January Shadow Cabinet League

by Atul Hatwal

It’s Friday the 13th. And the Tories are level pegging with Labour in the polls and discontent with Ed Miliband’s leadership continues to swirl. The sense of gloom is palpable.

But on one measure at least, hope continues to flicker.

The revival of the shadow cabinet’s appetite to hold the government to account continues apace. This month’s shadow cabinet work rate league table reveals a new benchmark – the highest number of weekly stories proactively generated by the Ed Miliband’s team since he became leader.

This isn’t just a matter of issuing a media release commenting on someone else’s news, it’s making the news.

Chuka Umuna and Andy Burnham have led the charge with each generating four stories since the last league table.

December Shadow Cabinet table

Chuka’s performance is particularly impressive given his parliamentary youth. His signature act in the past weeks has been to out manoeuvre Vince Cable on the issue of executive pay.

When the high pay commission reported, Chuka acted early, endorsing what were comparatively uncontentious findings. It gave Labour a clear position, generated a positive Labour story and most importantly got Chuka out ahead of Vince Cable on the issue.

Since then Labour has been able to attack the government for its half-hearted drift towards action.

While there is an instinctive nervousness on the Labour side at being seen as anti-business, the targeted and consensual nature of the commission’s recommendations enabled Chuka to take a specific position, which was not open to misinterpretation, unlike certain conference speeches that could be mentioned.

David Cameron might ultimately pick Labour’s pocket on this, but in terms of the day to day media combat, Chuka moved surely and decisively.

At health, Andy Burnham has raised the pitch of his defence of the NHS to new levels.

He has used parliamentary process to uncover how many public beds will be turned over to private health care, force votes on issues like sharing patient data with private companies and reveal how hundreds of NHS leaders received redundancy letters before Christmas.

Burnham has been assiduous in following up parliamentary action on the NHS bill with public pressure through a barrage of media releases. And over Christmas, when parliament was not sitting, he kept up the onslaught with seven press releases in the three weeks of recess.

Andy Burnham’s new year’s message to NHS workers on the 2nd January was particularly notable, because only the party leaders have traditionally issued such a call to action.

It’s a sign of his command of the brief and standing in the shadow cabinet that he was the only member, other than Ed Miliband, to release an open message in this way.

But while Umuna and Burnham both posted impressive media performances, it was Chuka who made major strides up the league rising from 13th to 6th.

In contrast, despite Andy Burnham’s impressive media performance, he slipped one place down the league from 11th to 12th.

The reason?  Chuka was as applied in all areas of activity as in generating stories. In tabling written parliamentary questions, making speeches in the chamber and key note speeches outside the House of Commons, Chuka Umuna has demonstrated an exemplary work ethic.

If there is an issue with Burnham’s performance, it was as ever the complete absence of scrutiny of Andrew Lansley through written questions.

Had he been as active in dissecting Andrew Lansley through written parliamentary questions as he was across the despatch box, Andy Burnham would be challenging at the top of the league and have a welter of extra material for stories.

This issue of balance between the different areas of activity, in and out of the House of Commons, is not just restricted to Andy Burnham though.

It affects several members of the shadow cabinet.

For instance, at the top, almost the opposite of Burnham, Jon Trickett has demonstrated a herculean work rate in putting down written parliamentary questions.

But despite 162 written questions answered in November, there was no media result in December. Trickett has issued press releases, just none related to the wall of questions he tabled.

While not every question will yield a story, there were answers from this tranche of PQs that could have been used, particularly in the fallow news period between Christmas and new year.

For example, from the questions answered in November probing government reticence on answering freedom of information requests, the massive rise in the home office’s refusal to reveal any information in response to a request – up from 8% of requests in January 2011 to 19% in June – should have been a story.

In the past month, Jon Trickett’s PQs have forced the government to reveal how departments have paid out millions in redundancy payments to staff on a monthly basis as they continue to hire hundreds of new temporary workers.

The figures are there to be found in the answers. The stories are waiting to be written. Jon Trickett needs to convert this parliamentary effort into media action to make the step up into becoming a true all-round shadow cabinet performer.

Similarly, Maria Eagle in second place has asked well over a hundred questions but not a single one has generated a story. She has been a regular in the media and transport press, but still her parliamentary activity and media work remain parallel, seemingly unconnected, efforts.

And Sadiq Khan, in third place, has tabled over 90 questions, but is yet to use an answer for a news story.

Over the past months there has been a clear acceleration in the numbers of media releases issued and most importantly, stories proactively generated.

The numbers of parliamentary questions asked have remained relatively high across the shadow cabinet.

The area that needs to improve now is the linkage between the two.

Chuka’s performance shows what can be achieved in a single month with a more joined-up approach. The likes of Caroline Flint and Jim Murphy have shown in recent months that they know how it should be done.

It’s time for the rest of the shadow cabinet to look and learn.

Atul Hatwal is associate editor at Uncut.

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5 Responses to “January Shadow Cabinet League”

  1. Nick says:

    Oh dear.

    Yet another league table …

  2. doreen ogden says:

    Andy Burnham lost ground on the NHS because the brief was given to John Healey (lovely man) but not up to taking Lansley to task. Think Andy has had hard job but is working really hard , he is passionate about the NHS and it shows. Ed Miliband on all his interviews,speeches etc has hardly ever mentioned the NHS – plenty about the squeezed middle and again not much about the vulnerable,disabled and poor.

  3. figurewizard says:

    @ Doreen Ogden

    When it comes to the ‘vulnerable and the poor’ one strong line of attack should be why this government has failed to reversing the doubling of the not insignificant marginal rate of tax for millions of working poor (mostly young people) and pensioners that resulted from Brown’s abolition of the 10% tax band in his last budget as chancellor in 2007? If there is a good reason for the opposition not to raise this issue, the victims of it would like to know what it is.

  4. Laura says:

    Maybe you should change the scoring if Andy Burnham has made so much running and is halfway down the table, and Jon Trickett (who is he? I honestly have no idea) is at the top.

    Margaret Curran had better improve her score and soon, unless she wants to be out of a job altogether because Scotland stops sending MPs to Westminster.

  5. swatantra says:

    Must say that Chukka has proved quite impressive and he’s only been in the post a couple of months. Chukka is a very personable guy with a very personable mnner. He must be one of the few politicians who hasn’t got enemies. People look at him and say : here is a politician I could trust, and doesn’t get up your back like most of the Shad Cab. Another newcomer Rachel Reeves also has the trust factor. That is what Labour desparately needs believable people more than policies at the moment. Chukka is also a member of Compass. It goes without saying that Burnham should have been elected Leader instead of Ed.

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