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Monday, September 14, 2015 

Strange days indeed.

We live in strange times.  David Cameron, only a matter of weeks ago referring to migrants as a "swarm", now drops in on refugee camps in Lebanon and Jordan to make clear just how much he cares.  Not enough to take in more than 4,000 Syrian refugees in a year, obviously, and he had the temerity to call on the rest of the EU to throw more money into the same camps many are desperate to leave having spent years there already, but it's the thought that counts, isn't it?  A 66-year-old embraced by the young appoints a frontbench shadow cabinet team that couldn't look less representative of said people who made him leader, and instead the media (and many already bitter Labour MPs) focus only on the the fact he didn't give any women a "top" job.  A media that has failed just as abysmally as the rest of us to work out how and why things are happening as they are doesn't think that for a moment at least it ought to be humble itself, admit its mistakes and tone down the silliness just a tad.

Except these events aren't strange at all.  They're the old normal masquerading as the new normal.  A prime minister reacting, rather than staying ahead of the curve.  Cameron might in fact already be battling yesterday's moment, as Germany and other EU states withdraw if only temporarily from the Schengen agreement, if partly to try to force their quota system for refugees on the recalcitrant eastern European states.

There are also good arguments for Jeremy Corbyn sticking to his promise to John McDonnell to make him shadow chancellor, not least that as we've learned from Blair and Brown, Brown and Darling, and Miliband and Balls, a leader and chancellor that either don't get along at all or don't trust each other cannot work in the long run.  All the same, it's not so much McDonnell's economic stance that's the problem as it is his reputation for rubbing his colleagues up the wrong way - while Corbyn was at least regarded warmly, with few having bad things to say about him personally as opposed to about his politics, McDonnell was a "shit".  McDonnell could easily have been given another "top" job, with Angela Eagle instead appointed shadow chancellor in an effort to reach out somewhat to the party.  That sadly hasn't happened.

To be fair, Corbyn is in a bind.  Some of those who said they wouldn't serve can happily be dismissed, like your Tristram Hunts and Emma Reynolds, while others will be missed.  It seems odd that Yvette Cooper has agreed to head a taskforce into refugees and yet won't consider being a shadow minister, and it's an especial shame that Chuka Umunna decided he couldn't remain in the cabinet, as Corbyn reportedly wouldn't give a commitment on campaigning to remain in the EU come what may.  There are some surprising names in there as well, Luciana Berger, a former director of Labour Friends of Israel, obviously deciding that she can serve in the cabinet of a man smeared as describing Hamas and Hezbollah as "friends" without any problems.  Having shadow ministers for mental health, and young people and voter registration, is also a decent, reforming move, if possibly influenced by the promise to make the cabinet gender balanced.

The claim made from the Corbyn team that it's an 19th century outlook to focus on the "great offices" of state is nonetheless obfuscatory crap, albeit in response to similarly nonsensical complaints.  It was after all the Labour membership that decided three men should be leader, deputy leader and London mayoral candidate, and it would be worth asking precisely who those complaining on Twitter about the lack of women in the top jobs voted for themselves (seeing as my choices ended up being Kendall and Creasy, as neither were redistributed, my conscience is clear here).  It doesn't seem to matter that Corbyn's cabinet, slight cheating on the aforementioned roles aside, is 52% female, whereas Harriet Harman's was 47% (Cameron's is 33%), as there simply must be a woman as either chancellor, home secretary or foreign secretary.  Defence, education, health, all now occupied by women, don't count.  Why, says Glenys Thornton, "In 1980s the ultra left believed feminism was a middle class construct diverting energy from the main class struggle".  And anyone who thinks that's even more absurd now than it was then only needs to read the recent Graun write-up on the meeting between contemporary feminist heroine Roxane Gay and Erica Jong, or rather don't, as it'll make you want to blow your head off.

This said, it doesn't look good, and it remains an open question whether those who voted for Corbyn in such numbers will retain their faith in him if his team doesn't perform better than it looks.  While there is something to be said for having open, friendly disagreements on policy, such is the level of antipathy there has come to be for always on message politicians, it's hardly going to radiate an image of certainty, especially when a vast part of the media, having learned nothing and forgotten nothing is set on doing little other than carrying on as before, only more so.  Corbyn's refusal to answer questions from Sky last night becomes just that teensy more understandable when the same reporter then admits he was eavesdropping outside the room where the shadow cabinet was being put together, asking Corbyn every hour how it was going when he came out.  Having helped to foment the silliness over the "lack" of women, it's not very surprising Corbyn then declined to entertain his questions.  There is little more pathetic than seeing a journalist resort to the age old line of "we'll go away as soon as you answer our questions" when both they and the pursued know full well they have no intention whatsoever of doing so.

Not that this was anything quite on the scale of the claims flooding Twitter yesterday that Jews would be getting their own shadow minister, and perhaps Muslims would also.  This made it as far as the Sun's leader column, and just as Corbyn's failure to include women was evidence of him being an 80s throwback, so too was this proof positive of a return to the good old days of the loony left.  Come today, and strangely, no minister for Jews, Muslims, or black one-armed lesbians.  In any case, considering that according to the Sun's front page Corbyn intends to abolish the army and that in the view of the Conservatives Labour is now a threat to our national security, it quickly becomes apparent that the only way to respond to something quite remarkable happening to Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition is to turn up the volume so you can't hear the background noise suggesting this might not just be the left in a generational funk, but something universal.

After all, those 4 million votes for UKIP in May have been forgotten very quickly indeed.  As Chris Bertram points out, Corbyn's astonishing margin of victory is of a piece with the turn to parties both new and old, of both the populist left and right across Europe.  I've been sniffy in the past about politicians criticising themselves for being enveloped in the bubble, on the grounds that it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy; start believing you're crap and people are hardly going to demur.  My other reasoning was that regardless of how many people are pissed off with the centrist consensus, the election proved there is still a big enough minority that will favour it when it comes to the moment itself.  That there might only be room for one such party, and we have a system that allows that one party to dominate the rest might seem like a counsel of despair, but it doesn't have to be.  If Corbyn can appeal to those 4 million UKIPers, the Greens, the SNPers, then he and Labour have a chance.  It could equally be those Tory voters remain the not so silent majority, and like it or not, remain well catered for regardless of the dramatic shifts since the 2008 crash.  Corbyn has in the region of 100 days in which to define himself to an electorate that up till now wasn't really interested; after then attitudes will be all the more difficult to shift, failing a Tory meltdown.  It hasn't exactly been an auspicious start, expected idiocy and hysterical bias aside.

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