The phantom shadow cabinet

Sixteen months ago, I wrote a piece suggesting that one lesson Labour could learn from the catastrophic leadership of Ed Miliband was not to focus too heavily on one person: there was sufficient strength in the front ranks of the party (as compared to the Conservatives, at any rate) that a team effort would look more convincing.

At the time, the leadership contest had yet to be decided, and I was still working on the entirely mistaken premise that Yvette Cooper was going to win. On that basis I came up with a proposed front-bench line-up, drawing on what I thought were plausible options. And my point was that – regardless of political positions – Labour wouldn’t look too shabby up against David Cameron’s cabinet.

On reflection, I might change some of the choices I then made. I failed, for example, to find room for Angela Eagle or Tom Watson. I’m also aware that some people would (wrongly) think my elevation of, say, John Mann or Gloria de Piero a little frivolous.

But, resisting the temptation to rewrite history, this is my list from July 2015, with the current whereabouts of each person added in brackets:

  • Yvette Cooper – leader (backbenches)
  • Chuka Umunna – shadow chancellor (backbenches)
  • Alan Johnson – foreign affairs (backbenches)
  • Rachel Reeves – business (backbenches)
  • John Mann – home affairs (backbenches)
  • Keir Starmer – justice (shadow secretary for Brexit)
  • Hilary Benn – health (backbenches)
  • Caroline Flint – education (backbenches)
  • Andy Burnham – work and pensions (backbenches)
  • Gloria de Piero – energy and climate change (backbenches)
  • Liz Kendall – transport (backbenches)
  • Dan Jarvis – defence (backbenches)
  • Michael Meacher – environment and food (deceased)
  • Stella Creasey – communities and local government (backbenches)
  • Chris Bryant – culture, media and sport (backbenches)
  • Emma Reynolds – women and equalities (backbenches)
  • Chris Leslie – shadow first secretary (backbenches)
  • Jeremy Corbyn – international development (leader)
  • Rosie Winterton – chief whip (backbenches)
  • Ben Bradshaw – leader of the house (backbenches)

I’m not suggesting that these people aren’t doing good parliamentary work – Cooper, for example, chairs the home affairs select committee – but of the twenty people who I thought in 2015 were serious shadow cabinet candidates, only two are actually in today’s shadow cabinet. One is dead, and the other seventeen are sitting on the backbenches.

And good riddance to them, many might say. A bunch of time-serving New Labour neo-liberal stooges. Labour’s better off with John McDonnell, Diane Abbott and Emily Thornberry as the public face of the party. The proper people to lead the opposition to the Tory government are Nia Griffith, Jon Ashworth, Andy McDonald and Rachael Maskell.

In case you don’t instantly recognize that last group of names, they are currently the shadow secretaries for, respectively, defence, health, transport and the environment. No one (I’m sure) doubts for a moment that all of them will in due course emerge as political giants, but they have perhaps a little way to go yet before they really make their mark.

And meanwhile there’s a shadow cabinet full of talent and experience sitting behind them, not using their media skills to put Labour’s case to the country. As a result of which, Labour has effectively ceased to exist in the eyes of the electorate.

And the point of all this? Just to remind myself of how extraordinary has been the revolution that has swept Labour over the last sixteen months. It’s been a ferocious cull.


Jeremy Corbyn’s first shadow cabinet, 2015


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