Shadow cabinet goal of the month

by Atul Hatwal

Three moments of magic from the shadow cabinet

A few years ago, the newsreader Martyn Lewis made a plea for more positivity in the news. His Jerry Maguire moment was greeted as, well, Jerry Maguire’s was.

For Lewis, there wasn’t a redemptive ending; he wasn’t vindicated and every time he read the news subsequently, you couldn’t help but think he was a bit odd.

But somewhere in what he was saying, was a grain of something. Not quite common sense, because clearly no one is going to be interested in news that reports everything is just fine. But in his own slightly pompous and mistaken way, he was articulating a desire that most of us have for some light to provide a bit of contrast to the constant shade.

Politics is a dark place at the moment. The coverage reflects this. The sun isn’t shining for Labour and things are far from how they should be. But there are flashes of light. And it’s as important to recognise these as the mistakes which deepen the gloom. Otherwise there’s no basis for hope and no route back from opposition to power.

In this spirit, I looked back at the last month to see what I could find. I stayed away from the leader; miles of column inches already fixate on his every detail. Instead my focus was the shadow cabinet and how they were holding the government accountable, in and out of parliament. Amid the mediocre and indifferent there were lots of examples of good work. Some were very good.

And a few were exceptional.

Here are three moments of magic from Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper and Sadiq Khan.  These are entirely subjective choices, and no doubt others could have been included. But each demonstrates flair and excellence in key areas that underpin an effective opposition – Parliamentary debate, media coverage and moral judgement

First is Andy Burnham, speaking in the education maintenance allowance debate.

Humour is the ultimate political weapon. Despite what the song says, ridicule is something to be scared of.  But it needs to be wielded delicately. Few things are as unfunny as a politician making a bad joke (as anyone who has seen Lembit Opik’s stand-up routine can confirm). Andy Burnham demonstrates a talent for tone, timing and material that is politically lethal.

Over the past few weeks, the attack on the government as out of touch elitists has got increasing traction. But the last time Labour tried to use it in any concerted way was a disaster. The Crewe and Nantwich by-election couldn’t have been more embarrassing.

Burnham gives a masterclass in how it’s done. Nothing so crass or obvious as an insult, just a genuinely funny story that pierces deeper than any diatribe.

The painful result is reflected in Michael Gove’s face. It’s a picture to go in the dictionary next to the phrase “sick as a parrot”.

The laughter in the chamber, so often confected and forced, is genuine. For someone like Gove, who makes great play of courtly pleasantries and banter, it’s the most brutal of take-downs.

Second is Yvette Cooper and her media splash, “Cuts would take 10,000 police officers off the street, claim Labour”

This story went wall to wall across TV, radio and print.

Without Yvette Cooper and her team piecing together the puzzle of fragmented announcements on police cuts at different times, in different parts of the country, it would have been impossible to understand the true national impact of the cuts on frontline policing.

This is what holding the government to account means.

The story landed with a big national bang last week and the government was left floundering. It was a great hit and even the police federation weighed in.

But it didn’t end there.

The story breaks down into figures for regional cuts for the regional press and then down again into constituency level numbers for the local papers.

It was a PR cluster bomb.

The story is a model for how to make the link between the incomprehensibly large numbers bandied about in Commons debates and people’s everyday experience.

And last but not least is Sadiq Khan. His entry wasn’t a major speech or performance at the despatch box, just a single comment,

“David Cameron is writing propaganda for the English Defence League”.

By responding to David Cameron’s Munich speech on multiculturalism, Khan had the guts to stand up against the rightwards drift on race in a way no senior Labour figure has done in well over a decade.

The timing of the prime minister’s speech was no coincidence. The speech and the EDL march were both on the media grid for the same day for months. The shadow cabinet knew it was deliberate, the press knew it, hell, the Tory spinners even briefed it that way.

While others were either hiding behind the sofa or couching their disapproval in the gentlest and most respectful of terms, only Khan called it as it was.

The Labour party lost its compass on this issue years ago. Under Blair and Brown the traffic was only ever one way. For years the right have been able to ritually burn multicultural straw men with impunity. The mark of Duffy has only made the party more timid.

But sometimes there are issues where it is simply a matter of right and wrong. No politics, no triangulation and no trading. These irreducible beliefs used to be what distinguished Labour and gave the party its moral centre.

Sadiq Khan must have known the row that would ensue with the affronted fury of a right-wing press in full cry. He would also have known the level of public support he’d get from his colleagues.

But still he chose to speak up. By standing alone, Khan demonstrated both the strength of his convictions and courage under fire.

The next time Cameron makes a speech on integration he will be sure to condemn the EDL and BNP.

That balance will be partially down to Khan’s intervention.

Andy Burnham, Yvetter Cooper and Sadiq Khan aren’t perfect and will often fall short of what they did last month. But they’ve set a standard. Together, these three examples of their work show the best of what the shadow cabinet might be.

Debate can expose the weaknesses of government, but without media coverage it won’t move the people.

Press and Parliamentary dominance will take the party towards power, but without a moral centre the party will be buffeted in the political currents.

Moral clarity and belief provide an anchor that will hold the party to its purpose.

In opposition last time, New Labour mastered the first two and lost the last. There’s a long, long way to go in opposition this time round. It’s dark a lot of the time. But if we look carefully, there are some sparks of light out there that show not just how the party might get back to power, but how it might be better than before.

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2 Responses to “Shadow cabinet goal of the month”

  1. Robert says:

    Spot on!

  2. MG says:

    I emailed Sadiq Khan to congratulate him on condemning Cameron’s disgraceful speech. I am no great fan of his but on this one he called it right and deserves support for doing so.

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