Election that casts a poor shadow

Labour's annual ballot for its 'phantom' cabinet is a distraction and a pretence of democratic choice. Abolish it
Click to follow
As Parliament returns today, a demeaning sequence of conversations will be opened in the bars, terraces and corridors. Leading Labour MPs will solicit the votes of the less- well-known ones. Slightly flushed and rightly embarrassed, they will ask about the spouse and kids, touch on the latest political gossip and then utter, in a falsely casual tone, the fatal words: ''me'', ''vote'' and ''Shadow Cabinet elections''.

For a Labour politician in Opposition, election to what is formally called the Parliamentary Committee of the Labour Party is the gateway to the big time. It guarantees a relatively big shadow job, with the media appearances, higher profile and Commons opportunities that go with it. To get there you have to negotiate, every October, a ballot by Labour MPs. You have to wheedle, cajole, promise and flatter.

The crawling gets under way by the early summer, though one member of the Shadow Cabinet laments that ''to be honest, it hardly ever stops''. It is true that the brightest and the best tend to get elected anyway: Tony Blair and Gordon Brown both got on to the Shadow Cabinet without being particularly popular, because their talents were widely acknowledged.

However, in the main, quality must pay its annual homage to mediocrity. There have been, over the years, Labour frontbenchers whose talent seemed to be to get elected to what the French nicely call the phantom cabinet. They could not speak well, think straight, make the news ... but boy, could they wheedle. Even the Labour Chief Whip, the party's disciplinarian and secret police chief, must be elected.

The damage all this causes to the Labour Party is hard to measure exactly, because it goes so wide. For a start, there is the simple point that Labour is not using all its best people - one honest minister told me recently that he thought the quality of his Opposition shadow allowed his department to get away with murder.

Thoughout the post-war history of the Labour Party, there have been people elected to the Shadow Cabinet who would not have been chosen on merit. In the recent past, Tom Clarke and Barry Jones were widely quoted examples. In the current Shadow Cabinet, one wonders whether Ron Davies, David Clark or Ann Taylor have earned their right to be top-rankers. Actually, I am only being polite. One does not wonder. Michael Meacher had been doing better at transport but, having produced detailed taxi proposals which achieved the near-impossible feat of making London's influential black- cab drivers even angrier with Labour than the Government, he now has a large black mark against him. Mr Blair is said to be aghast.

These are not bad people. They slog away, lack the faintest tincture of corruption and try to serve people and party. But they certainly are not the best that Labour can find. Jeff Rooker, Frank Field, Clare Short, Brian Wilson, Kate Hoey, Alistair Darling, Paul Boateng ... all of them are Labour stars whom Mr Blair cannot give top jobs to, even if he wanted to, because they have not swept up enough colleagues' votes.

As much damage is caused, though, by the effect of the system on the people who do get elected to the Shadow Cabinet. A noble few, it is true, simply ignore the whole business, reckoning that if they are not chosen by their colleagues on merit, they would rather not be chosen at all. The majority, though, grit their teeth and cadge.

Just consider what this means. There are senior Opposition figures, engaged in difficult policy reviews and travelling round the country, who have to keep breaking off and scuttling back to plead for votes. A Conservative Machiavelli could hardly come up with a more effective way of distracting the enemy than this. For months, the parliamentary Labour Party is less obsessed with the future of tax policy or Europe than with the intense and bitchy politics of who is going to get what rating in Shadow Cabinet.

Policy promises are sought and, by the weak, given. Not-so-subtle hints are delivered: ''Oh-ho? So that's your view of trade union reform/devolution/the minimum wage, is it? I'm a bit surprised, given that the Shadow Cabinet elections are coming up

The worst elements of corruption in the voting have been ended by the recent introduction of that new-fangled device, the secret ballot. No longer do Labour whips wave wads of blank ballot papers in front of the noses of senior MPs they want to influence. Even so, the voting system is complex and unpredictable in its effects. A natural bias towards the bluff and the male is so embarrassingly strong that a quota system had to be introduced for female MPs: too few were adept at hanging round Annie's Bar telling rude stories.

And finally, as an exercise in party openness, these elections are deeply misleading. They do not give a true impression of what a Labour cabinet would be like, because no Labour prime minister would dream of being so tied. Though, in theory, Mr Blair would have to carry his Shadow Cabinet into office with him, he will not. Neil Kinnock made it clear he would not be bound for more than five minutes if he made it to Downing Street.

This time, too, there will be discreet telephone calls from the Leader's Office a few months ahead of the election to warn X and Y that they will not be offered cabinet jobs. If they kick up a fuss, they will simply be sacked. If they accept it, they will get positions as ministers of state and the chance of promotion in due course.

Meanwhile, those who will get top jobs but who did not make it to the Shadow Cabinet will also be tipped off and warned to bone up on whatever area Mr Blair is considering them for. Thus, dishonesty and suspicion are built into the pretence of democratic choice. Barely anyone would vote for Peter Mandelson for the Shadow Cabinet, because they hate him so much. But they suspect he will somehow get a government job, if the voters do their duty; and, of course, they are right.

Why not do the obvious and ditch this 72-year-old system of voting for frontbenchers? The idea will, of course, be regarded by some as right- wing and ''modernising'' claptrap, but the proposal came originally from Nye Bevan in 1959.

The greatest left-winger of Labour's post-war heyday recognised that giving the party leader full responsibility for his team in Opposition would make things more transparent and honest. The party leader, Hugh Gaitskell, a right-wing leader, got cold feet. But Mr Bevan was right, then as now: it would stop the endless, distracting lobbying and cat- fighting in the parliamentary party; it would be more conducive to balance, both geographical and political; it would pin responsibility on the leader for the team's overall mix, for the individual performances - and for who he left out. This is what will happen if Labour wins, when Mr Blair would be fully responsible and accountable for the successes and the failures in the Labour team. This is the real world; 18 months or so away from the next general election, is it ridiculous to suggest the party starts to live there?