How to solve a problem like the Shadow Cabinet?

The Shadow Cabinet led by Ed Miliband has come under some scrutiny as of late for a number of reasons, primarily that they are not vocal enough, and because of the recent cabinet reshuffle. The most obvious thing about the Shadow Cabinet for me is the number of blatant Brownite figures. Ed Balls, Gordon Brown’s closest ally resides over the shadow Chancellorship, while the role of leader of the opposition and Shadow Foreign Secretary belong to Ed Miliband and Douglas Alexander respectively, each strong allies of Brown during his time in power. Yvette Cooper and Harriet Harmon are other influential figures within the Shadow Cabinet who were prominent Brown acolytes. It is not lost on the electorate that Gordon Brown’s premiership was one of the least popular in British political history; he having not won an election, lasting barely 2 years, presiding over the most cataclysmic financial crisis since the 1930s, and failing to strike any chord of connectivity with the nation.

Consequently, as the new leader of Labour, I would be doing everything in my power to distance myself from this previous era, and convince the electorate that I am running a newly refreshed party, cutting all ties with the furores of the past. To some extent Miliband has done this by acknowledging Labour’s failures over immigration, the economy and Iraq during their time in power, and apologising to the electorate for all of the above. Nonetheless, packing his potential cabinet with MPs who served as Brown’s cabinet ministers in the dark days of 2007-2010 is far from distancing the party from its controversial past. Miliband has been all too ready to remove Blairites from positions of authority – as evidenced by the recent reshuffle – but he’s equally all too happy to retain Brownite figures. My question to Mr Miliband is as follows; is it wise to remove from the shadow cabinet ex-ministers who served under Blair, the man who won you 3 elections, and replace them with those who served under Brown, the man who failed to win even one?

First there is Ed Balls. Since his early days working for Gordon Brown in the Treasury, he’s built a reputation as being a blood brother of Brown’s, regularly briefing against his enemies and promoting his allies. He was constantly pushing for Brown to be more courageous in his efforts to displace Tony Blair as Prime Minister, and it is widely accepted that Balls played a central role in the coup which eventually brought Blair down to make way for Gordon. When Brown seized power Balls remained his closest advisor and confidante, earning himself a cabinet post as Children’s Minister and also allegedly securing a cabinet position for his wife Yvette Cooper. Mr Balls has always been distrusted and loathed by Labour Blairites, as well as widely seen as aggressive, Machiavellian and ambitious. It is rumoured that after persuasion from Balls, Brown agreed to promote him to the role of Chancellor, but Gordon lost too much political capital to displace the strangely popular Alistair Darling. Balls’ name has been tainted in politics for his tight-knitted relationship with Brown, and he and Miliband haven’t got on since Balls allegedly briefed against Miliband and Alexander, blaming them for the ‘Phantom Election’ which lost Brown so much popularity, which Balls himself had in fact pushed for according to Andrew Rawnsley. Rawnsley was also the respectable and reputable journalist responsible for the analysis of Balls’ character as a reflection of the darker side of Brown’s personality; dark, devious, aggressive and obstructive.

Nonetheless, Miliband has made the questionable decision to appoint Balls as his second-in-command. This may be the old ‘hold your enemies closest’ tactic, and it mustn’t be forgotten that Balls came third in the latest Labour leadership election behind the two Miliband brothers. Consequently the victorious sibling may have been wary of banishing Balls from the shadow cabinet on account of his apparent popularity within the party’s ranks. Nevertheless, with Balls’ pit-bull-like qualities, he is very reminiscent of a previous Labour Chancellor who eventually became Prime Minister, and having a man of that calibre who stirs up those memories at the centre of the shadow cabinet may prove to be a mistake. Not only is it unwise to have a man so closely associated with the most unpopular leader of recent times so central in the Shad Cab, but Miliband’s number 2 is also a man whom he cannot trust. A potential future Prime Minister could enter power with an over-ambitious deputy at the Treasury between whom there is bad blood and distrust. Echoes of 1997 and the infamous TB-GB’s send a shiver down the spine.

