Cook and Prezza can teach the shadow cabinet how to do opposition

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.

Tags: , ,

4 Responses to “Cook and Prezza can teach the shadow cabinet how to do opposition”

  1. Robin Thorpe says:

    Prescott still does a great job for the labour party appearing on numerous television programmes and solidly defending the achievements of the Labour Party over the years. I think he’s actually been on TV more now he is in the Lords then when he was in the cabinet. I recall watching him on Top Gear last series and marvelling at how he managed the crowd and engaged with people. His stagecraft, for that’s what it is, was developed by public speaking, union meetings and hustings over many years; more importantly though, his conviction is reinforced by an absolute belief in an idea of a better way. The same was true of Thatcher, for all that I disagree with her. The one thing that Prescott and Thatcher share is the courage to lead by the strength of their belief.

    This is, I think, an example that the present shadow cabinet need to follow. Get out on the road, campaign, meet people, speak at public meetings. Don’t just wait to be invited to a poorly attended Fabian meeting to lecture a group of 60 year-olds on things they already believe; hold a rally in a town-centre to spread the gospel of social democracy. Don’t wait for the daily papers to report on pollsters findings to form a (hopefully) popular, reactionary, policy; but form policy based on principles and present the evidence to show why it is better.

    On Radio4 last night some “observers” were critiquing E.Miliband’s speech and Finkelstein from the Times suggested that EM has ceded the centre-ground and Cameron should swoop to fill the gap. This is precisely the kind of reactionary politics that I believe the public are fed-up with. If Cameron is going to change his opinion after a speech by EM then it proves what a shallow and thoughtless individual he is and how bereft of ideas his party must be.

    As far back as 1885, at the very birth of the Labour Movement William Morris said “the real business of socialists is to impress on the worker the fact that they are a class, whereas they ought to be a society…The work that lies before us at present is to make socialists”. The term socialism may not be in voge at the moment but the principle is still true today. Therefore if we want to make a difference then we have to tell people why and how a social democratic parliamentary party can improve their life; at the moment all three major parties are at risk of being an irrelevance.

  2. Robert the crip says:

    True but of course he was also one of those that saw Five million voters leave the party, so yes he can play the fool it comes easy to him, wonder why

  3. swatantra says:

    I think people are a bit tired of the old them ‘n’ us and punch ‘n’ judy type politics don’t you? So 2 jabs Prezza has had his day. And Cook was lucky some days.
    What we need are politicians with vision and a bit of experience in the real world not novices.

  4. swatantra says:

    Ed has it right on OMOV and his choice to choose his own ShadCab team. Now’s the time for that reshuffle before the next session of Parliament and get rid of the deadwood floating around he’s been lumbered with.

Leave a Reply