Eric Joyce on his journey to the shadow cabinet elections

It’s often said that there are too few MPs with backgrounds other than purely politics. At first glance, the CVs of most former Labour cabinet ministers seem to confirm that. In fact, the Parliamentary Labour party is packed with people with other life experiences, from ex-miners like David Hamilton to teachers, social workers and – OK then – lawyers.

I think this largely unfounded perception of MP unwordliness stems from the way technocratic skills fuse with political patronage in contemporary government. That is not necessarily to be adversely critical; perhaps there is no other way. Tony and Gordon needed people in their cabinet with practical experience of how 21st century government works and naturally turned to people they’d trained up themselves. And while it’s been often remarked that it seems a bit strange for the Labour leadership to be contested by four people with essentially identical trajectories, two of them actually brothers, it’s fair to say that these people and others like them turned out to be very good at the job.

I contest the notion, though, that any departure in opposition from the same general principles would represent a retrograde step for Labour. For one thing, it may seem trite to observe that opposition is different from government, but it is true. The required skillsets of a successful shadow minister can be different from those of a successful minister. A good technocrat surrounded by civil servants in government may well have the wrong personality for assertive, eye-catching, opposition on a low resource.

But more important than the HRM issue is that parties forming a shadow cabinet, as we are doing now, have just been whipped in a general election.  They are not clear about how to move ahead. They have thinking to do.  Right now, the Parliamentary labour party is full of very competent politicians, each of them reflecting nuances and themes, new and old, bouncing around within our party. Some, if actioned, might put us on the wrong track. Others are exactly what the doctor ordered.

Now, I know this line of argument often provokes fear among some people that our leader might be undermined before he’s even had chance to get his feet under the table. But that underestimates the political capacity of Labour MPs. People want to be constructive and there’ll be a high degree of loyalty to whoever wins on Saturday. But whoever it is won’t have all the answers. And, what’s more, their lack of backbench experience will mean they don’t necessarily know who has the answers either.

I came into politics from what seems, for Labour (but certainly not for the Tories), like a fairly oblique angle – the army. While still an officer, I had performed what I like to think was a fairly useful, if covert until near the end, role of modestly helping the last Labour shadow government. Watching Labour shadow ministers, I formed a clear sense of the challenges involved in putting together a defence policy which kept Labour credible yet still took the fight to the Tories on their home turf.

When we won the 1997 election, it seemed impossible to stay away from helping Labour help everyone else, and by then I was pretty radicalised. I wrote a Fabian pamphlet saying as much and was encouraged by my army bosses to pursue a full-time career elsewhere. If I can put it that way.

From there till now is a story with a number of twists and turns, but it took me years to learn that good soldierly behaviours don’t necessarily translate easily into effective political ones. I’ve learned quite a few lessons in the hardest possible way. But now, at this stage, however idiosyncratic my own wee journey, I feel like I’m in the right place in more ways than one.

I’m standing for the shadow cabinet because I think I can see exactly what we need to do now in foreign and defence policy in order to boot the Tories around the park. And because I’ve spent a long time talking to smart backbench MPs and party members alike about what they think. And, to be honest, because I think I’m pretty well fitted for the whole business of opposition – intellectually, temperamentally and as a consequence of my own military  experience.

Other people will be the judge of that now, of course.  Let’s see what happens.

Eric Joyce is Labour MP for Falkirk

Tags: , , ,

One Response to “Eric Joyce on his journey to the shadow cabinet elections”

  1. Henrik says:

    “…because I think I can see exactly what we need to do now in foreign and defence policy in order to boot the Tories around the park.”

    Never mind promoting and protecting the national interest then, Eric? Labour foreign and defence policy unchanged in Opposition, it seems.

    I know you’re quite a smart bloke and that you did your time as a Jock before heading off to the RAEC, so you will understand that, on defence, the comrades have zero credibility. Underfunded foreign adventures with no strategic aim defined, a shameful political betrayal of the folk doing the fighting (Basra ring a bell at all?) and a twitchy manic-depressive ensuring the Services suffered casualties through a lack of resources, first as Chancellor and then, God help us, as Her Majesty’s First Minister – sound familiar at all?

    Leave it, I should. Poison chalice. Park it. Kick it into the long grass, do, I don’t know, social policy, or “why we should borrow LOTS more” or something. Leave defence and foreign policy, people will only be reminded of what a disaster you lot were. You’ll need to wait until the memories of Telic and Herrick have faded considerably before anyone is willing to give you a hearing.

    Now will you all, for the love of the Purple Velvet Elvis, go off into Opposition and start to think of producing some policies designed to make people want to vote for you, please?

Leave a Reply