November Shadow Cabinet League

by Atul Hatwal

Have they put something in the tea at shadow cabinet meetings?

Because they seem to be a team transformed – in work ethic at least.

Despite doubts about Labour’s strategic positioning on the big issues, Ed Miliband’s new shadow secretaries of state have set about their task with a vigour not seen for months.

The days when Jim Murphy and Douglas Alexander gazed down on their colleagues from a distant summit appear to be past. Instead there is a genuine competition across the top ten with any and all capable of mounting a challenge for top spot.

Jon Trickett’s herculean 162 written questions – a league record for a single month – ensure that he is clearly in first place for November.

From this avalanche of questions, Trickett should be able to unearth some useful stories. But almost regardless of what he achieves with the answers, the process will have been worthwhile.

The time taken to respond to this volume of questioning will have tied departmental staff down for days.

Tipping a bag of sand into the government machinery like this might not grab the big headlines, but if replicated every month, across the frontbench, it would go some way to redressing the massive research advantage the civil service gives the government over the opposition.

Below Jon Trickett, there are three stand-out performances in a keenly contested top ten – Caroline Flint, Liam Byrne and Peter Hain.

Following on from her impressive start on the energy and climate change brief, Caroline Flint is giving a good impression of the complete shadow minister. She has continued to pepper the department with questions and most importantly, started to convert research pressure into press stories.

Her PQs on the government’s cuts to feed-in-tariffs wheedled an admission out of the government that they are going to leave customers who had installed solar panels, in the lurch. The subsequent press release was that rarest of stories for an opposition –proactively generated.

Driving the news agenda is extremely difficult from the opposition benches. Government has all the power and when ministers make policy, people listen. It’s not like that for the shadow cabinet. The media are broadly uninterested in what most of them have to say, most of the time, unless it’s a split.

The normal fayre for the opposition is reactive comment, giving a quote about a government mistake and hoping that it gets reported.

If Caroline Flint can continue combining parliamentary and press activity as effectively in the coming months, then Chris Huhne’s tenure at DECC might be threatened by something other than the CPS.

Liam Byrne has jumped into the top ten after languishing in the bottom five most previous months. The extent to which his role leading the national policy review has taken his time is evident in the rebound in activity on his departmental brief in the past month.

45 written questions and a press release per week tell a story of a shadow minister who is now back doing the day job.

Liam Byrne is patently one of Labour’s most talented performers. The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) is one of the key political battlegrounds. But for most of this year, Ian Duncan Smith has had an absent opponent and one of Labour’s prospective stars has been deployed away from the frontline.

The national policy review is clearly important for the future of the party, but was it worth giving the Tories a pass on work and pensions? Did it require a shadow cabinet member like Liam Byrne to work on it virtually full time? And if it was that type of role, then why wasn’t there a contingency for shadowing DWP?

The leadership of both main parties is populated by former political advisers – Ed Miliband, David Cameron, Ed Balls, George Osborne and Liam Byrne to name but a few. Two of the defining characteristics of a good adviser are that they look after the detail for their boss and they never turn down extra work.

It seems old habits die hard.

One of the lessons of front rank politics is that there is no such thing as a successful politician-adviser. The choice is between being a politician or an adviser, both are full time jobs in their own right. For the party’s sake, hopefully Byrne can demonstrate his ability as the former.

Peter Hain posts the third of the notable performances this month. For the first time in the league, Hain has moved out of the bottom four and into the top ten. The reason? For the first time he has started asking written parliamentary questions.

Until November, Peter Hain had asked a grand total of four written questions this year. Then last month it all changed. 46 questions later, the Welsh office does not know what’s hit it. Hain remains the only member of the shadow cabinet who steadfastly refuses to issue his press releases as shadow secretary of state through the party press office, but by finally asking PQs, Hain has transformed his position.

As one of the shadow cabinet’s more active and able media performers, Peter Hain’s parliamentary inaction has always been anomalous. With a balance of action in parliament and in the press, the weakest Tory link in the cabinet, Cheryl Gillan, should now begin to feel the pressure of proper scrutiny.

It’s still early days for this new shadow cabinet. But the signs are encouraging.  If Peter Hain is asking parliamentary questions and Liam Byrne is devoting his full energy to his portfolio then things have changed.

In briefs that had been long neglected, like energy and climate change and Northern Ireland, new shadow ministers are busy pressuring the departments that had previously been virtually unaccountable.

This reinvigorated approach could just be driven by the enthusiasm of the new team. More likely though, given the scale of change, it’s down to some active management from the top.

If this is the case, Ed Miliband deserves credit.  Being able to get the most out of your team is a test of leadership. And even if this column disagrees with some of the leader’s strategic choices, properly harnessing the talents at his disposal is a positive and the party dearly needs those at the moment.

