The shadow cabinet goal of the month competition

by Atul Hatwal

Readers pick from Alexander, Balls, Burnham, Denham and Healey for May’s title

In a month of electoral clouds for Labour and deeper questions about the party’s overall gameplan, there were still moments of hope from the shadow cabinet.

Each of this month’s contenders for readers’ goal of the month is from action in the chamber. They are, in alphabetical order, Douglas Alexander, Ed Balls, Andy Burnham, John Denham and John Healey.

1. Alexander lays a trap

Sometimes it isn’t the bravura performance or the cheers of the crowd that make a performance notable.

It’s the content that counts.

Douglas Alexander doesn’t particularly skewer or embarrass William Hague in this clip. This wasn’t the Commons as a bear-pit. Instead, he uses the chamber for the most important function of all – holding the government to account on matters of war and peace.

Since the start of the Libya intervention, the absence of any sort of strategy has been painfully obvious. Alexander’s questions are ticking timebombs. William Hague flannels through his responses, but there’s only so long he can do this.

And judging by his tone and body language at the despatch box, he knows it.

A couple more of these exercises in foreign office evasion from Hague and he will find them edited together into packages constantly replayed on the news to illustrate the government’s obfuscation on their drifting mission.

With these questions, Alexander teed up Hague for the first part of the package.

2. Balls reveals the truth about the Tories’ growth plan

Parliamentary knock-about is one of Ed Balls’ strengths. He is an imposing, booming presence at the despatch box and lets his opponents know they are in a fight.

But the power of this intervention isn’t in the wit or the brute force. As with Douglas Alexander’s questioning of Hague, the value is in what he says.

The centrepiece of the Tories’ plan for growth in their budget last year was George Osborne’s wheeze for a 6 month NI holiday for business start-ups. This was going to be the engine of growth, the policy that single-handedly re-balanced the economy towards private sector employment.

In his intervention, Ed Balls gives us the facts that his team wheedled out of the treasury, now that policy has been implemented.

3000 businesses signed-up and 6000 jobs created, approximately 397,000 businesses fewer than predicted and 794,000 jobs short of the target.

This is one of the very rare examples in politics where the divide between right and wrong is absolutely clear. Balls’ intervention provides a vivid demonstration of the gap between claim and reality for Tory economic policy.

3. Burnham swipes the department for education

Some of the most illuminating moments in the Commons don’t come in the set-piece speeches or debates. They are found in the asides, between debates, between members. These are rarely reported by the media but can reveal a lot about the inner workings of politics and government

Andy Burnham’s contribution falls into this category.

It came at the start of the opposition day motion on sure start children’s centres. While his performance in the debate was polished and passionate as ever, before he started his speech he gave vent to a clear personal frustration at the performance of the department in answering Parliamentary questions

A named day Parliamentary question does what it says on the tin – it should be answered on a named day. Under the last government, the department for education held to a target of answering 90% on the specified day.

As Andy Burnham points out, now 90% are not.

This figure tells a tale of a department creaking under weight of change and bad management. MPs’ questions are not treated lightly and such a collapse in performance will be the tip of the iceberg.

Andy Burnham can expect an increasing supply of ministerial gaffes from a department in which, behind the smooth managerial façade, delivery is sliding out of control.

4. Denham on the fastest U-turn in history

Even in a government renowned for its U-turns, this was a first. David Willetts’ policy to allow rich students to buy academic places at university was announced in interview for the Guardian in the morning, backed on the Today programme, adrift by mid-morning and abandoned for the lunchtime bulletins.

Credit goes to John Denham for putting down an urgent question so quickly on the day and forcing Willetts back to the Commons at lunchtime to answer for his plans.

And credit is also due to the Speaker of the House for awarding the urgent question. There are countless times in the past that ministers, of either stripe, have floated policy in this way and not had to face MPs on their proposals.

In his delivery, Denham captures the incredulity at the speed of demise of the morning’s proposals. In his pithy summing up he exposes the absurdity of Willets’ defence that businesses or charities would want to pay £70,000 for students that are not academically up to the grade.

And in his conclusion Denham takes us back to the root cause that drove Willets to float such a preposterous policy – the financial mess caused by their botched tuition fees programme, which will still leave universities underfunded.

A job well done.

5. Healey hounds the Lib Dems

Following the local elections, there is a feeling that Labour needs to shift focus from the Lib Dems to the Tories. Quite right. The results showed just how unscathed the Tories are after a year of cuts.

But that doesn’t mean just giving the Lib Dems a free pass.

In an effective double act, Kevan Jones sets-up John Healey with a question which enables the shadow secretary of state to drive home the truth that for all their new found opposition to the health reforms, the Lib Dems in cabinet approved them and their MPs voted for them.

Healey’s performance is measured and assured. He has a calm bedside manner which conveys authority and control.

But the unintentional scene stealer is Simon Hughes.

As Kevan Jones ridicules him in his question, the quick shot of Simon Hughes looking up is a peach.

Hughes’ hunted and startled expression says everything about a party that cannot understand why no-one likes them or how they’ve got themselves into this position.


There they are, the five contenders for goal of the month. It’s now down to the Uncut public to rate them and award the honours for May. Last month Ed Balls ran away with the vote. Will he make it two wins in a row? Or is it time for another?

You decide.

Atul Hatwal is associate editor of Labour Uncut.

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5 Responses to “The shadow cabinet goal of the month competition”

  1. Desperate times for your boys if this is really the pick of the bunch. I note in passing that you are conducting the vote by first-past-the-post…

  2. iain ker says:

    “Parliamentary knock-about is one of Ed Balls’ strengths. He is an imposing, booming presence at the despatch box and lets his opponents know they are in a fight.”

    The country may or may not know this, but I’ll tell you what – THE COUNTRY DOESN’T CARE.

    Shame he was such a hopeless, indeed disastrous, ‘Economic Adviser’.

    You lot really must get out more.

  3. Atul Hatwal says:


    I’m inclined to agree, this wasn’t a great month. It was notable there weren’t any press stories proactively generated or truly memorable Commons moments. There are some interesting points made in the clips and I’ve never seen a policy proved so wrong as Osborne’s tax holiday, but not really stuff to get the blood pumping.


  4. AmberStar says:

    Ed M’s had a couple of cracking PMQs though.

  5. Maxy says:

    You say that Douglas Alexander is holding the goverenment to account on mission creep in Libya, and yet the facts speak otherwise. Mission creep continues on a daily basis, despite the offerings of Alexander. SO tell me please what effect his interventions have had on the government. Or is it the case that the Labour party is completely supportive of the current government? I do not sense either any great outrage on the part of the Labour Party generally.

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