Corbyn’s big mistake isn’t McDonnell – it’s Burnham

Jeremy Corbyn's shadow Cabinet is only half finished, but already it is being widely ridiculed. His decision to give all the top jobs to men has lost him support among some left wing voters. The new Labour leader will be the first ever to put in place a shadow Cabinet composed mostly of women, but this absence at the top jobs was a major strategic error at a crucial moment. 

On the right, the main outrage is the selection of John McDonnell as shadow chancellor. The press are ecstatic. There's plenty of ammunition to use against him – from supporting the IRA to wishing Margaret Thatcher was dead. And he is resolutely left wing – the first shadow chancellor in some time who believes in the overthrow of capitalism.

Labour rent-a-mouth Charles Clarke went on Today this morning to suggest that his selection showed Corbyn had been lying about forming a broad church. It's nonsense. Apart from Diane Abbott (international development) and McDonnell, all the other figures named are from the centre or right of the party.

The truth is, after years of loyalty and cooperation between the two men, Corbyn will have felt compelled to reward McDonnell in his moment of victory. But that alone does not make it a foolish decision. After all, Corbyn campaigned on an anti-austerity ticket. Putting a resolute opponent of austerity into the shadow chancellor position reflects the views of the people who elected him. Whether you accept or reject Corbyn's anti-austerity message, it is right and proper that he should follow-through on his mandate. The criticism currently being directed at him is essentially an attack for delivering on his promises.

Corbyn has not come a cropper on his idealism. He's come a cropper on his pragmatism. He knew he needed some of the old guard on board, to reassure the centre and right of the party. So he put Hillary Benn, who is not considered by anyone to be an exciting politician but who was willing to stay on, in the shadow foreign secretary position. It's a smart move which will go some way towards calming the panic among Labour MPs about Corbyn's foreign policy. It also suggests he wants to park the foreign policy issues and focus on the economy. In a similar manner, the selection of Vernon Coaker will calm nerves about his views on Irish unification.

The same pragmatism was on display when Corbyn made his leadership rival, Andy Burnham, shadow home secretary. But this is where he went badly wrong. Firstly, doing so prevented him giving any women a top job. Second, it means he has now given one of the most prominent positions to a New Labour authoritarian. Third, he has rewarded the Labour leadership election's most hapless operator.

Burnham had one of the worst political campaigns I'd ever seen. He seemed to adopt several new policy positions every day, defined himself entirely by the political culture around him, showed no grace in presentation and no principle in opinion. It was a disaster. And somehow he has been rewarded for it, while Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendal – admittedly of their own accord – are on their way to the backbenches.

But the real tragedy of Burnham's appointment is not that a talentless C-lister has once again been given a position above what he deserves. It's that we are losing an opportunity to talk in a different way about immigration.

One of the chief attractions of a Corbyn leadership is the ability to disentangle the immigration debate from all the other matters which are sucked into its orbit. Immigration is always a vehicle for discussing lots of other matters – from employment security, to globalisation, to identity, to public service provision and, more than anything, the untrustworthiness of politicians.

Corbyn is resolutely pro-immigration. That may not be a popular position, but no-one can question his desire to properly fund public services, or maintain the salaries of the indigenous working class, or protect local communities from global competition. That wins him space.

Politicians are deeply unhelpful when it comes to immigration. In truth, most realised years ago that Britain needed mass immigration to keep the economy working given the country's demographic imbalance. They have spoken enough to business leaders to know that a dynamic services economy requires movement of labour as well as capital. And most of them rather like the metropolitan society created in Britain over the last 30 years. So they lie about it. They say they want to, or can, clamp down on immigration. They make claims about net migration which are literally not in their power to deliver. And when they fail, they make them again. The loss of trust just goes on and on.

Corbyn had a chance to turn a page on this. He has the ability to speak very plainly and to the point. The public won't agree with his views on immigration, but they can respect the honest way he expresses them. That, together, with a reassurance to voters on the 'collateral damage' of immigration – wages, globalisation, job security – allowed us to have a completely different conversation about the subject. Would it have changed this country's attitudes to immigration? Probably not. But it would have jumbled everything up a bit and given us a chance to move away from the relentless negativity which has typified the debate over the last few decades.

Burnham is incapable of any of that. He will be keen to 'reflect' public anger at immigration – the standard strategy of those who accept immigration but feel the need to simultaneously speak out against it. He is unlikely to do so effectively. Burnham is typical of that school of politicians who speak seemingly without any conviction whatsoever. That slippery, duplicitous manner is the old standard for political debate – one Corbyn has it within his power to change. But Burnham's promotion to the shadow home secretary role doesn't bode well.

While the press fixate on McDonnell, it’s Burnham's promotion which is the real tragedy.