As the Parliamentary Labour party elects the new shadow cabinet, Ed Miliband has some difficult choices to make. An overly crowded field will probably deliver some surprises, but Labour’s big guns deserve to be given the chance to take on the government, build their shadow teams and prosecute Labour’s cause.
Ed Balls and Andy Burnham have strong claims to whichever briefs they would most like as former leadership contenders. Alan Johnson remains one of the party’s best assets. Yvette Cooper is a formidable and essential component of Labour’s future. Peter Hain and Shaun Woodward remain popular, well known in the country, experienced and heavyweight. The shadow cabinet would be poorer without them.
49 candidates is too many, but there is some real quality on the slate. John Healey and Vernon Coaker are ‘must-haves’: strong intellects with good communication skills. Stephen Timms, Ivan Lewis and Iain Wright have a great deal to offer and despite his alter ego as an internet celebrity, Tom Harris has a unique understanding of some of the dragons progressive politics must confront.
But if the leadership contest has shown anything, it is that Labour is at its best when its church is at its broadest. Frank Field’s support for Ed Miliband and Jon Cruddas’ support for David Miliband were both welcome signs of the party’s own understanding that electoral success requires a pluralist social democratic platform and that collective strength is based upon a significant degree of diversity. Whereas the Tory-Lib Dem government’s definition of ‘new politics’ is to cut and dissemble, Labour’s authentic version of new politics means that the differences within the country must be reflected in the party, its policy programme and the party’s figureheads in the shadow cabinet.
For Labour’s new leader, this isn’t a question of race, religion or gender – the shadow cabinet will present a more balanced representation of these differences than any other party in the UK. The biggest immediate challenge for Labour’s new leader – and for whoever won the leadership contest – is to ensure that the shadow cabinet understands and responds to the very real regional differences within the country and to the disembodied voices whose interests Labour must serve.
Not simply a balance between the nations, not even a balance of the north of England and the south, but an understanding of the cultural differences between Britain’s metropolitan centres and their peripheral outliers. In short, Labour’s re-engagement requires much less command and control from Westminster and much less London-centrism. Reflecting this balance in the Shadow Cabinet will require some tough decisions – but Labour’s new leader has demonstrated beyond doubt that he’s not afraid to make them.
Jamie Reed is Labour MP for Copeland.