Atul Hatwal is associate editor at Uncut.

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11 Responses to “November Shadow Cabinet League”

  1. Nick says:

    Re-read your post.

    What content does it contain? Zilch. It’s political wonkery. It has nothing about the current mess, or how to solve it.

    It’s all about re-arranging deck chairs on a sinking ship.

  2. Struggling to understand your scoring system, Mr H.:
    – the text of the piece says Trickett asked 162 Written Questions but the table gives him 179 pts;
    – you’ve got Balls down as giving zero speches in November but I distinctly recall him responding to the Autumn Statement earlier this week. After you went to press?; and
    – the totals column seems to have gone badly wrong.

    Anyone at Labour Uncut got a copy of Excel for Dummies they can lend you? 🙂

  3. swatantra says:

    Dianne Abbott sems to have shed her cloak of invisability ever since 2010.
    She was in a tussle with old Widdecombe and came out marginally ahead.
    Old Widders revealed she has now become a Dame … a pantomime dame.
    Maybe Dianne will follow suit next year in the celebs business appearing on Strictly Get Me out if Here and BB. It did wonders for Galloway.

  4. dan mccurry says:

    I think this is becoming a really useful piece of monthly research. I bet the increase in activity had something to do with wanting to look good in this table.

    However, the table doesn’t reflect the effectiveness of the politicians. Is there no weighting for actual achievements? A politician could issue a dozen pointless press releases to a local newspaper, just to have points in this table.

    Also, I have to disagree strongly with your recommended “Tipping a bag of sand into the government machinery”. The civil service is not the enemy. If the practice you commend were commonplace, then the civil service would have to pull staff away from important work in order to deal with Labour Party mischief.
    Also, we don’t want the Tories doing this to a future Labour government.

  5. Richard Smith says:

    I’ve had a look at your table, and I find it hard to understand. I’ve done it again to show totals, and Caroline Flint comes out well in front with 227 points, Trickett 2nd on 199. Ed Balls comes in at 17th, which seems wrong, and Tessa Jowell and Margaret Curran seem to have been hibernating.
    1 – Flint (227)
    2 – Trickett (199)
    3 – Khan (191)
    4 – Cooper (188)
    5 – Eagle, M (176)

    19 – Lewis (56)
    20 – Jowell (21)
    21 – Curran (15)
    Am I missing a point or something?
    This is important information, as shadcab reps are being made and lost. Surely it should be correct, or as I ask, am I missing something?

  6. Bea says:

    This is ridiculous, you can’t claim someone is a top political operator because they put down lots of PQs. How many of them did they even draft themselves? If you’re pushing for labour’s strategy to be to tip sand into government machinery then we’re screwed.

  7. Atul Hatwal says:

    Richard – You’re right, the totals column was wrong. A cut and paste error on my part, now rectified.

    Mark – the totals are cumulative, so Jon T’s 179 includes last month. The table was compiled earlier this week so Balls’ fin statement response will be counted in next month’s league. As for the totals column, as per response to Richard above, it’s a copy of PowerPoint for dummies that’s needed!

  8. Amber Star says:

    I agree that there should be bonus points for something big.

    Okay, I am a member of the Andy Burnham ‘fan club’ so a tad biased, but surely 20 pro-active media stories is a stonking achievement – or is that another powerpoint error?

  9. Richard Smith says:

    Do you not think it might be important to get this right before you publish it?

  10. Richard Smith says:

    I’m rapidly losing interest in this, but why is this table different from the one that was up this morning? The values given to each type of activity have changed, as have the descriptions of some sorts of activity. What is going on here? First of all a table that doesn’t say what you say it does, then it gets changed, and I think the text has changed as well.
    This is stunningly amateurish, and if any of our opponents cared enough to look at this site they would have us for breakfast – and quite rightly so.

  11. Henrik says:

    Fine work, comrades. Can you now tell me how many tractors were produced over quota through Stakhanovite dedication to the vanguard role of the Party?

    I mean… c’mon…. are you *seriously* suggesting that this in any way represents quality political work?

    Please, please, will you for the love of the Purple Velvet Elvis get on with sorting out some policies – you remember, policies – which might actually attract folk to vote for the Labour Party come 2015?

    Seriously, I think this site has a clear role to play – if only to annoy the Westminster Bubble inhabitants and encourage the Labour inhabitants thereof to remember that, actually, politics is about getting folk to vote for you. I’m not going to vote for you, well, not as long as anyone who served in the catastrophic Brown government is on your Front Bench, at least, but it would be nice for the Coalition to have an effective, informed and patriotic Opposition. Just as a start, could you persuade Ed Balls to withdraw gracefully, or even not smirk when world economic events kick the Chancellor in the balls?

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