Shadow cabinet elections are stupid enough without voting stupidly too, says Lesley Smith

Has anyone thought to ask why we are having shadow cabinet elections? Is it to achieve the best possible team to lead our parliamentary party? Is it because elections unite the mass base around their demonstrably popular and talented leaders? Is it a sure fire way of finding a brilliant team that will row in harmony behind whomever a different process elects leader? Is it guaranteed, or even likely, to select people who will work well as a team and share the objectives of that leader?

Well. Nope. ?Or is it, as some say (idiotically) “to act as a counter balance to the leader”? So we go through three months of agony (when we could have been building a strategic and effective opposition to the Tories) to elect someone whose authority we wish the PLP, many of whom have only been there for three minutes, to be able to undermine? If you wanted to sabotage a new leader’s chance of running a half way decent strategy, this is how to do it.

Frank Dobson makes the reasonable (and reassuring) point that PLPs have had the sense to elect a formidable array of talent in the past. Fair enough, but no leader with sense would have passed over any of his list.  It doesn’t justify the method of selection. Indeed, insisting on imposing them upon him implies a lack of trust. And, even if the PLP gets it right, it’s unedifying to see personal and political gripes played out in public. Let’s remember that Gordon Brown only made no 14 on the ballot in 1996, beaten, among others, by David Clark, Ron Davies, Jack Cunningham and Frank himself.

And of the pitifully reduced team that we returned to parliament in May, we’re told that fully a quarter of them think they should be in charge. This is madness. It is the worst moment for people to judge whether they or their peers have the requisite talents and abilities either to stand or to be any good at the job.  Absolutely every new MP has exchanged being someone held in high regard (e.g. a candidate) and usually a biggish fish in a smallish pond for being the altogether lesser specimen that is an MP.

Most have exchanged well-resourced offices, often with staff who have staff, for a job where they have been surrounded for three months by titans who are not alleviating want and human misery but are moaning about their expenses (which, by the way, polite people never ever discuss in the real world). Of course they all feel anyone could do this better. They all feel that their enormous talent and contribution is being overlooked. But that doesn’t make them right for the job.

Being in the shadow cabinet is hard work. It requires dedication, tenacity, compromise and the ability to maintain one’s spirits with little reward and no glory. Most of all, it requires the ability to work well in a team, none of whom you choose and many of whom you may not like. It’s also about landing effective blows on the other side. Candidates should abandon any thought that shadow cabinet meetings are some glorious Westminster version of the Pontignano conference, or even your GC. (Though they are a bit like your GC).

It’s not about the five year strategy (that belongs to the boss), but about who draws the short straw for the 6.38 slot on Today. And that, by the way, is the leader’s decision. As is what is said. Not yours.

Quite simply, I cannot understand why, having gone to the trouble of electing a leader, we cannot trust him to pick his team? After all, if we cannot trust him to analyse the abilities of his own side, how can he possibly lead?

As it would appear that we cannot, though, there should at least be some hurdles for the would be candidates. We should erect a barrier to nominations, of perhaps 10 nominators. If it takes 34 to get on the leadership ballot, the shadow cabinet should have to prove they can at least marshal 10.

Second, we should require the candidates to organise themselves into slates. It was bad enough having to decode the differences between candidates for the NEC (and even more opaquely the national policy forum), but at least some of them helpfully declared themselves for a slate, even if most voters wouldn’t have known what it was. The PLP flatters itself that it is a sophisticated electorate which understands elections. (Although its inability to organise an AV ballot to back 40% of the shadow cabinet being women, backing instead the no hope 50% and thus allowing 40% to drop out of contention, does not bode well).

But many do not yet know their colleagues sufficiently well to choose between them. There has been little chance to see them slugging it out in the Commons, or even the TV studios.  Even after almost two decades living in the close quarters of opposition, candidates of 15 years ago were still able to get elected by judicious and assiduous flattery. One consistently elected shadow cabinet member shamelessly wrote to every new member on their maiden speech citing it as the best he’d heard. He polled extremely well.

Others looked only “for your 18th vote”, or implored colleagues not to overlook the need for Welsh/female/former TU baron/class warrior representation. If you cannot get yourself on a slate, you should not be standing. Your electorate is far less sophisticated than it thinks. Please make it simple.

Lastly, do not trade votes. It’s like taking advice from a bookie. They always know more about the horses and the ground than you do. If they are offering to back your candidate for theirs, it is not an equal transaction. They have already hedged against your votes.

