Today, the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) will vote on Ed Miliband’s proposal to scrap elections to the shadow cabinet. Alas, I will not be present – I’ll be taking part in a Transport Select Committee trip to Europe to look at their experience of high speed rail – but I will vote by proxy. And yes, of course I will support Ed’s plan.
Last autumn, as I made my ultimately fruitless attempt to attract enough support from my colleagues to guarantee me a place round Labour’s top table, I frequently had to cope with sympathetic words from friendly journalists and even a few friendly Tories, along the lines of “Why on earth do you lot elect your shadow cabinet?” And I would shrug apologetically in a kind of “I know – what are we like?” sort of way, then skulk off to the tearoom before I could be quizzed any further.
Don’t blame me. I voted against elections. “But how can it be bad to have more democracy?” some of my less cynical colleagues would proclaim. Frank Dobson was keen to remind us of the impressive slate of successful candidates elected the last time the PLP had a hand in electing the top team in 1996: Gordon Brown, Donald Dewar, Robin Cook, Jack Straw, David Blunkett and, of course, Frank himself.
But that was an awful long time ago. And it was no secret at the time that Tony Blair would much have preferred to appoint whoever he liked. shadow cabinet elections – a bit like the electoral college – was a hangover from a difficult and troubled past, when democratic accountability mattered far more than effectiveness as an opposition spokesman or woman. Not that being elected means you are inevitably less effective – far from it. But a leader in the 21st century needs to be able to pick whoever he likes to cover a shadow portfolio – even, occasionally, people who are not universally rated by the PLP but who have abilities and qualities of peculiar value to the leader.
There’s a pretty obvious flaw in the principle that the opposition elects its shadow cabinet, and it is simply that such elections cannot take place once in government (at least not without a pretty major re-drafting of the UK’s constitutional rules and precedents). So why pursue the practice in opposition?
More importantly, a shadow cabinet member who knows his or her re-election depends on the PLP might well be tempted to play to the crowd, as it were. And (whisper it) what the PLP wants to hear and what the public – and leader – needs to hear are often entirely different beasts.
Of course, it’s quite possible that we wouldn’t have voted to elect the shadow cabinet last year in the first place had the party’s National Executive Committee (NEC) recognised that not having a leader for nearly five months might be just a bit of a gift to the government and agreed a timetable for the election of Gordon’s replacement that wasn’t quite so leisurely. That way, a new leader could have been in place that much earlier and could have given us a lead (it’s what they’re supposed to do, after all) as to how the shadow cabinet should be established. John Smith died on 12 May 1994. The official campaign to find a replacement wasn’t launched until after the European elections on 9 June, and Tony Blair was elected on 21 July – a period of less than six weeks.
Well, as we so often have to say in the Labour Party, we are where we are. And now that Ed has given such a bold lead on this issue, I’m confident we will reverse our post-defeat ill judgment of last year and give our leader a small but valuable weapon to add to his armory.