An election Tony Blair would best avoid

The leader, the party, and the country at large can only lose if a vote is held for the Shadow Cabinet
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Consider this unconsciously revealing remark by Doug Hoyle, chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party, on the Today programme yesterday. Asked by James Naughtie whether the prospect of the Labour Party consuming itself over the summer and early autumn in the divisive internal politicking of a Shadow Cabinet election would not delight the Tory chairman Brian Mawhinney, Mr Hoyle replied, after various platitudes about getting Dr Mawhinney out of office: "I'm afraid we don't run the Labour Party for Dr Mawhinney or anyone else."

OK. It was a slip. No doubt he didn't really intend to say it. Or if he did, he meant "or anyone else in the Conservative Party". And yet in those three little words all the introverted and residual tribalism which 16 years of opposition have still failed quite to extinguish is laid bare. Whether or not the Parliamentary Labour Party breaks its hallowed traditions by not having annual elections this year, Mr Hoyle appears to be saying, is no one's business but its own. Perhaps not Tony Blair's and certainly not, even under a system which Mr Hoyle was adamant would decide who is and who isn't in the first Labour Cabinet for 17 years, yours or mine.

It is our concern, of course, and we'll come to why in a moment. But even if it wasn't, it's easy to make a case, in the Labour Party's own interests, of why it would be crazy to consume many weeks in the run-up to a general election in a prolonged internal campaign for who should be in the Shadow Cabinet.

Many of those insistent on securing elections are motivated as much by the desire to punish as to bring on to the Shadow Cabinet a new and favoured candidate. But however sweet the vengeance in booting Harriet Harman (for sending her son to a grammar school) or Jack Straw (for trying to outflank Michael Howard on law and order) off the Shadow Cabinet, it doesn't require much imagination to see what the Tories will do with such results.

So much for Tony Blair's modernisation, they will say that November day when the Shadow Cabinet results come out: "Today we've seen the real Labour Party at work."

The second and more powerful argument is that it's a rotten system, owing a good deal more to vote-trading and arcane regional and personal alliances than merit or even ideology. At least one innocent candidate in last year's Shadow Cabinet elections was astonished to be told by another that he could give him the votes of half a dozen of his own supporters if he could have six back in return. The Labour MP Tony Wright yesterday used the analogy of an England football team picked by all the clubs in the league. "That's exactly what happens here - the equivalent of saying 'you have my goalkeeper, we'll take your centre forward'." Whatever else may be going for the system, it has, apart from its capacity to elect the obvious stars, an almost built-in bias against picking the best man or woman for the job.

But essentially that's Labour's problem, and here Mr Hoyle has half a point. What should concern the rest of us is the much larger issue of whether the Shadow Cabinet, elected on this ramshackle basis, should automatically become the Cabinet on day one of a new Labour government. Standing Order E (1) of the PLP says that "on taking office as Prime Minister the Leader shall appoint as members of his Cabinet those who were elected members of the Parliamentary Committee [ie the Shadow Cabinet] at the dissolution and retained their seats in the new Parliament."

The standard view among MPs is that this means Blair is saddled with the Shadow Cabinet if and when he takes office but can then reshuffle them within a few weeks if he chooses. On Day One, therefore, of the first Labour government for 17 years, the newspapers swell with glowing profiles of the new regime. Then a month later Blair considers whether to risk causing an earthquake in the new government by sacking (say) Michael Meacher, Tom Clarke and goodness knows how many others. This is scarcely sensible politics.

And it matters to a much wider electorate than the Parliamentary Labour Party. Prime ministers, elected by their party and their country, are entrusted by the voters with the right to pick their own team. It's not an exaggeration to say it's part of the unwritten constitution of the country.

What's more, Blair will have Labour Party history on his side if he decides to choose his own Cabinet from Day One. When Harold Wilson arrived at Downing Street in 1964, he grumbled about having to give "priority" - by convention rather than by rule - to his Shadow Cabinet. But there were only 12 of them. Half the entire Cabinet therefore were his own choice. Even when the new rule was introduced in 1981, at the height of the Bennite party reforms, it was assumed that a new Labour prime minister would be able to appoint half his own cabinet. It's only since then that the Shadow Cabinet has grown as large as, and even larger than, the real one.

Ideally, Blair would seek a majority in the Parliamentary Labour Party for cancellation of this year's Shadow Cabinet elections, and with it the 1981 rule requiring him to appoint the entire Shadow Cabinet to his first real Cabinet. But if he can't do the latter now, he has every reason to ignore the rule or demand that it is changed immediately he arrives in office.

Tony Blair hasn't declared his hand on whether there should be Shadow Cabinet elections this year, let alone on the taboo topic of Standing Order E (1). But the most pressing reason for not having the Shadow Cabinet elections is that they probably will be, and certainly ought to be, irrelevant.