Friday, 8 October 2010

A few thoughts about the Shadow Cabinet

So the long wait is over.  Not only does the Labour Party have a new leader in Ed Miliband, it now has a front bench to make a co-ordinated stand against the coalition Government.

Via the arcane elections that Jack Straw (one of only three people to feature in every Cabinet from 1997 to 2010) described as "daft" and "barking mad", Miliband has pieced together a team of politicians that on balance seems sound.  He has made some glaring errors but some strategic masterstrokes.

First, the most prominent own goal is to appoint Yvette Cooper as Shadow Foreign Secretary and Minister for Women & Equalities.  Cooper is eminently popular having finished top of the shadow cabinet elections and is a fine media communicator.  She has a clear grasp of economic and financial issues, gleaned not only from 18 months as Chief Secretary to the Treasury but also no less from many blissful hours of pillow talk with the new Shadow Home Secretary, I'm sure.  Moreover, her roving ministerial career has taken in Health, Housing and Work & Pensions - all key domestic policy themes.  Why then banish her to the FCO, removed from the drastic domestic reforms that will hit the country so heavily in the coming years?  David Miliband's isolation as Foreign Secretary may have contributed to his inability to win the leadership - it just isn't as easy to connect with people from the cosseted towers of King Charles Street.  If the idea is to portray Labour as sparklingly new and a little bit pretty to the rest of the world, fine - but it will not win them the next election.

[On a slightly less important level, Gordon Brown was much criticised for appointing Des Browne the joint Defence Secretary and Scotland Secretary whilst troops were engaged in two theatres of war.  Although less damaging, is it not wrong also for the UK to have a part-time Foreign Secretary, were Labour to return to office?]

However, while sending Cooper to shadow the Treasury would have been popular, making Alan Johnson Shadow Chancellor is strikingly astute. 

First, Ed Miliband is hugging a potential critic close to him.  Alan Johnson openly backed his brother, describing him as "head and shoulders above the other candidate", and he hasn't hidden his reservations about the new Leader of the Opposition.  Johnson was not a fan of Brown's regime, nor the team around him, which included Ed Miliband.

Secondly, Miliband is smart enough a politician to recognise that in spite of the leftish rhetoric that swept him to victory a fortnight ago, the Labour Party needs to present a sensible and credible alternative to the Government's cuts.  Ed Balls, for all his talents as an economist, has failed to do this be advocating a softer approach than the deficit reduction plans set out by Alistair Darling before the election (halving the deficit over four years with £44 billion of cuts).  Alan Johnson, however, has said: "We're coming back up in the polls but all the signs are public are not buying this 'Labour cuts' argument: the deficit was something we just did because we just threw money around rather than the fiscal stimulus to save people's houses. They want to be absolutely clear that we are taking a sensible approach to this. They don't want to see the deficit go on forever."

Johnson comes to the role with less obvious qualifications for being a finance minister than other candidates but he is an honest and dignified politician that has been roundly praised from all sides whatever ministerial role he has assumed (his only big weakness being on ID cards).  Moreover, he will be ably (sic?) supported by the experienced Angela Eagle as his Shadow Chief Secretary.  She worked on the economic directorate of the CBI in the 1980s, has been a member of the Treasury Select Committee since 2003 and was a junior Treasury minister under Brown.  On the other hand, in 2008 she disastrously described the dangerous housing bubble as a "colourful and lurid fiction has no real bearing on the macro-economic reality."  She is, therefore, a living embodiment of the reckless mismanagement of the UK economy under Gordon Brown.

Andy Burnham was my personal favourite in the Labour leadership contest, and giving him Education can work well both for the Government and for Labour (I will explain below).  He might have spent the greater part of it with the air of someone standing because they had lost a bet, however by the end he was the only candidate making any distinctly intelligent contributions (e.g. LVT).  Furthermore, he appears to be the most prominent standard bearer of the Blairite flame left at the top of the party (with the possible exception of Alan Johnson).  If Ed Miliband is defeated in 2015, Burnham should be the man to replace him.

How is Andy Burnham shadowing Michael Gove good for the Government?  In spite of positioning himself as neither "New" nor "Old" Labour, Burnham is evidently a Blairite.  He showed that during the campaign and briefly at the Department for Health.  His endorsement of the LVT reveals an appealingly radical reforming instinct.

And guess what?  Michael Gove is a self-proclaimed Blairite.  The Academies and free schools programme that he is overseeing smacks of Bambi himself.  Out of basic intellectual consistency, there must be elements in the Government's programme that Burnham agrees with.  I might just be straying into tenuousness with this but Gove is good in the Chamber at wrapping opponents aroud his clever little finger, especially when he paints his reforms as a continuation of Blair's own public service reforms.  It makes Blairite Labour MPs squirm with remorse and nostalgia and non-Blairites' blood boil.

How is Burnham an asset for Labour at Education?  Well, for the same reason as I have just mentioned.  Gove has dropped the ball on a number of occasions already but in the House he remains a force to behold.  His rapid-fire rhetorical flourishes, quick wit and erudite manner have partly or fully deflected several barbed attacks from bully-boy Balls already.  However, his obvious intellectual capabilities can at times stray into pomposity as he sneers at those less able to get what he is on about.  This is regularly the case - his opponents mostly aren't anywhere near as clever as him - but it doesn't help to advertise this too loudly.  We Brits like the underdog, especially if he is a plucky, pretty, perky eyebrowed young northerner.  Burnham doesn't have the nous to beat Gove on classical quotations and turns of phrase but he possesses the everyman straight-talking that appeals more to this nation's traditional anti-intellectualism.

There are a few other criticisms, one being despite having spoken of his "New Generation", Ed Miliband's first Shadow Cabinet has an all too familiar look to it.  Peter Hain, Shaun Woodward, Tessa Jowell and Baroness Scotland all even served in exactly the same posts in Government.  Hain was an obvious choice for the Welsh brief with there being no Welsh MPs to choose from the elected 19; similarly with Woodward, there were no other obvious candidates for Northern Ireland and at least it shows some economic responsibility by not having to dish out for extra Special Branch protection by appointing anyone new.

Those of you that know me well might call me biased here (!) but Caroline Flint deserved a bigger role than Communities and Local Government.  Since throwing the toys out of the pram in 2009 she has revitalised herself in the eyes of the public, putting in a series of strong media performances, and she retains a loyal following.  For all the fanfare of 33.3% women in the Shadow Cabinet, there are surprisingly few women in key positions (Hattie and Cooper aside).  Flint could have been one of those (I was suggesting Health) but instead she is shadowing Eric Pickles, who is overseeing one of the few areas of cuts and reforms that is broadly popular with the public (i.e. abolishing quangos, freezing council tax, restoring bin collections...).  It is a massive waste.

Out of genuinely non-partisan appreciation, I will finish positively: there is no place for Ben Bradshaw.

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