by Atul Hatwal
Murphy mobilises and moves up from fourth to third in the table but Hillier, Jowell and Woodward fall behind at the bottom.
In the month Ed Miliband’s reshuffled team moved beyond the Johnson resignation and got to work, there’s been a flurry of activity on the Uncut work-rate table and over half of the shadow cabinet have changed position.
Douglas Alexander has remained top, bolstering his lead over the month through sustained media work on the unrest in the middle east. He has tackled the thorny issue of the Labour government’s relationship with Libya with an assured and steady performance.
But below him, there have been some dramatic movements.
Four developments stand out: the change in how the treasury team operates; Jim Murphy’s impact at defence; Mary Creagh’s climb in the bottom half of the table and the position of the bottom three who are in danger of losing touch with the rest of the league.
Angela Eagle has stormed from sixth to second, following a hard-hitting month in which she asked fifty-four written parliamentary questions and issued eight media releases.
That nearly equals her total for the previous four months.
Meanwhile, her boss in the treasury team, Ed Balls, appears to have gone backwards, slipping from third to fifth and only putting out five media releases.
The difference in work-rate seems odd, particularly given Balls’ long-standing desire to be shadow chancellor
But the treasury is unique in having two members at the top table and the detail behind the headline figures reveal Ed Balls’ quite different new approach to running the team.
Alan Johnson retained the conventional departmental split in roles, with the shadow chancellor looking after general economic comment and taxation and the chief secretary focusing on public expenditure.
In contrast, Balls has given Eagle new licence to comment on a range of issues that extend significantly beyond the chief secretary’s traditional narrow role.
She now leads Labour’s response when George Osborne’s cabinet colleagues stray into economics, tackling all-comers from Ken Clarke to David Cameron, as well as commenting when think tanks like the IFS issue reports.
For his part, Balls has concentrated on high profile interventions such as the attack on Osborne as a denier of the impact of cuts. It’s a Miles Davis strategy. Less is more. It recalls Gordon Brown’s successful approach as shadow chancellor: he generated gravitas by picking his fights rather than scrambling after every opportunity.
The result is a new way of working for the treasury team, shaped to meet the media rigours of opposition rather than the functional priorities of government.
Balls lands the big blows through major set-piece offensives, while Eagle counter-punches with rapid rebuttal and reactive comment.
Although their individual rankings have diverged, they are now operating more as an integrated treasury unit rather than as distinct members of the shadow cabinet.
A hair’s breadth below Angela Eagle, Jim Murphy has advanced from fourth to third and is now just 4 points off second. It’s a remarkable achievement in a brief where Labour has rarely been on the front foot over the past thirty years.
Ministry of defence U-turns, such as back-tracking on incorporating the military covenant into law, have been hammered by Murphy in the media.
In Parliament, his forceful approach has equally paid dividends – earlier this month Murphy dragged Fox back to the despatch box with an urgent question on how his department made serving front-line soldiers redundant via email.
The MoD is well known for its bureaucracy and an organisation capable of mistakes like this will inevitably implement cuts in a ham-fisted way. The redundancy emails will be the tip of the iceberg.
Murphy’s prodigious work rate in and out of Parliament will help expose the impending litany of MoD gaffes that Liam Fox so clearly also fears.
Murphy has leapfrogged John Healey, with the shadow health secretary dropping two places. After a flying start, Healey has spent recent weeks studying the health bill and beefing up his policy team to match his exemplary media operation. And while the official activity appears to have dropped slightly, Healey-inspired (but not press released) splashes have appeared in almost all of the nationals over the last four weeks. He is a likely climber next month.
In the lower half of the league, Mary Creagh has climbed from fifteenth to twelfth. This partially reflects the news agenda and the prominence of the government’s botched forestry sale, but she has also generally increased her work rate – her score has more than doubled in the past month.
It is a big step forward compared to the previous four months, when Creagh did not put out a single media release. But there’s still plenty of room for improvement.
The government was humiliated on the forestry debacle, but Labour was largely a by-stander. It was a non-party political campaign that put the forests on the front pages and then pressured Number 10 as it dithered its way to a U-turn.
This is exactly the type of issue where an early urgent question could have made a difference, both in Parliament and in the media.
The government announced one thing in the Commons, but then started sliding and back-tracking in briefings and public comments. Closing this gap between the Parliamentary record and fast-changing political reality is one of the roles of an urgent question.
It would have forced the government to react to Labour’s timetable on Labour’s terms. Driving the Parliamentary debate in this way would have meant the party could have reclaimed some agency in the eyes of the media and be seen to be have led from the front.
In the event, Labour was left chasing the story and received little of the credit for forcing the change.
But, at least Creagh has been active and getting better.
At the foot of the table, a gap has started to open up between the bottom three – Meg Hillier, Tessa Jowell and Shaun Woodward – and the rest of the league.
For Woodward, there is some mitigation as he is shadowing Northern Ireland, a portfolio where power has been devolved and there is limited scope for party political activity. But Meg Hillier and Tessa Jowell cover two of the highest profile areas – climate change and the big society.
Yet neither has asked a single written Parliamentary question in five months.
Jowell did at least put out six media releases in the past month compared to one from Hillier, but these were all comments on reports of government splits on the big society and Cameron’s launch of the consultation paper, rather than Labour-initiated pressure. For the big society, as with forests, Labour is chasing the story.
The general outrage over cuts creates a momentum which generates media coverage. But there is a danger for Labour of just being swept along by the tide without bothering to scrutinise the detail of proposed legislation.
On climate change and the big society, the government’s flagship policies are the creation of two new banks – the green investment bank and the big society bank. How these banks operate will determine success or failure for key planks of the government’s programme, but the details are still sketchy at best.
Surely they merit at least one written PQ from the shadow secretaries of state?
There might be a welter of activity planned, just waiting to be unleashed, but at the moment Meg Hillier and Tessa Jowell are silent and the government is getting an easy ride.
From month to month there will inevitably be variations in league performance that track the ebb and flow of the Parliamentary and media running orders. The prominence of shadow cabinet members’ portfolios will inevitably be a factor. But the common denominators of success, as shown in the past month, remain the same: a balanced work-rate in and out of Parliament, nimble footwork in reacting to opportunities as they arise and looking to lead rather than following the story.
The difference between the top of the table and the bottom is how effectively members of the shadow cabinet execute against these three criteria. At the top they force the pace and control the game. At the bottom the shadow cabinet seem to be simply running breathlessly after the ball.
Relegation isn’t technically a possibility till the next shadow cabinet elections in 2012, but at a time of such major cuts, neither the party nor the country can afford the shadow cabinet to be carrying passengers who don’t perform.
Atul Hatwal is an associate editor of Labour Uncut.