Despite David Cameron’s recent woes, Ed Miliband and his party are still struggling to come to terms with the realities of life after government. The new leader continues to earn what can politely be called mixed reviews, while the cry “Where is the shadow cabinet?” echoes incessantly from many a Labour activist’s lips.
But what, too, of that Praetorian Guard, the Parliamentary Labour Party? In the 1990s they worried and harried John Major and his benighted administration to destruction. They cast a ring of steel around Tony Blair that no Tory leader could penetrate. And they fought tenaciously to keep Gordon Brown in Downing Street until the bitter end.
“Most of the new intake are still just enjoying being MPs,” says one Labour MP. “You have to remember the old hands had a pretty tough time just hanging onto their seats. They think they’ve earned a bit of a rest.”
It’s interesting to compare and contrast how Miliband and his predecessors have marshalled their foot soldiers. In the wake of the 1992 election defeat, John Smith deployed them virtually as a guerilla army. Shadow ministers and backbenchers had licence – indeed, were actively encouraged – to attack the government whenever and wherever they found it. It was a time when ambitious and media-savvy operators like Brian Wilson, Stephen Byers and Alan Milburn rose to the fore.
Under Blair the rules of engagement changed. Faced with huge opinion poll leads, it was clear the upcoming election was Labour’s to lose. Rigid command and control structures were imposed on Smith’s marauders. Backbench MPs were organised into campaign units, shadowing each of the major briefs. All press releases and speeches were carefully vetted from the centre. “We used to be buccaneers,” one senior shadow ministerial adviser once said to me ruefully. “Now we’re a disciplined army. It’s effective, but it’s nowhere near as much fun.”
It would be a stretch to describe today’s Parliamentary Labour Party as ether effective or highly disciplined. And there isn’t a whole lot of buccaneering or marauding going on, either.
One key reason for this is Miliband’s decision to fast-track many of the more gifted members of the 2010 intake into the shadow cabinet and other senior shadow ministerial roles. “A lot of the new guys are talented,” says one Labour insider, “but they’ve been promoted too quickly. You can’t stand up in the chamber and command the House until you’ve got a real feel for how the place works.”
Another downside is that many Labour MPs from earlier intakes feel ‘Generation Ed’ has got a jump on them. “Resentment would be too strong a word,” says one MP, “but it’s fair to say the attitude of a few of the older guys is, ‘OK, we’re going to sit back and see if Ed’s kids sink or swim.’”
That said, a number of the new generation are starting to catch the eye of their colleagues. One is Liz Kendall, Harriet Harman’s former special adviser, and now a junior health minister. “Liz is making things happen”, says one admirer. “Over Christmas she managed to land a few hits on the government. That shouldn’t be a big deal, but at a time when we’re really struggling, it was an achievement.”
Another is Gregg McClymont, shadow pensions minister, who is described as having “a brain the size of a planet”, but fortunately “is not arrogant with it. He’s going to be a policy force over the next few years,” says a colleague. Other names to watch out for are Toby Perkins, who is “a good campaigner”, Owen Smith “knows how both the Labour Party and the private sector work”, Jamie Reed is “a scrapper”, Chris Leslie “does a lot of Ed Balls’ heavy lifting” and Shabana Mahmood “quietly gets on with things very effectively”. Dan Jarvis, Gloria De Piero, Stella Creasy, Tom Greatrex, Emma Reynolds and John Woodcock are also described as “knocking on the door of the first team”.
Interestingly, though, one name crops up time and time again. “Keep an eye on Anas Sarwar,” says one Labour source. “He’s the real thing.” The MP for Glasgow Central is Labour’s deputy Scottish leader, and is currently helping the campaign to derail Alex Salmond’s independence drive. “He gets overlooked because people think he’s only there because of his father [former MP Mohammad Sarwar]”, says another insider, “but that’s a mistake. He’s got something of the young Tony Blair about him. When he walks into the room you know he’s there.” Another colleague agrees: “He’s got to be careful not to get too bogged down in politics north of the border, but when the independence campaign is out of the way he’s got the opportunity to become a real force.”
Good. The ranks of Labour’s Praetorian Guard are depleted. Centurion Sarwar and his cohorts cannot arrive a moment too soon.
Dan Hodges is a Labour commentator