by Kevin Meagher
“My top demand of my shadow cabinet, my party, my team, is this: ambition”.
So said Ed yesterday. But not all agree that message has been getting through.
“This is a Tory government that’s doing some outrageous things and we haven’t had many words of protest”, says a less than impressed John Prescott. “Ed, you’re the leader, get a shadow cabinet who’ll do that”.
Fortuitously, the rule change passed earlier this week now allows a Labour leader to dispense with the ritual shadow cabinet elections, thus presenting Ed with a tempting new freedom. But rather than release his inner Alan Sugar, he should withhold firing any of his coasting colleagues. For now.
Like any responsible manager, Ed should look to see how he can develop his team rather than hand them their marching orders. After all, that is what “good” business people do.
Anyway, a reshuffle at this stage looks like a panic measure, an implicit acceptance that this first year has not yielded all that it might have against the backdrop of the government’s swingeing cuts and inept economic management.
He should instead store up the chance to reboot his team for another day – when he might need to do it. Next May’s local and London mayoral elections might make a better strategic moment to shuffle the pack (especially if the results are less than stupendous). By then, shadow ministers will have had 18 months to prove how irreplaceable they are. It will also provide time for some of the party’s newer talent to earn their spurs. Promoting too soon is as foolhardy as leaving people too long in the job.
At the moment, Ed has two problems. First, he has to try and find a way of making good on his pledge to ensure that half the shadow cabinet jobs go to women. But he has another key shortage. He may have statespeople coming out of his ears, but he has a real lack of attack dogs, ferreters, populists and streetfighters – of whatever gender.
Some of the party’s grand fromages have not made a brilliantly successful transition to opposition. A few of them exude the managerialism that Ed rightly highlighted as a major factor in last year’s election defeat. He lacks enough frontbenchers with the ability and willingness to chase every ball. Force the pace. Expose and punish the government’s mistakes.
Of today’s frontbench, only Harriet Harman has served in the shadow cabinet before 1997. The rest are all products of government. Granted, that brings experience and heft, but also a degree of complacency. Perhaps it even exposes a lack of experience. Certainly the current shadow cabinet’s collective political edge could do with sharpening.
As a result, this week has seen a procession of thoughtful but dry speeches. Little by the way of rhetorical flourish has graced the stage in Liverpool. Few orations could even loosely be described as inspirational. It took 16 year-old Rory Weal to get the conference hall going the other day. (Perhaps Ed should put him in the shadow cabinet)?
In raising their game, shadow ministers should bear in mind two shining examples of how to be a successful Labour frontbencher in opposition: Robin Cook and the aforementioned John Prescott.
Cook’s tenacity and forensic skills made him a living nightmare for a procession of Tory ministers. His tenure as shadow health secretary in the late 80s and early 90s saw him wreak merry hell with leak after leak from within the department. He turned opposition into performance art. Fending off someone like Cook is politically and psychologically draining for ministers.
But his finest hour came in 1996 when as shadow trade secretary he famously sped-read (in just two hours) the 2,000 page Scott Report into the arms-for-Iraq affair, delivering a coruscating, landmark parliamentary skewering of John Major’s ragged government.
Prescott, meanwhile, reminds us that opposition is also about getting ministers on the ropes and pummelling them on a regular basis. Make them dread taking to the airwaves to defend their decisions. Channel the public’s anger. There was a time in the mid-90s when a procession of gutless Conservative ministers simply refused to appear alongside JP in television interviews, so sure were they of a verbal mauling. It’s hard to think of many shadow ministers who elicit the same reaction today.
This is Ed’s problem. He needs a frontbench that is going to scrap, gouge, bite and claw its way back to power. He needs blood and guts performers who are consistently reliable rather than brilliant but erratic players. More Roy Keanes and fewer Glen Hoddles, if you will. He should put his team on notice to up their collective and individual game. But he should give them a chance to do so.
The coalition is inherently unstable. U-turns and retreats tumble forth week after week. Personality clashes threaten to undermine collective ministerial responsibility. There is plenty to go at.
But how much easier it would be for Ed with a dozen Cooks and a dozen Prezzas breathing down ministers’ necks.
Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut.