Ms Chakrabarti’s name forward was kept from Labour’s deputy leader. That meant Watson only had Corbyn’s previous statements to go on, and as he’d heard nothing to suggest otherwise, even after Cameron’s resignation honours list was leaked, he went on a media offensive yesterday, giving Dave some well-deserved stick, only to have his own side pull the rug out from under him today. That is inexcusable.
The claims of Labour anti-Semitism were allowed to take root. Corbyn, of all politicians, has an unswerving commitment to tackle any form of bigotry, racism, religious hatred, sexism, or any other kind of discrimination or hatred. But when accusations of anti-Semitism were made soon after he became leader, he failed to confront them adequately. This has spilled over into the row over Ms Chakrabarti’s peerage.
A golden opportunity to land a blow on the Tories has gone begging. After Tom Watson’s interventions earlier this week, the issue of Cameron’s resignation honours list was an open goal that Labour could not miss. Even supportive papers like the Mail have been enraged by Dave’s largesse. But Labour has accompanied their putting through an open goal with then running up the field and putting in their own net.
All this has come together in terrible media coverage. Instead of the focus being on the Tories, we have the Chief Rabbi and representatives of the Board of Deputies of British Jews lining up to talk - wrongly - of Ms Chakrabarti’s report into anti-Semitism within Labour as a “whitewash”, when it was no such thing. But the impression that Labour was not doing enough about anti-Semitism had been allowed to go unchallenged for so long. So media coverage starts from that point, whether or not it is correct.
Previous Labour leaders have made mis-steps, but this is far worse. Pa Broon was notorious for being accident-prone. Mil The Younger forgot parts of speeches, left his notes for the Sun to pick up, and tripped stepping off a stage on Question Time. But Corbyn’s leadership is in a class of its own when it comes to pitching Labour MPs into despair. He and his office are failing totally to communicate - as in both talking, and listening - with the rest of the Parliamentary party.
The legacy of this mess will be significant. Ms Chakrabarti will have her name needlessly tarnished. Labour MPs will mostly remain hostile to Corbyn’s leadership. The possibility of further antagonism will remain high. The Party will take that much longer to heal. And all the while, the Tories will get a free pass, with Theresa May’s greatest problem being the Europhobes on her own benches who are congenitally unable to understand that leaving the European Union is rather more complex than a snap of the fingers job.
The mess created by Jeremy Corbyn nominating Shami Chakrabarti for a peerage is entirely of his own making, and that of his inner circle. It is for them to sort themselves out, and do so in short order. If not, there will be a repeat, with the certainty of night following day. And that would - make that will - be unforgivable.