Miliband shuffles the pack
With increasing regularity over the last few months it has been remarked that Labour’s shadow cabinet team has collectively underperformed. John Prescott was as emphatic as ever last week in demanding that Ed Miliband reshuffled the pack, going so far as to claim that some of the current team weren’t even bothering to campaign.
Miliband himself would never have put it quite as bluntly as Prescott, but ever since he moved to abolish shadow cabinet elections back in June, it has been apparent that he too was keen to freshen up his team. And so just over a week after every single cabinet member addressed conference, Ed has moved to rejig the squad.
The two most significant departures are those of John Healy and John Denham, from the Health and Business, Innovation and Skills departments respectively. Healey’s exit is not that unexpected; despite his reputation as a diligent and hard-working performer and a decent, if not unduly inspiring, public-speaker, it was widely felt that Healey hadn’t made the political gains he should have given his counterpart, Andrew Lansley’s abysmal handling of the NHS reforms. One only needs to re-watch the response Ed Miliband got to his attack on the Tories’ NHS proposals in his conference speech last week to understand just how key an issue the NHS is for Labour party activists. That Healey was unable to unleash that sort of passion on a regular basis in opposing the Tory plans always meant that he was unlikely to survive.
Denham’s departure comes as a far greater shock. As one of only five of the original shadow cabinet team to have backed Ed in the Labour leadership contest, at first glance it seems odd that Ed has discarded one of his closest allies. The official line is that after 30 continuous years as an elected councillor or MP, Denham has decided he will not be standing for re-election in 2015 and as such wants to give Ed the chance to promote someone who will be around after the next election. A perfectly plausible explanation though rumour would have it that Denham was unhappy with Ed’s attack on bad businesses last week whilst other sources have suggested a disagreement with Ed Ball’s is the primary factor in his departure.
Elsewhere, Andy Burnham’s switch from Education back to Health, the position he held before the last general election, will hopefully see him on more comfortable terrain. After fighting a good campaign during the leadership election, Burnham never really came up with an alternative vision to Michael Gove’s free schools and the massive expansion in the number of academies. That job will now fall to Stephen Twigg, though with his Blairite reputation it does appear that Miliband has decided that Labour are not planning on opposing the creation of further academies.
What is perhaps most striking about this reshuffle though is the number of MPs who were only first elected in 2010. Chuka Umunna will take over from John Denham as shadow secretary of state for BIS, Rachel Reeves will be up against Danny Alexander as the new shadow chief secretary to the Treasury, whilst Liz Kendall, Michael Dugher and Emily Thornberry all get promotions as well, although technically not to the shadow cabinet. Not only will the fresh faces predictably bring fresh ideas, but it will also help rebut the Tory claims that Labour’s top table is dominated by figures who were complicit in running up a huge deficit in the last government.
It will inevitably be noted too that Miliband now finds himself leading a shadow cabinet in which the Brownites are considerably more dominant than the Blairite faction. As someone who has always sought to position himself as the man best equipped to move Labour beyond the Blair-Brown years, it may appear strange that Miliband has assembled his cabinet in such a manner. Yet it reality this was always the most likely outcome. Top Brownite figures such as Balls, Yvette-Cooper and Douglas Alexander were always going to be unmoved, whilst the promotion of Tom Watson would’ve been hard avoid given his rapid rise to fame during the phone-hacking scandal.
All things considered, Miliband has brought together a strong group of individuals that should be an improvement on the team thrust upon him last time round. Whether they will be able to make any meaningful difference to the fortunes of the Labour party is more questionable though. As the leaders’ debates before the last election showed, we live in an era in which our elections are becoming increasingly more presidential. Cabinet and shadow cabinet members have become increasingly marginalised with only the very best able to impact upon the public.
Miliband will be desperately hoping that the likes of Chuka Umunna and Rachel Reeves possess that little bit of star quality that can make a shadow cabinet member a strong electoral asset. It is of course painfully obvious though that the one Labour MP with star quality in abundance is still missing; for David Miliband the wait for a return to frontline politics goes on.