Bring on the éminences grises

by Rob Marchant

As silly-season reshuffle madness has gripped the Westminster village the last few days, we at Uncut are obviously above pointless speculation about the Labour reshuffle expected after Conference.

Well, almost. In fact, it’s not so much speculation, rather an observation.

If we were to be brutal, we might observe that both government and opposition benches, if the lights are dim, might occasionally be mistaken for a sixth-form outing to Parliament, rather than a government and a government-in-waiting.

It’s nothing personal against the current bunch. There is talent there. But much of the talent is green. And yes, there is ministerial experience among it – it’s not 1997. But – and excuse the bluntness here – there might also be more important pre-requisites than having held a junior ministerial or middle-ranking Cabinet job for a few years during the fag-end of a thirteen-year Labour administration.

Neither is it just that so many older MPs left in droves at the 2010 election, either, although that is clearly a factor. Or that some of the talented ones who remained, such as David Blunkett or Tessa Jowell, were not given proper jobs to do and chose to opt for a quiet life outside Parliament.

The clincher is this: as we have observed before here, we live in the age of the SpAd (ministerial Special Adviser). The gradual professionalization of politics means that the number of years that any of the current Shadow Cabinet has spent in the outside world is severely limited.

Practically none have business experience, meaning that they come to approach modern, corporate Britain as both outsiders and novices; hence the party’s sudden Damascene conversion to business-friendliness during the last month or so, which may or may not turn out to be too little, too late. The Westminster bubble has nurtured this generation of politicians and created an inward-looking political class as never before.

Yesterday, David Cameron – lest we forget, himself the youngest prime minister since Napoleon invaded Russia – has chosen to rid himself of the only two politicians, Sir George Young and Ken Clarke, who have anything like a hinterland and a lifetime’s experience. As someone not exactly invulnerable to the odd schoolboy error, he may yet live to regret it.

Needless to say, Labour is clearly not without its own tendency towards such errors. In fact, the last few months have been among the most gaffe-prone of Miliband’s leadership. A quiet, friendly word of advice from time to time, from someone with a few grey hairs, would certainly not go amiss. A “listening” Miliband might just be able to seize a chance that Cameron has just passed up.

All of these observations point to one thing: this would be a very good time to bring back the greybeards.

To be fair to Miliband, since the start of his leadership, he has looked to make good use of his two most experienced MPs. But Alistair Darling has been in exile in Scotland for some time spearheading the No campaign, and circumstances nipped Alan Johnson’s shadow chancellorship in the bud in 2010. By Conference the referendum will be over and, as John Prescott noted on Sunday, Johnson is ready for a new challenge and the right man to bring back onto the front bench.

Incidentally, both have held one of the four great offices of state, in other words, higher-ranking office than the entire shadow cabinet.

Johnson is not only phenomenally experienced outside of Parliament, but it does not take a polling genius to conclude that the “ordinary bloke” persona that Prezza highlighted, able to speak to the concerns of everyday Britons in a language they understand, is sorely missing from the team. And Darling is not only likely to pull off the Scottish campaign but has arguably got better economic credentials than his long-time boss Gordon Brown, who memorably overruled him as chancellor when he wanted to balance the books.

In an electoral situation still balanced on a knife-edge, it seems inconceivable that something useful cannot be found for these two to do, while there is still a window to do so.

And surely the biggest of us can listen to advice from all quarters, not just from those who might tell us what we think we want to hear. Bring on the éminences grises.

Rob Marchant is an activist and former Labour Party manager who blogs at The Centre Left

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9 Responses to “Bring on the éminences grises”

  1. Ex labour says:

    Cameron made some bold changes yesterday in preparation for the GE. Labour should do the same, perhaps replacing Balls with Darling who has some economic credibility. Will Miliband do it ? Nope.

    Both parties should recognise outside experience and use that within higher government circles. The problem is those MP’s who come from industry or commerce have a more pragmatic view of life and don’t necessarily buy into the political rhetoric and unachievable goals. They have a balanced view of life and how policy affects business and individuals.

    It is inevitable that those who have come from the wonk ranks will not have a worldly view of anything and it seems its a prerequisite of being promoted is to stay on message with the ‘hopey changey’ stuff.

  2. Madasafish says:

    Let’s see:

    Mrs Thatcher was a barrister before becoming a politician.
    John Major was a banker – old style.
    Tony Blair was a lawyer.
    Gordon Brown was a lecturer and journalist for seven years.
    David Cameron worked for Carlton for seven years.

    Ed Miliband? Two years as a political researcher..

  3. Rob Marchant says:

    @ExLabour: On the one hand, there are positive aspects to swapping Darling for Balls in a reshuffle. On the other, it’s too close to a general election for that kind of swingeing change, it’d be pretty unprecedented. More to the point, I have a specific bet on with UKIP’s Patrick O’Flynn that he will not!

  4. BenM says:


    Cameron’s stint at Carlton TV was hardly muck-and-grime-at-the-coalface stuff.

    And came after,er, a post grad stint as a political researcher!

  5. Madasafish says:


    You are correct.

    But who works at “the coalface” nowadays.?

    (and as there are few miners left, it’s meaningless to anyone under 40 year old)

    Of course if you think two years as a political researcher is working at the coalface, then Ed’s your man…

  6. Ex Labour says:

    @ Rob Marchant

    Your money is safe Rob. Miliband hasn’t got the balls…… if you get what I mean !

    I’d have another bet with him about Harriet Harperson going in a reshuffle after todays PMQ’s……….oooooppps.

  7. Tafia says:

    Two people that need binning and sharpish – Balls and Harman. Toxic isn’t in it.

  8. BenM says:


    I don’t see how Cameorn can claim any dividend over Miliband regards experience outside politics seeing as he only got the Carlton job through his upper class connections.

  9. Joe says:

    “[Darling] has arguably got better economic credentials than his long-time boss Gordon Brown, who memorably overruled him as chancellor when he wanted to balance the books.”

    I think you need to show your working here Mr. Marchant, why is he better? What about when he sent the markets into panic with his loose tongue in some vein magazine interview? The reason the Tories talk him up so much is because he’s not so ‘tribal’; but why per se is it such a bad thing to have a Chancellor who puts his/her Labour politics into action?

    Finally, if Labour had tried to ‘balance the books’ during the worst recession since the 1930’s it would have been a complete disaster.

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