Ed Miliband’s opinion polls remain painstakingly low. From bacon sandwich eating, to speech forgetfulness, the press are circling him like vultures waiting for his media wounds to prove fatal. However, election campaigns are not won by party leaders alone. Labour have at their disposal a highly talented frontbench, which boasts a strong blend of governmental experience, youth and exuberance, as well as gender and ethnic diversity. There are a range of talented shadow ministers sitting on Labour’s frontbench, and they must find their voices before May next year. Labour would do well to remind the public that they are not just choosing between Mr Cameron and Mr Miliband, and who they best trust with their country. They are also choosing between expense-scandal-marred Jeremy Hunt, and Labour’s Andy Burnham, and who is best placed to maintain our National Health Service. They too are deciding between the heir to Gove that is Nicky Morgan and Labour’s Tristram Hunt, and who they trust to improve the schooling system for their children. They are also determining whether under-fire Chris Grayling or former human rights lawyer Sadiq Khan is best qualified to oversee our justice system, and whether it is Police-Commissioners-pioneer Theresa May or the bold Yvette Cooper that should be entrusted with the keys to the Home Office.
If Miliband continues to fall short in the popularity contest with Cameron in the eyes of the British public, Labour can run the same ‘substance over style’ line until the cows come home, but the sad reality of modern politics is that media presentation and likeability can sway elections as much as policy proposals, as voters tend to prioritise candidates’ characters as highly as party credibility – the rise of Nigel Farage is evidence of this. With this in mind, Labour can take on the Tory cabinet by comparing their ministers with its own shadow ministers, and using their talents, charisma and experience to convince the population that Labour would run a superior government to the Conservative Party. They can show that the character of their would-be-minsters as a whole – and not that of Miliband alone – reflects best the character of the party, and by highlighting the strengths of its frontbench, Labour can expose the weaknesses of the Coalition cabinet, which contains the most prominent faces Labour’s opponents have at their disposal in the election campaign.
While there is a wealth of expertise in the Shadow Cabinet, the ministers-in-waiting most worth focussing on, in my opinion, are Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper, Chuka Umunna and Tristram Hunt. They are the future of the party’s leadership, and share an abundance of political potential. Any future Labour government would be senseless to not make these MPs integral to the running of the country. Andy Burnham has a strong record of defending the NHS, is a passionate public speaker, and connects well with the public. Yvette Cooper is assured, confident, and shows courage in what she is willing to speak out against, not to mention the fact that she is the far superior politician of her marriage. Tristram Hunt and Chuka Umunna meanwhile are young, grounded, and show unabashed ambition. These four shadow ministers have a decisive role to play in the election campaign, and are so accomplished that they have the ability to sway the public towards Labour, if that is if their talents are employed wisely and vigorously by the election strategists at the top of the party.
At the recent Labour Party Conference, we learnt something vital – not just that it’s difficult to give a speech without autocue – but something vital about how Labour plans to campaign for a return to government, and that is the NHS. The most stirring part of Miliband’s conference speech was of course his £2.5bn pledge to the NHS, promising 20,000 new nurses, 8,000 more GPs, 3’000 extra midwives and 5,000 more care-workers. This indicates Labour’s intention to make the NHS – an area they poll strongly on – a central battleground in the run-up to May next year. This in turn elevates the role of Andy Burnham (Shadow Health Secretary) to one of the utmost importance. His face and his voice must stick in voters’ minds, as he is supposed to be the man to ‘save the NHS from the Tories’. Lucky then that his conference speech was perhaps the most rousing of the season, to the extent that some suggested it was a party leadership pitch! His scathing attack on the Coalition’s record with the NHS is a message that he must reiterate time and again before May 2015. His castigating of the Tories for privatising the NHS under our very noses and without our permission, along with his pledge of a health service under his supervision being ‘not for sale, not now, not ever’ make for enticing campaign posters. His promises to extend ‘whole person care’, to ‘care for carers’ and to put ‘people before profits’ earned him multiple standing ovations in Manchester and could earn Labour countless votes if they are repeated continuously in the election countdown.
Andy Burnham’s passion when speaking about the NHS makes him come across like someone who truly cares about Britain’s finest institution, to the point of evoking the spirit of the late great Aneurin Bevan, but more importantly, like someone who cares about the experiences of people who depend on the service, something that appears a rare entity in Westminster. It is this empathy that can win voters over, as well as build trust and faith in a future Labour government improving the NHS. Burnham is also well experienced, being a former Health Secretary himself, and certainly knows his field inside out. His proposals, speeches and insights chime well with medical professionals, showing he does his homework, and rarely gets wrong-footed on his facts. On top of this, he’s shown recently he can overcome adversity, escaping Jeremy Hunt’s ‘twitter libel’ or ‘baseless smear’ (Labour terms) about a poor hospital standards cover-up on his watch in 2009, relatively unscathed by demanding evidence or an apology and ultimately receiving neither.
What is clear is that Labour cannot hope to secure a majority in 2015, particularly in light of recent polling, by relying on Miliband alone. He may be the man they hope to put into Number 10, but by prioritising the NHS in its bid for power, a significant part of the burden must be shared by the Shadow Health Secretary. Burnham’s charisma, empathy, experience and passion must be utilised to full effect in Labour’s election campaign. He must continue to be ruthless in his criticisms of Jeremy Hunt, as well as David Cameron, and indeed the entire Coalition for the deterioration of the health service. The recent admission that the NHS is facing the ‘longest and most damaging budget freeze in its history’ is low-hanging fruit for the Shadow Health Minister to capitalise on, and in doing so the entire party will benefit. With the return of the NHS to the top of the political agenda, Andy Burnham must undergo intense media exposure, he must be louder and bolder, he must be seen on every television set, heard on every radio and spotted on every Labour Party broadcast, because if he can convince the British public that their precious NHS is safer in his hands, then Mr Miliband may already have his foot in the front door of 10 Downing Street.