Some of you have asked me (through Puffles) on what I think of Labour’s new shadow cabinet. My thoughts on this – and on any future reshuffles in this political era are not on the personalities but are on the structures, systems and processes. My previous blogpost on all of these excluding ordinary people go into more detail.
In the civil service I experienced a number of reshuffles as well as a change of leadership and a change of administration. Change costs time. Change costs money. Therefore if you are going to do it – especially at the taxpayers’ expense, you’ve got to have a bloody good reason to do it (and also a sound evidence base to justify those changes). I say this not because I don’t want to improve stuff and see things improved. I say this because change for the sake of change can do more damage than keeping things the way that they are.
I found this out the hard way in the private sector. During my year out between college and university (in the years before the ‘gap year’ – or ‘gap yah’ entered the public realm) I watched in horror as our entire office was informed of its closure – along with people’s jobs – despite the net profits that each member of staff was making for the firm we worked for. None of us could understand why this decision was being made other than a new appointee in senior management needed to demonstrate that he was making progress. As Sir Humphrey Appleby once said about ministers, senior people need activity – it’s their substitute for achievement.
Anyone who has been through a reorganisation in a large organisation (irrespective of sector) knows how disrupting and time consuming these things can be. What political watchers may not be aware of is just how much damage these reorganisations can do to the achievement of what those at the top want to achieve. The Blair-Brown disputes are in the public minds because they are much more recent, but similar problems plagued the administrations of Major and Thatcher too. So my first question to Labour Party people is how long this front bench line up will last for. If for example Labour wins the next general election, will these people move seamlessly into the roles that they are currently shadowing? (If not, why are they in those posts?)
Political parties inevitably want to change after unsuccessful general election campaigns – especially those that turf them out of office. The Conservative Party that I grew up under in some regards is a totally different creature compared to the party of today – ditto with the Labour Party. Could anyone imagine senior Conservative ministers from the 1980s making speeches in support of gay marriage? Could anyone imagine Labour shadow ministers of the 1980s being content with university tuition fees of £6,000 – or bringing in fees in the first place?
Inevitably the people who political watchers will be focussing on will be those of the new 2010 intake who have been elevated to the front bench. Chuka Umunna MP is one figure I’ve kept an eye on – in particular his work while on the Treasury Select Committee. How will he and other new faces perform in a shadow portfolio?
There is also the watching of former ministers in new shadow roles. The millstone that these former ministers have is the repeated accusations of being party to the policies of the previous administration that helped get us into the economic quagmire that we found ourselves in. In terms of debates in the Commons, all Coalition ministers have to do in response to any question they don’t want to answer is to say “The Hon/Rt hon gentleman/lady was a minister in the previous administration that got us into this mess and we are having to take the tough decisions to sort it all out!” instead. How do politicians vulnerable to that accusation gain milage on any argument or criticism that they want to put forward? I think this is one of the reasons why some senior Labour figures such as Ed Balls have been forthcoming about what they got wrong while in government.
The convention of collective responsibility may also have the unfortunate effect of turning independent minds and mouths into glorified spokesmen/spokeswomen. I noticed this in a big way with Dr Vince Cable in both his disposition before and after the 2010 general election. The words he uses, the style of delivery and personal mannerisms in terms of what I’ve seen of TV footage is noticeably different.
I queried this through Puffles what the new responsibilities Tom Watson MP has will mean for his very high profile role at the forefront of Parliamentary investigations into phone hacking – especially on the back of Culture Committee Chairman John Whittingdale’s calls for him to stand down. What impact (if any) will these new responsibilities have on his activities? It may well be that they have little impact at all. They may increase his profile both within Labour and with the wider public. They may distract him from the important work he’s doing on phone hacking. (Interested in Labour tweeple’s views on this).
In a nutshell? Reshuffles and reorganisations should be fewer in frequency, more evidenced and thought through in their planning, and more effective in what they deliver once the reshuffle and reorganisation has been completed. Will we move on from a world where reorganisations don’t include decisions made out of spite?