by Atul Hatwal
“I’m a proven campaigner” is a phrase that cropped up repeatedly on campaign literature during the shadow cabinet election. Everyone had a track record. But in what?
Opposition requires a very different set of skills to government. It’s not enough to be committed and pound the streets canvassing, important though that is. And being able to sift through a red box quickly isn’t particularly useful either.
Opposition is about holding the government to account.
Yesterday’s Uncut shadow cabinet “work effort” league table helps show who is working hard at building a record in opposition and who is not. The table isn’t meant to be the final word on performance, but it does shine a light on who is putting in the hours.
It also lays bare some common truths about how to oppose. They are exemplified at the top of the league, but also used skilfully by some of the shadow secretaries of state in the less high profile departments.
Action in three areas is common to success in the table: written Parliamentary questions, Parliamentary procedure and media work.
Written Parliamentary questions are the one tool of scrutiny that is entirely under the control of the shadow minister. They can put down as many questions, as frequently, as they like. These questions wheedle out difficult detail and create material for media releases.
Douglas Alexander has built the prodigious score that puts him top of the table on a blizzard of written questions. And shadow secretary of state for Scotland, Anne Mckechin, provides a case study in the role of Westminster scrutiny for the devolved regions. She’s put down 71 questions that have kept the Scottish office on its toes for months.
Second, there is Parliamentary procedure, particularly devices like “urgent questions”. Five different members of the shadow cabinet successfully used this tool to force government ministers back to the floor of the House of Commons to explain their actions. It is something that ministers particularly dislike and a valuable part of making life uncomfortable for the government.
At a time when all departments are subject to substantial cuts and government is keen to glide over the details, each shadow minister will have opportunities to hold their opposite number’s feet to the coals in this way.
One of the reasons Ed Balls has built a reputation as a tough operator is his robust use of Parliamentary procedure. It might be arcane, but within Westminster, securing process wins like “urgent questions” helps build morale and sends a powerful signal to government ministers that they will be fought hard every step of the way. And it guarantees media coverage in a way and to a degree that conventional devices do not.
Third is use of the media. Solid work in Parliament is necessary, but without media profile to make the case with the public, it is just an echo in the halls of Westminster.
Sadiq Khan has put in a strong and polished performance in Parliament with 46 written questions and 34 oral questions or speeches. His constituency website is also full of local stories.
Yet he has only issued two media comments on his brief since October 2010.
Ken Clarke has been placed under more media pressure by anonymous briefings from Number 10 than by the Labour opposition.
Similarly, Mary Creagh and Meg Hillier recently launched Labour’s key green tests for government in the Guardian. Quite a big thing – two shadow secretaries of state coming together, on a very important issue.
But how was it publicised beyond that one paper? There was no mention of it on the central party site, nothing on Meg Hillier’s constituency site and just a link on Mary Creagh’s constituency site.
Being on the constituency website is something, but there is a better way than squeezing content relevant to the national business of the shadow ministerial brief between press releases on supermarket openings and primary school visits.
Government has a structured press operation that spans each department and churns through a central grid of stories each week. The only way an opposition can effectively face off against this machine is through tight co-ordination, running through the central party press office. Otherwise there will be chaos as ministers respond disparately with various lines on different stories.
The importance of the centralised press machine is the reason the league table measures media work rate through news releases posted on the party site.
John Healey’s record in this respect is an exemplar. He has generated three stories proactively, media-released two major speeches and commented 13 times on stories that were already up and running. All through the central party press office.
More than anything else, being prepared readily to comment and find a way in on stories that are already running demonstrates the right mindset for opposition. There is no government machinery to set things up, no schedule of programmes to announce. Opposition is the world of the opportunist.
Whereas in the past ministers would bemoan their overflowing red boxes, life on the other side of the chamber is free of those chores. But in their place is a new pressure – to find a way to be relevant and heard in the debate.
Those at the top of the league show how ministers can hold government accountable and cut through the white noise to make their voices heard.
The basics are not that hard.
Each shadow minister should be more than capable of putting down several written questions each week.
They should understand the rules of the place in which they work and use Parliamentary process to harass a government that will be hamstrung by the inertia of civil service procedures.
And they surely must be able to issue at least one media comment on a story relevant to their brief, each week, through the central party press office.
Words are cheap in shadow cabinet election campaigns. For all the talk of “proven campaigners”, the PLP’s regional blocs and slates often vote on the basis of personal relationships rather than ability to oppose effectively.
This doesn’t do the Labour party any favours.
There are few hard and fast measures of performance to define success or failure. But by updating and publishing the league table every month, Uncut will be doing its little bit to help measure how effective the shadow cabinet are as an opposition. And highlight who is, indeed, a “proven campaigner”.
Atul Hatwal is a former Labour party staffer who has worked in press and policy across the private, public and third sectors.