As for selecting Douglas Alexander as Shadow Foreign Secretary this was a predictable choice. Miliband and Alexander have always been close, and even back in the Brownite alliance system there was always Miliband and Alexander on one side – reflecting Brown’s positive side of ideology, social justice and good intentions – and Balls and McBride on the other. Alexander may not be a bad choice, he is fresh, has flair, and has views which mirror those of Miliband. However, once again, he was still a prominent Brownite. A major issue, addressed by Miliband himself, is that the Shad Cab has not been vocal enough yet. Labour currently looks like a one-man band, and considering that the front man isn’t particularly popular with the fans, it may be time for some of the other members to pipe up! It’s not all bad; there are certainly some positive qualities to the Shadow Cabinet. Chuka Umunna – Shadow Business Secretary – is a real up and comer with great potential. His articulacy, youth, accurate criticisms of the Coalition and his realistic stance on the issue of Royal Mail privatisation indicate him to be a real talent and a potential vote-winner. Andy Burnham – Shadow Health Secretary – has found his voice, delivering a rousing conference speech, reminding the party and the electorate that Labour isn’t all about its leader. He is also coming out on top in the battle of words with Tory Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt, who recently accused Burnham of being implicit in an NHS cover-up. Burnham starkly defended himself, threatening legal action, which has forced Hunt to retreat and retract. This backbone shown by Burnham is exactly what Labour has been missing, but in recent weeks it’s also been shown by Ed Miliband. In his much publicised feuds with the Trade Unions, the Daily Mail, and the ‘big four’ Energy Companies, Miliband has transformed his public image from a weak figure to a populist one. By vocally standing up for the little man, Miliband has stolen Osborne’s much used catchphrase ‘we are helping hard-working families’ with his energy proposals in particular, and has finally found a popular criticism of the government – the cost of living crisis they are presiding over.

Despite these positive points, there are still more negatives, the recent reshuffle for example. Swapping out Twigg for BBC Historian Tristram Hunt in the shadow education office was a bittersweet call. Twigg appeared weak, failing to effectively attack Gove’s reforms or offer alternatives. Hunt appears charismatic, and as a Historian, can claim to reject Gove’s reforms on the curriculum by defending the current method of history and not reverting to the archaic system of memorising dates; a mind-numbing process which would pour the passion and interest for a valuable subject down the proverbial drain. However, this move may not have been tactical, but just another cull of the last of the Blairites. By banishing Twigg and Liam Byrne to more junior positions, Miliband has effectively cut the last attachment between the current Labour Party and that which was led by Tony Blair. The Jack Straw’s, the David Blunkett’s and the Alan Johnson’s are nowhere to be seen. This is a sinful waste of Labour talent and governmental experience. Johnson’s exit from the shadow cabinet was a major blow, being the last of a dying breed; a working class Labour MP.

With extensive government experience holding posts such as Health Secretary and First Secretary of State for the Home Office, and even the man who might have led a Lab-Lib Dem Coalition as interim Prime Minister. As a former postman and postal union leader, his voice being thrown into a coherent opposition to the strategy being deployed in privatisation of the Royal Mail would have added credibility and sincerity to Labour’s position. Miliband should reach out to Johnson, as although his backbone has been questioned in the past, a Labour government without him in the Cabinet would be a significant omission. Next there is Diane Abbott. Abbott is strongly left-of-centre, so one might assume a kindred spirit of the leader of the opposition. However in the reshuffle he expelled her on the grounds of ill-discipline, or more to the point, disloyalty. This was because she spoke out against Miliband, but more because she struck a chord with the electorate. Abbott is perhaps one of the few Labour MPs whose views are widely aligned with the core Labour vote, and her banishment from the Shad Cab was an error on Miliband’s part.

Miliband’s brother David’s decision to leave the chamber of the Commons was favourable for Ed, who has stepped out of his brother’s shadow and into his own spotlight. A strong conference performance has put his popularity ahead of his party’s and close to Cameron’s in the most recent Observer poll. His stand against the Daily Mail and soaring energy prices has morphed him from the hapless Mr Bean into the populist Robin Hood in the eyes of the electorate. However, it is his merry men that are the problem. Balls – the Little John to his Robin Hood threatens to create a turbulent relationship between the two reminiscent of Blair vs. Brown which will play into the hands of the Conservatives. Have they learnt nothing from past relationships at the top of the pyramid that threatened to bring the whole structure down? The dense Brownite population in the Shadow Cabinet district opens Labour up to repeated attacks from Cameron on their economic record when they were last in government, and the recent reshuffle is open to criticism. Ed the Red Engine may be chugging his way into Downing Street Station but he’d better makes sure that the proverbial Annie and Clarabelle carriages are not filled with the agents of derailment. He also needs to call time on the Shadow Treasury career of the Fat Controller a.k.a. Ed Balls. Consider this a warning Mr Miliband, you will not ride the wave of populism into a majority government, with the drag of your current cabinet.


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  1. […] How to solve a problem like the Shadow Cabinet? ( […]

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