The April shadow cabinet league

by Atul Hatwal

It’s become a tedious holiday tradition: MPs tweeting about their various constituency appointments and local campaign meetings, furiously reassuring voters and party members that they are busy at work, despite the long parliamentary recess.

The world really doesn’t need another tweet telling us yet again about a “good reaction on the #Labour doorstep” and for Labour’s shadow cabinet, many (though not all) should just take their break with good grace – they have earned it.

The first three months of this year have seen an unprecedented work rate: over 400 press releases, nearly 1000 written questions and almost 50 speeches from the despatch box.

Compared to last year, at this stage in the parliament, the shadow cabinet’s total score indicates a 54% hike in effort. In every category, the shadow cabinet has done more and worked harder.

While doubts will persist on the effectiveness of the party’s overall strategy, and Bradford West might be a prologue to greater disappointments in the May elections, it is hard to criticise the work ethic of many at Labour’s top table.

Since the last league in early February there has been a minor shuffling of the pack with three shadow cabinet members posting notable performances: Caroline Flint, Chuka Umunna and Andy Burnham.

Flint moved up one place to second, her highest ranking in the league to date. It’s an achievement built on another blizzard of parliamentary questions and press releases. Her consistency since being moved to cover the climate change brief has been absolute, as has her steady progress up the table.

As one of the shadow cabinet’s staunchest Blairites, in the run-up to the reshuffle last year she had been the target of a whispering campaign among some at Ed Miliband’s court. Now, seven months on, she is immeasurably strengthened.

Flint is widely regarded as having been effective in her brief, a good performer on television and was recently appointed as the party’s regional champion for the south east. Without a doubt she will be looking to early May expectantly.

This is because come May 4th, as long as Birmingham votes in favour of having an elected mayor on May 3rd, Liam Byrne will step down from the shadow cabinet to fight for Labour’s mayoral nomination. In doing so, he will vacate one of the big jobs in Ed Miliband’s team and prompt a mini-reshuffle.

Given the balance of the shadow cabinet, and voter perceptions of Labour on welfare reform, it would be a major step for Ed Miliband not to appoint another Blairite in the role.

Add in the impact of welfare reform on women and the merits of moving Flint to shadow DWP are clear.  Suffice to say, while the decision remains in the balance and Flint still has enemies in the leader’s office, the odds of her being promoted to DWP are shortening.

In contrast, Chuka Umunna will not be moving anywhere at the start of May. He continues to work hard, asking dozens of parliamentary questions and issuing an average of more than two press releases a week.

Politically Chuka could not be better placed. His is a longer and higher stakes game than the next reshuffle. He is securely ensconced in a high profile economic brief, gaining ever more experience and media exposure but sufficiently removed from the most contentious issues such as public spending and taxation.

All he needs to do is keep on doing what he’s doing, making consistent progress until the election in 2015 and the transition from bright-eyed parliamentary ingénue to potential leader will be complete.

The overwhelming current favourite to take the leadership after Ed Miliband is Yvette Cooper. But if Labour slump to another defeat in 2015, all things are possible. The combination of Yvette Cooper’s links to the party’s failed economic programme through her husband, Ed Balls, with an inevitable desire in the membership to move on from the old generation of former cabinet ministers, could spell doom for her ambitions.

Especially when the alternative would be Chuka, a politician who assiduously avoids any type of action or policy position that could alienate one camp or the other.

In a post-defeat leadership election, Chuka Umunna would be the blank canvass onto which different wings of the party could project their various aspirations. In the words of a quote applied to Tony Blair in 1994, he would “emerge without trace”.

The leadership however, is a much coveted prize. Following a barnstorming last three months, the embers of ambition are known to still glow in Andy Burnham.

His furious media onslaught in opposing the government’s NHS bill has been a case study in the passion and commitment needed from the shadow cabinet. For the past three months he has issued almost a press release every day and been a ubiquitous presence on TV and radio.

It has served to remind members of the Labour party why he was so well regarded in government and seen to have a realistic chance of winning the leadership before he launched his campaign.

But politics is not a sentimental business, and as good as Burnham has been on the NHS bill, perhaps the real question is what next? The bill has passed and health will slide back into the assorted pack of government briefs, emerging only occasionally into the spotlight.

Burnham’s track record shadowing education was of effective set-piece performances, but he hardly set the world alight with his work-rate. It might be different at health, which has always been his passion, but Burnham’s next move up, or down, the league table will potentially presage whether he is indeed back as a serious leadership contender.

The step-change in activity from the shadow cabinet this year compared to last has been a solid achievement and Ed Miliband can rightly claim some credit. He is after all the leader of the team. But work-rate, while necessary is not sufficient for the party to make progress.

It needs to be harnessed to the right strategy.

Regardless of the number of parliamentary questions asked, media releases issued or tweets that are posted  about the ever positive reaction on the #Labourdoorstep, it’s the product of the effort that matters most, principally Labour election victories.

If May 4th is disappointing, then as substantial as the achievement is of  driving a harder working shadow cabinet, it will still not be enough for the leader and his advisers.

Atul Hatwal is associate editor at Uncut

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5 Responses to “The April shadow cabinet league”

  1. swatantra says:

    I agree that Caroline done well, and Andy and Chuka are striding ahead. Andy was my choice anyway in the Leaderships which Ed usurped.
    But can we have a table of the bright young things that are up and coming like Lisa Nandy and Stella Creasy; they could replace the Eagles tomorrow and do a far better job. Still wouldn’t put any money on Yvette just yet. A huge question mark still over whether she can connect with ordinary members and more important the public.

  2. madasafish says:

    I find Yvette Cooper makes Theresa May appear warm, feminine and likeable..:-)

  3. swatantra says:

    Theresa May is one of the few Tories I actually like; she always attempts to answer questions in a pleasant manner.
    During the election period this site goes awfully quiet. Wonder why.

  4. Chilbaldi says:

    Cooper is a female version of Ed Milliband: doesn’t connect with people, doesn’t appeal to people outwith the core Labour vote, too bookish, too personally awkward. The only answers emerging are Burnham and Umunna.

  5. Politique says:

    I am sorry to say that Ms Flint is out of her depth in terms of her knowledge on climate change. It is clear from personal experience that the role of a representative is to set the mark, to lead by example, to be fair and to act in the best interests of the many and not the few. By clear association it is recognised that locally that she turns a blind eye to democracy, she ignores the plight of ordinary members in her party, she tolerates incoherent practices and advocates control freakery mechanism at the heart of her constituency. One should seriously question whether this individual and her folly are suited and fit to be in the positions they have manufactured. This is not the change in the Labour Party that we should accept. Arnie Graf should come to Doncaster and speak and listen to genuine members on there concerns on how this individual and her immediate folly operate. She does not practice what she preaches, only if it is in her own vested interest. Dont turn a blind eye again Mr M

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