Shadow cabinet campaigning: the lessons from history, by Dan Hodges

Many winters ago, a fellow House of Commons researcher and I were walking the corridors of Westminster. Suddenly, a hand touched my shoulder.

“Hi, Dan, how are you”.

It was Peter Hain.

“Great, thanks Peter. You”?

“Well. Well. How’s your mum”?

“She’s fine, thanks”.

“Great. She was brilliant on the radio the other day. You do the briefing”?

“Yes, I did”.

“Great. Great briefing. Well, see you”.

My colleague and I continued walking. Then in unison, without breaking stride, we uttered the same phrase:

“Shadow cabinet elections”.

Much ink has been spilled over the return of this peculiar Parliamentary ritual. Divisive. Anachronistic. Juvenile.

My own view of shadow cabinet elections has always been similar to my view of the Royal family. They’re bizarre, and in the twenty first century nobody in their right mind would invent them. But they’re here, they’re part of the system, and trying to get rid of them would probably do more harm than good.

To me, those who chose to oppose shadow cabinet elections always pick the wrong tree to growl at:

“They undermine the authority of the Leader”.

Absolutely. Tony Blair was emasculated by the system. If only he’d had more control of the PLP while in opposition. Just think what he could have achieved.

“They’re not a meritocracy, they’re a beauty contest”.

Like in 1996, the last time they were contested. Gordon Brown, Donald Dewar. Robin Cook, Jack Straw, George Robertson, Harriet Harman, Mo Mowlem. Makeweights, every one.

The real problem with shadow cabinet campaigns is more prosaic. They take up so much bloody time.

Trust me. The 49 who represent (or believe they represent) the cream of our Parliamentary party have enrolled in the political equivalent of The Apprentice. Here’s what the BBC says about its entrepreneurial ratings buster:

“Each task is set to stretch the creative and business skills of the individual candidates, in addition to their ability to work productively alongside others. Generally, the objective is to achieve a bigger profit than the opposition. Making a loss is very much frowned upon, to say the least”.

Swap votes for profits, as we surely must in this post-New Labour era, and you have  a fair summation of the shadow cabinet election process.

The candidate must catch the eye, without being too flashy. Be assertive, but not pushy. Demonstrate flair, but play as part of a team. Above all, Sir Alan, they must have a strategy.

When I worked on Brian Wilson’s 1994 campaign, we had a strategy. Famous for having founded, in his youth, the West Highland Free Press, Brian never managed to get onto the shadow cabinet. Though he managed very well to serve as a real minister during the first six years of the Blair governments, before retiring from Parliament in 2005.

Keith Hill was the campaign manager. He was never in the shadow cabinet either. In government, though, he became a whip, a minister in several departments, Tony Blair’s last (and best) PPS and a privy councillor before finally, to crown an elegant career, declining a knighthood.

We had biographies of each of our PLP ‘targets’. We had a tightly synchronised schedule of meetings, phone calls, and ‘brush pasts’. We had a carefully tailored, and highly sensitive biography script, to enable our surrogates to outline why Brian was the coming man. In fact, if I hadn’t left that bio script on a photocopier, he might actually have won.

The trick to a good shadow cabinet campaign is to run without looking like you’re running. Brian always found this a tough balance to strike. We’d arranged a fringe meeting for him at one party conference in order to boost his profile. When he arrived, he saw a message board advertising, “The Brian Wilson Fringe Meeting”.

“Oh, no, no”, he said, “we can’t have that. Change it”.

So I changed it to, “The Aviation Fringe Meeting”.

Then Keith Hill arrived.

“That’s no good. Too subtle. Change it back”.

This went on for twenty minutes. In the end, the “Bra And Wills Variation” fringe was a great success. But it left me pining for a candidate with slightly less humility.

The true master of shadow cabinet campaigning was Frank Dobson. Frank had three distinct advantages. First, he has a genuine, avuncular style, which is shad cab gold. Second, he ran the perennial campaign. From January to December, rain or shine, the PLP would be bombarded with briefings, memos and off colour jokes. Third, he had Joe McCrea.

Joe, his researcher, was beyond indefatigable. If fatigability had reared it’s ugly head, Joe would have beaten it to death with a Hansard.

“Joe McCrea”, someone once said, “is like a boy scout on speed”.

No figure, fact, Parliamentary question, quote, speech or research paper was too much trouble. Needed or not, Joe furnished it. Note to the 49. Want to get on? Get Joe McCrea.

Or get the disc. The only shadow cabinet operation that came close to Frank Dobson’s was the one run by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. Back in the days when they were still a political double act, Blair and Brown used to pool their contact data base. Parliamentary contacts, regional contacts, constituency contacts; all were literally held on a single computer disc. It formed the basis for their joint shadow cabinet runs, and ultimately, Tony Blair’s successful leadership campaign.

Unfortunately, in the period between the tragic death of John Smith and the hors d’oeuvres at Granita, the disc became the subject of a tug of war. Or, rather, the junior researcher who was responsible for it did. Faced with competing demands from senior Brown and Blair aides to hand it over, he burst into tears.

But then shadow cabinet elections are no place for the faint hearted. In 1995, Gordon Brown was widely suspected of having used Tom Clarke’s candidature as a spoiler to other candidates. The plan proved a little too successful. Tom got elected. In a memorable scene, Henry McLeish then proceeded to confront Gordon on the Commons terrace, accusing him of deliberately scuppering the chances of himself, Brian Wilson and others. Brian’s Westminster career recovered. Henry’s didn’t.

Of course, it’s easy to mock. In fact, when you see the letters, texts and e-mails, distributed by some of the shadow cabinet apprentices it’s hard not to. But remember: the 49 now stand exposed above the parapet. We may question the suitability of some. But we can’t question their political courage. How many of us openly invite the judgment of our peers. And how many risk such a potentially public and painful rejection.

I haven’t got a vote this Thursday. But if I did, it would go to Peter Hain.

Dan Hodges is contributing editor of Labour Uncut.

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4 Responses to “Shadow cabinet campaigning: the lessons from history, by Dan Hodges”

  1. Sean says:

    Why would Tom Clarke have been a spoiler candidate in 1995?

    After all, he had stood in 1992, 1993 and 1994. It was hardly a spoiling tactic by GB.

    Also, it was hardly unexpected that he got elected seeing as he had got elected in 1992 and 1993 and had already been Shadow SoS for Scotland. It seems slightly strange that the former SoS for Scotland would have simply been a spoiler for GB’s devious means.

    Fact check articles in future, perhaps?

  2. Dan Hodges says:

    …you may be right, but that’s not how Henry saw it. And I did say ‘widely suspected’. And it was…

  3. Dave Collins says:

    Peter Hai is indeed a worthy successor to Barry Jones …

  4. Dave Collins says:

    missed out a letter on P.ain’s name … (drat, done it again!)

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