11 December 2015

What the Shadow Cabinet can learn from the cast of Friends


What do Hilary, Maria, Rosie, Vernon, Chris and Michael all have in common with Monica, Ross, Rachel, Chandler, Joey and Phoebe?

They should all stick by their Friends.

With talk of a Shadow Cabinet reshuffle being planned in revenge on Labour frontbenchers who defied Jeremy Corbyn on the vote to bomb Syria, the likes of Hilary Benn, Maria Eagle and Rosie Winterton would be wise to learn some lessons from the cast of the hit TV series Friends.

Soon after the US sitcom became a worldwide success, way back in 1996, the six leading cast members decided to band together to get a salary increase, insisting that they would not accept any deal that was not offered to all six of the ensemble. They figured that their network, NBC, could not risk losing all six of the cast so would cave into their demand for a $1m salary per episode for each of the six actors. And they were right.

That is precisely the tactic that key members of Jeremy Corbyn’s Shadow Cabinet should be following if, as many predict, the Labour leader seeks to selectively cull his cast of Shadow Ministers in the coming weeks.

Mr Corbyn is said to be plotting to reshuffle the frontbench to remove his enemies from positions of power a mere matter of months after he appointed them. The purge is expected within weeks, most likely in the New Year when enough water has passed under the bridge for the leadership to disingenuously claim the demotions have nothing to do with the Syria vote.

This is about power pure and simple. Mr Corbyn and his allies feel they cannot simply sit back and accept the highly damaging revolt by many senior Labour MPs. Already bruised by being forced by his Shadow Cabinet to back down from a whipped vote against the bombing, as Mr Corbyn had wanted, the decision of 66 Labour MPs – including 21 frontbenchers – to vote with the Tories to back military action has infuriated the leader and his acolytes.

Among those who could be heading for the chop are Shadow Foreign Secretary Hilary Benn, Shadow Defence Secretary Maria Eagle, Shadow Northern Ireland secretary Vernon Coaker, Shadow Commons Leader Chris Bryant and Shadow Culture Secretary Michael Dugher, who all voted with the Government to extend bombing raids into Syria, as well as Shadow Chief Whip Rosie Winterton, who abstained.

The Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, whom many see as the power behind the throne, has of course publicly denied there will be any recriminations but his coded demands that Labour MPs now “unite around the new politics” is seen as a thinly veiled threat to moderates to toe the line – or face the consequences.

Here is where the lessons of the cast of Friends come in. When Mr Corbyn moves to purge his first Shadow minister, they must all stand firm together. The message must be clear: either they all stay or they all go.

Mr Corbyn is said to have been emboldened by Labour’s victory in the Oldham by-election last week, mistakenly believing it was an endorsement of his leadership. But if he thinks he can now afford to lose half of his front bench team in one fell swoop, he is sorely mistaken.

If Labour moderates have any backbone at all, they must stand up to their party leader and refuse, like the cast of Friends, to be played one by one. There may not be millions of pounds or worldwide fame at stake but, for Labour MPs, the future and credibility of their party should be something worth fighting for.

Julia Hartley-Brewer is a journalist and broadcaster. A former political editor and LBC Radio presenter, she is a regular on TV shows such as Question Time and Have I Got News For You, and on Radio 4’s Any Questions.