More beauty contest than Shadow Cabinet

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THIS morning John Smith sits down with a small piece of paper and decides who gets to speak on what for the Official Opposition in the parliamentary year ahead. His choice matters, at least a little: the wrong people in the wrong jobs would damage Labour's standing quite seriously. And the piece of paper before him contains the results of last night's election - the votes Labour MPs have cast to choose who should lead the fight against John Major's government.

There is a long tradition behind this way of choosing Labour's senior spokesmen - it goes back to 1923, before the election that produced the first Ramsay MacDonald Labour government. In the early days, the result was not regarded as a shadow government. Clement Attlee would simply call together the 12 elected MPs each Monday morning, and parcel out debating tasks for the week ahead: you take on the Treasury tomorrow, you have a bash at India on Wednesday. But the principle of electing the shadow leadership has been unchallenged for 70 years.

Has it been a good system? Has it produced aggressive and effective anti-Conservative political teams? Well, it certainly hasn't produced notably successful ones. It would be unfair, but not terribly so, to point out that the elected shadow cabinets have mostly remained shadow cabinets, and not become real ones.

There are advantages in the complex voting system that produces what is formally called the Parliamentary Committee of the Labour Party. It forces the party's frontbenchers to stay close to the prejudices of backbenchers. (But what about the voters?) It means that the regions with large numbers of Labour MPs are cheerily over- represented: Welsh MPs vote for Welsh MPs and so on. (But what about the South?)

These aren't popular elections, so much as incestuous, insiders' beauty contests, based on a voting system so complex that it has become a lottery. The party doesn't think it produces good government - the procedure ceases whenever Labour wins power. Why, therefore, should it produce good opposition? What it does mean is that Labour frontbenchers spend months hanging around the bars ingratiating themselves with suspicious colleagues, offering favours, flattery and deals to get the necessary votes. There are other more useful things they could be concentrating on.

Even the most curmudgeonly Labour MPs recognise that, say, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown are necessary to their party's public standing. But plenty of others get into the Shadow Cabinet because of embarrassing persistence - the self- promoting campaigners, ever at the elbow with a self-deprecating smile.

The Parliamentary Labour Party is not - how shall we put this gracefully? - an inexhaustible pool of human talent. And the ability to buy pints of lager for dim-witted former union officials, or to remember their children's names, is not necessarily the best qualification for calling a government to account across the despatch box or in the Newsnight studio. Talented Labour people come close to laughter or tears (depending on their humour and the hour of the night) at the things they have to do to stay on, or get into, the Shadow Cabinet. It is a huge waste of energy.

The same system ensures that talented people who would make excellent front-rank Labour advocates must be excluded because they are too busy or too proud to go through the hoops with their colleagues. A system that can briskly execute Harriet Harman and brave politicians like Kevin McNamara, and which ensures that people such as Frank Field and Jeff Rooker never have the slightest chance of reaching senior positions in their party, is a seriously flawed system. And then there's the earlier and grimmer embarrassments such as blank voting papers being handed over to Labour whips by MPs who wanted favours, or the requirement by left- wing 'slates' that completed voting papers should be checked before being cast.

What ought to happen instead? Frankly, a little autocracy: the Labour leader should be able to pick the team he or she wants from the shallow pool of PLP talent, marshalling the best Labour MPs against the best Government ministers, reshuffling them whenever that seems appropriate and bringing on good new people, whether or not they have 'served their time' and built up a base of support in the Members' dining-room.

It might be objected that such a change would tilt the Shadow Cabinet to the right or left, depending on the leader, rather than allowing the broad spectrum of views produced by elections. But the leader tries to position his party so as to maximise its chances of winning. The technical term for this is 'serious politics'. Some Labour leaders might not like the consequent responsibility - Hugh Gaitskell confessed in the Fifties that he did not want to choose his own Shadow Cabinet because it would make him 'too open to blame for everything that went wrong'. But that is what leadership is all about.

It might also be objected that it would undermine the position of female politicians, who benefit from a complex system of quota voting. But it was Neil Kinnock, then John Smith, responding to the views of the electorate, who demanded more female front-rankers in the first place. Rather than forcing MPs to go through the humiliation of a rigged voting system, wouldn't it be more grown-up just to let Mr Smith choose the best?

This modest proposal hasn't a snowball's chance in hell of being adopted by Labour. It is too radical for a party which prides itself on promoting radicalism for everyone except itself. But we should not let the 70th anniversary of a little ritual pass by merely recording who, this year, is up and who is down; it is also worth bearing in mind that the whole business is barking mad.