The March shadow cabinet league table

by Atul Hatwal

Murphy surges into second in Uncut Shadow Cabinet work-rate league as Alexander remains on top

Khan climbs from sixth to third while overall work-rate across the shadow cabinet rises 36%

Douglas Alexander remains top of the league as the total shadow cabinet work-rate went up 36% in March compared to February.

Alexander has continued to pepper the FCO with questions, holding the government to account on Libya whilst putting in polished Commons performances and issuing regular media releases.

His consistency in the 6 months since the shadow cabinet was elected has been unmatched.

Below him, stand-out performances from Jim Murphy and Sadiq Khan have meant a shuffling of the pack at the top of the table, while in the bottom half, Liam Byrne and Tessa Jowell have made substantial gains.

Jim Murphy nailed Liam Fox again with another urgent question in the Commons, forcing the defence secretary back to the floor of the house to explain why RAF personnel were being made redundant on their return from Afghanistan.

That’s two month’s running Fox has been hit by urgent questions as his rushed strategic defence and securityreview (SDSR) continues to unravel.

Meanwhile Murphy also posted the highest number of written questions in a single month so far, keeping the MoD accountable for the detailed implementation of the SDR with 99 questions – more in one month than two-thirds of the shadow cabinet have managed in six months.

Just below Murphy, Sadiq Khan jumped three places to third. His rise has come off the back of 85 written questions in the past month. The questions are pointed and his parliamentary performances remain crisp.

Khan’s major media splash came at the start of month with his speech to the prison reform trust and comment piece in the Guardian on prison and re-offending. Both were thoughtful and nuanced, addressing the balance between punishment and rehabilitation while attacking the Tories for cutting costs not re-offending.

But the top-line which led the news reports was that prison doesn’t work.

It’s a crude caricature of Khan’s position, but that’s the nature of the game. To complain of misrepresentation is like a footballer complaining about a hard tackle.

The reports of his speech cut across the rapprochement with News International and opened the way for yet more comment on splits between Blairites and Ed Miliband’s approach.

For all the positives in the month, Khan will need a more finessed media operation if he is to fulfil his potential and become as effective a media operator as he a House of Commons performer.

In the bottom half of the table, Liam Byrne and Tessa Jowell have both had good months.

Byrne has risen two places to fifteenth, piloting Labour’s response to the welfare reform bill through some tricky territory. Based on his performance in March alone, Byrne would have been fourth, behind Alexander, Murphy and Khan.

He has balanced the need to avoid being cast as unrepentant tax and spender while opposing specific measures in the bill.

Labour’s approach of abstaining on the second reading, but leaving open the option to oppose on the third reading if amendments are rejected, has provided a measured route through the minefield.

Tessa Jowell has similarly climbed from nineteenth to seventeenth, springing into action after months of inertia.

Jowell asked 42 written questions in March, clearly remembering how opposition works and actively holding the cabinet office to account in a more robust and forthright manner. It’s an important return to form, especially given the volume of change running through Francis Maude’s department.

Tessa Jowell’s renaissance has meant Peter Hain drops into the bottom three.

While Hain has maintained a steady level of media activity, a low Parliamentary work-rate, particularly in terms of written questions, has led to a gap of over 20 points opening up between him and Jowell.

There is some mitigation, in that Peter Hain has a central role in the policy review process, and this will have occupied his time and focus. But the gap is substantial and a lot more than any of Peter Hain’s previous scores for a single month.

Without a major effort, the bottom three will soon lose touch with the rest of the shadow cabinet.

Meg Hillier, who has slipped to second from bottom, doesn’t even have the excuse of leading the policy review.

She has yet to ask a single written question after six months of being a shadow secretary of state. Either she knows something that the likes of Douglas Alexander and Jim Murphy don’t, or she is missing something quite fundamental about how to oppose.

Each month this year, Meg Hillier has fallen further back. Why someone who was once regarded as a fresh and hard-working talent would be so inert is baffling. She only has to look down one place to see the fate that awaits her if she continues on this path.

Propping up the table, Shaun Woodward is now nearly sixty points off fourth from bottom. In the words of one veteran of the Labour press office, he maintains a lower media profile than Emperor Akihito of Japan.

Meg Hillier beware.

Inevitably, each month will bring ups and downs for individuals in the shadow cabinet. The league is a zero sum game. Someone has to be top just as someone will be bottom. The positive for Labour is that as competition within the shadow cabinet becomes keener, overall effort is increasing.

What would have been a strong performance in January was barely mid-table in March.  The greater this dynamic, the more effective the party will be at holding the government to account. It’s as apparent at the top of the league as it is absent at the bottom.

As the months go on, the question for party managers will become – what happens if the shadow cabinet members at the bottom don’t improve, and the gap between top and bottom keeps getting bigger?

How much inequality can the leadership take and at what cost to the party?

Atul Hatwal is associate editor of Labour Uncut.

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