Vote only for the candidates that are so breathtakingly talented that they cannot be overlooked and vote for no one else, even for sentimental reasons. That should take you to high single figures, but that’s fine. It’s the best way to ensure that the people you want get elected without inflating the votes of lightweights and possibly blocking those you want. If dear old X gets in and blocks a seat because you felt sorry for them, you are encumbering the leader with a passenger, or worse a weight dragging in the wrong direction. This is not a “vote early, vote often” election. Vote sparsely and vote carefully.

Lesley Smith worked for the PLP in the last century and the private sector since.

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5 Responses to “Shadow cabinet elections are stupid enough without voting stupidly too, says Lesley Smith”

  1. Nick says:

    “Vote only for the candidates that are so breathtakingly talented that they cannot be overlooked and vote for no one else, even for sentimental reasons. That should take you to high single figures, but that’s fine.”

    You have to vote for at least six men and six women for the vote to count, so anyone who only manages single figures is going to have spoiled their ballot paper.

  2. Sceptical says:

    Surely people realise all of this is rather silly? MPs, of course, should all have the chance to declare an interest/step aside from the Shadow Cabinet foray – but this does run the risk of having a very limited pool to choose from where the best person for the job isn’t even on the list.

    I like the 10 endorsements angle; this has just turned it into a popularity contest & the potential for discord in the party will now be greater than ever – if they truly do not want a return to the arguments of the Blair/Brown days, they are certainly going the wrong way about it.

    The egos, as they say, have landed…

  3. Matthew Davis says:

    It would be simpler to vote for who you don’t want in the Shadow Cabinet and see who is left.

  4. Dave Collins says:

    Lesley is right that the Shad Cab elections are a distraction. The new Leader will doubtless be saddled with at least a couple of colleagues who he (for it will not be Dianne) would not appoint to a real cabinet in a million years. 14 years have passed since the last time we went through this farago and with no form to act as a guide it is little wonder that so many have thrown their hats in the ring. Back in the 80’s when Lesley ran the Labour Co-ordinating Committee of course there were slates for the Shad Cab. The Tribune Group would try to ensure that it fielded just the right number of candidates to maximise the value of the votes they expected to command. The right and Campaign groups did likewise. Other networks – the regional blocks (Scotland, the North East, Wales), trade unions, women etc also had influence, but the contest was primarily about the left right balance in the PLP and the strength or otherwise of the Leadership. In 2010 we don’t yet know who will be Leader and the lack of elections for 14 years means that slates have yet to cohere. The new Leader would be well advised to announce as early as possible that he intends this election to be the last.

  5. Tom Miller says:

    I can’t believe there are still people who think that somehow Labour is *too democratic* after all we have been through.

    It’s a very poor argument too.

    Firstly, it really misses the point of the Labour Party, which is different to other political parties. Other parties represent individual politicians, thrown to the influence of whatever they encounter, and that alone. The Labour Party is a party at the head of a movement. That movement has an increasingly weak influence over what the Labour Party does – shadow cabinet elections keep the parliamentary party at least slightly in touch with it, even if it doesn’t completely agree.

    It is a small way of bringing Party, movement and country together, and Labour is really the only party which needs this or has reason to value it.

    Secondly, there is a really bad bit of logic in here.

    “Quite simply, I cannot understand why, having gone to the trouble of electing a leader, we cannot trust him to pick his team? After all, if we cannot trust him to analyse the abilities of his own side, how can he possibly lead?”

    In fact, why not go the whole way and abolish conference and the NPF as well? We could git rid of party members altogether so we wouldn’t have to listen to their stupid opinions?

    Seriously, if the last ten years have demonstrated anything, it is that too much power is concentrated in the hands of leaders who come to believe that they can go it alone, and cannot be brought into team play because nobody has any power to do that. This whole post seems to cast disdain upon the idea that one might trust the parliamentary party to make decisions, but still somehow makes the case for centralising *all* trust in one person at the head of it. The two angles do not compute.

    Final point, but the idea that the leader always picks the best people around them is nonsense. In the last parliament we had half of the cabinet resign in attempts to damage the leader, twice, we now have former cabinet ministers working to help the Tories make their cuts, and a plethora of other madness. We ended up with a whole raft of quite boring people who were instinctually conservative and allowed us to be run ragged by a much more responsive and in touch opposition, picked largely because they were docile and not serious figures in their own right.

    Let’s go back to having Bevans, Castles, Callaghans, Cooks and Blairs in our shadow cabinets please – elect them on merit, rather than hand-picking them for docility, or because of personal friendships.

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