This is the first article in a series studying the people Labour will be putting forward to the nation in May. Today we start by taking a look at the Shadow Cabinet.
There are a number of disconcerting things about the MPs in the Shadow Cabinet. For a start, even for Westminster-watchers some of them are notable in their anonymity – if you want a tough quiz round, try challenging yourself to name all 28 of them. Who’s the Shadow Secretary of State for Wales? (It’s Owen Smith, but you’d be forgiven for feeling that information doesn’t get you much closer to knowing who on earth he is).
In our increasingly presidential political culture, we tend to spend most of our time talking about party leaders. Labour’s frontman gives plenty of opportunities for us to compare him unfavourably with the Prime Minister, but of course the election isn’t simply a question of Cameron versus Miliband – it’s about the wider team, too. As the Prime Minister has suffered from the failings of some of his own ministers, so any leader can be beaten down or raised up by the effectiveness of his or team.
If anything, the wider Shadow Cabinet is a weakness of the Opposition which is under-studied and under-exploited. There are signs the Conservatives are starting to realise this – the decision to bring together five Cabinet Ministers to present that attack on Labour’s dodgy fiscal plans earlier this month had the air of an invitation to go toe-to-toe, encouraging viewers to consider whether the alternative really matched up. But it’s only really when you assess the Shadow Cabinet en masse that the true scale of their problem becomes clear.
I’ve had a look through each of their CVs to see what else we can tell about the MPs in the Shadow Cabinet as a group. Politicians being politicians, not all of them have made their whole life story available (for some reason the employment history of Liz Kendall MP, Shadow Minister for Care and Older People, is particularly opaque so I’ve had to exclude her from the employment history figures) but here are some observations based on the best information available:
We know that Labour has made the transition in recent decades from a working class party to a public sector, Westminster-dominated party, but the statistics on the Shadow Cabinet still make for surprising reading. Strip out work in the public sector, in trade unions and in think tanks, and the average member has the private sector CV of a person in their mid- to late 20s:
- The average amount of time a Shadow Cabinet member has spent working in the private sector is 4.5 years.
- At least seven of them have no private sector work experience at all. Three more – Angela Eagle, Michael Dugher and Ed Miliband – worked in the private sector for a year or less.
- Only six have over ten years of private sector experience to their name (and one of the six – Sadiq Khan – hopes to leave the Shadow Cabinet to become London Mayor).
- Of the 20 who have worked in the private sector, five did so as lobbyists. Only one that I can find (Emma Reynolds) has ever founded a firm – and that was a lobbying outfit in Brussels.
- Of the full Shadow Cabinet, no less than 16 – more than half – have at some point either been a SpAd, a parliamentary assistant or an employee of either the Labour Party or a Trade Union.
After 13 years of Government, Labour are in a peculiar generational position. They still have a lot of people with senior ministerial experience in their Parliamentary Party, but some of them are interested in pastures new while plenty more have no faith in their leader and no desire to join his team. As a result, the Opposition Leader has been forced into choosing less experienced candidates for top jobs – and then spinning it as the ‘new generation’:
- Thirteen have no ministerial experience whatsoever.
- Only five of them have experience as Secretaries of State – including Ed Miliband’s time at DECC adding extra costs to consumers’ energy bills and Andy Burnham’s stint as Secretary of State for Health while Mid-Staffs was failing patients in the most horrific way possible.
- Those who had more junior roles left behind them a trail of mis-steps and calamities: for example, as Europe Minister Caroline Flint confessed she hadn’t read the Lisbon Treaty, Ed Balls advised Gordon Brown on his economic policy, and Jon Trickett was Brown’s PPS while he was Prime Minister, a memorable low point for the nation.
- Nor have their Shadow Ministerial careers been gaffe-free – let’s not forget Mary Creagh’s attack on ‘sexist’ Thomas the Tank Engine, Ivan Lewis being slapped down by Miliband for proposing the regulation of the press (somewhat ironically as it turned out), or Tristram Hunt’s backfiring attack on private schools and unqualified teachers – both of which he benefited from in his own education. Or, for that matter, any of the dozens of awkward Ed Miliband moments.
Labour MPs are reportedly concerned that Miliband’s chosen team lack a track record for winning elections. Perhaps they have good reason to be afraid:
- The Shadow Cabinet features two MPs who have lost high profile by-elections. Owen Smith failed to regain Blaenau Gwent in the 2006 by-election. Also in 2006, Rachel Reeves’ defeat in Bromley and Chislehurst entered the record books as the worst defeat ever suffered by a Government party.
- Lucy Powell was Campaign Director of the failed pro-Euro campaign Britain in Europe.
- The Crown Prince of Losing Things is surely Douglas Alexander. Famous for strategising Scottish Labour to disastrous defeats against the SNP in 2007 and 2011, before being widely blamed for the problems of the No campaign last year, it turns out his Jonah status started early – he began his political career campaigning for Dukakis in 1988.
- That said, they aren’t all losers all of the time. While Chris Leslie lost his original parliamentary seat, Shipley, in 2005, he did go on to manage Gordon Brown’s triumphant leadership campaign in 2007. If only there had been any other candidates in the race.