It’s 3 years since Uncut started so, in a series of pieces, we’re taking stock of what has changed for Labour since 2010. Kevin Meagher looks at a battle hardened shadow cabinet.
Like many of you, dear readers, I vividly remember watching the 2010 election count, taking heart from every morsel of comfort on a losing night (‘we’ve held Birmingham Edgbaston!’) and cheering on every small advance (‘Simon Danczuk took Rochdale – even after the Mrs. Duffy incident!’) It was bad – we were out; but it could have been worse.
The share of the vote was abysmal – the lowest since 1922 – but the Conservatives hadn’t won. This was undoubtedly a rejection of Labour, but not a sea change. It was becoming clear gazing at the goggle box in the wee small hours that there would have to be a coalition government and, at that stage – and against all expectations – Labour was still in the game.
The rest, of course, is history, but it seems this sense of relief that the result was not as bad as it could have been for Labour averted any exodus of talent from the top of the party.
After all, here you had a bunch of experienced ex-ministers, many in their early 40s, who could easily have transferred their talents to the worlds of business or academia. Why hang around with no guarantee you will ever sit round the cabinet table again – and even if you do is it worth slogging through five years of opposition only to do a job you’ve already done before?
After all, the immediate effect of losing ministerial office is a fifty per cent pay cut, closely followed by the realisation that your retinue of officials, drivers, security people, diary secretaries and assorted hangers-on are no longer trailing behind you. You are back to running a shadow operation from your pokey Westminster office.
It’s a big psychological readjustment and they could be forgiven for for facing an existential crisis about what they were doing with their lives.
Yet here we are, three years on, and Ed Miliband’s shadow cabinet is full of talented and experienced ex-ministers and Whitehall insiders. There are eleven former cabinet ministers in the shadow cabinet, (excluding ex-ministers of state and other ministers) and a range of former Whitehall insiders like Michael Dugher and Stewart Wood.
It is one of the most experienced opposition frontbenches since the Second World War (and certainly far more so that Tony Blair’s shadow cabinet of 1997).
A quiet optimism that Labour will be back in contention keeps them in situ. There has been remarkably little seepage to life outside the Westminster cloister.
James Purnell got out early, resigning his seat at the 2010 election after quitting Gordon Brown’s government a year earlier. (He has now come full circle, back in the rarefied environs of senior BBC management, from whence he came).
Ruth Kelly also stood down in 2010 to pursue a career in corporate banking.
Alan Milburn, once the great white hope of the Blairite tribe, also left politics to sit on various company boards. He pops up from time to time with thoughtful things to say on social mobility as an outside adviser to government on the subject.
Of course David Miliband has departed, famously off to run a New York-based NGO. Will he ever come back to British politics? Who knows. (Perhaps he’ll return as President Hilary Clinton’s ambassador to the UK?)
Alastair Darling and Alan Johnson are not in the shadow cabinet but are active on the backbenches, with Darling leading the charge to retain the union in next year’s referendum on Scottish independence.
While former transport secretary Andrew Adonis has joined the frontbench Treasury team in the Lords and advises on industrial strategy.
Yet despite this array of talent and experience, Labour policy remains sketchy, a work in painfully slow progress. All that executive experience has, so far, delivered very little in terms of a new prospectus for the party. Yet in two years’ time many of these people could be back running, what will surely be a very different Whitehall.
As well as new policies, Labour will need a new approach to governing. Ed Miliband needs to make all this experience and insight count for something. The announce-a-policy-and quickly-move-on approach of the early New Labour years doesn’t work when there is no money to spray around.
Labour’s ministers will need to manage their particular part of the machine (which will be much smaller than they remember) and get much better at making the hard choices they have so far not shown any noticeable enthusiasm for.
That’s assuming, of course, there won’t be another coalition. If so, some of these people, who have stayed loyal during the long march through opposition, may find themselves out of contention, giving up plum roles for Nick Clegg and his pals.
Perhaps that’s when the existential crisis hits?
Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut