by David Butler
David Cameron and Ed Miliband are preparing to shuffle their packs and make their final cut of this Parliament; for one, this will be the last reshuffle they preside over. Ministers and their shadows buzz around nervously awaiting the phone call that will determine the next few years of their political career. For a few, membership of the cabinet (or shadow cabinet) awaits. For others, the comfy leather of the commons backbenches is their destination. However, as much as fun discussing reshuffles can be, the act itself will be mostly irrelevant to either party’s prospects next year.
There is a media tendency to overhype the impact of reshuffles. In Miliband’s most recent shadow cabinet reshuffle was argued to be a cull of the Blairites. In fact, it was more of a replacement of Blairites associated with the Ancein Regime rather than Blairites per se. The 2012 government reshuffle was said to be a ‘rise of the right’ moment but has made little discernible effect on the overall direction of the government, aside from possibly the work done by Chris Grayling as justice secretary and Owen Paterson as environment secretary. Another discrepancy between media discussion and political reality is the perception that reshuffles are a political masterplans, executed with supreme efficiency; in fact, it is often the case that they are chaotic and messy. For example in 2012, the failure of Cameron to convince Iain Duncan Smith to move from the DWP to the MoJ caused a chaotic last minute rethink of the reshuffle and damaged relations between Number 10 and IDS.
The presence of a northern woman in the cabinet will not be the silver bullet to the issue of Tory unpopularity with urban voters and women, just as Sajid Javid’s appointment has not made the Tories more appealing to ethnic minorities. Without addressing the deeper roots of the problems – culture, policy, perception and history – that prevent the Tories from winning over said voters, such an appointment will have only the most marginal of impacts.
For Labour too, a few fresh faces, perhaps a promotion for Gloria de Piero or Dan Jarvis, won’t get over our problems of the lack of trust on the economy and Ed’s poor personal ratings. These are problems arising from strategy, communication and Ed himself. People don’t believe we will make the changes we have pledged and are sceptical that we can manage the economy and public finances well.
It is a desperate political act to rely on a big, either quantity or quality, reshuffle. On July 13th 1962, Harold Macmillan sacked one-third of his Cabinet in an event dubbed the night of the long knives. In the face of declining Conservative popularity, Macmillan sought to refresh the image of his Party and create the ground for a shift in economic policy. As Liberal MP Jeremy Thorpe remarked “Greater love hath no man that this, that he lay down his friends for his own life.” Yet this reshuffle neither insulated the Tories against the scandals that hit the party the following year nor did it stop its slide into opposition two years later. More recently, the 2013 Labour reshuffle, aimed to promote a younger, fresher team with a greater gender-balance, giving people like Rachel Reeves, Emma Reynolds and Tristram Hunt a bigger role. Yet, this change has had no clear effect on the Party’s underlying poll figures.
Ultimately, election are decided on trust – whether the votes believe you will competently managed the economy, public finances and public services – and a vision for the future of the country and people’s own lives. Structural factors – like the geographical distribution of votes, boundaries – and a good ground game (relative to that of your opponents) can help expand the pool of available voters and get them to the polls. But they only set the framework and can themselves be shaped; the way leaders and parties act make or break their electoral prospects.
Cabinets and shadow cabinets can support their leader and contribute to coherent and compelling messaging. But they are the backing singers, the chorus, to the leader’s soprano. Relying on reshuffles is an oblique, ineffective means of improving the fortunes of your Party. Better to face down the problems and change the political and communication strategy. Otherwise, the risk of electoral defeat looms large.
David Butler is a Labour party activist