In 1997, one of the things that underlined how much Tony Blair had changed his party from the one that had lost in 1979 (and been out of power for 18 years) was how few members of his shadow cabinet had been members of that previous administration.
I did a bit of research on this last night and as far as I can tell, the only members of Blair's Shadow Cabinet in the run up to the 1997 General Election that had been a member of the 1979 losing government were:
- Margaret Beckett: She had held a number of junior positions under Wilson and Callaghan.
- Michael Meacher: He also held a couple of junior positions in the 1974-1979 administration.
- Gavin Strang: Ditto.
- Ann Taylor who was an assistant whip from 1977-1979 under Callaghan.
Donald Dewar had been a junior member of Wilson's administration in the late 60s but not in the 70s as after the 1970 election he lost his seat and did not get back into parliament until 1978.
So that is 4 shadow cabinet members who had held rather lowly positions in the most recent Labour government and 1 who had been a lowly member of a previous, non-contiguous Labour administration from almost 3 decades earlier.*
I think it is also significant that no former Labour cabinet ministers at all were in Blair's 1997 shadow cabinet.
For a putative Prime Minister such as Tony Blair who was trying to demonstrate how much his party had moved on from the discredited government that lost the 1979 election, the fact that there were only a very small number of shadow cabinet members associated (in a fairly small way) with that former government I think sent a strong message. It was that the old ways of doing things were out and his party had fundamentally changed. He was rewarded with massive poll leads and as we now all know a huge landslide victory in 1997.
Now contrast that with David Cameron's shadow cabinet. Ten of his shadow cabinet held ministerial positions under John Major and 3 of them were cabinet ministers. I have listed them below with the former cabinet ministers in bold:
- William Hague
- Liam Fox
- Sir George Young (he was also a minister for a short time under Margaret Thatcher)
- Cheryl Gillan
- Francis Maude (he was actually out of parliament after 1992 but was a minister under Major until then)
- Andrew Mitchell
- Kenneth Clarke (he was a minister all the way through from 1979 - 1997)
- David Willetts
- Lord Strathclyde
- Patrick McLoughlin
Now this is probably a slightly unfair comparison because it is less than 13 years since the Major government fell compared to 18 years between the Callaghan and Blair governments. However, the electorate won't be factoring this differential into the calculations when deciding to vote. Elections are often down to tone and how voters feel about parties, sometimes in ways that they cannot even quite put their finger on.
I also know that in the case of both William Hague and Kenneth Clarke, despite having been cabinet ministers under Major that they are quite popular and well respected. I am not questioning that, what I am drawing attention to is the message that having them and so many other former ministers on board sends out.
I would suggest that despite David Cameron's efforts to try and modernise his party in the last few years and dump much of its baggage, the fact that nearly half his shadow cabinet served in a widely discredited government does send out a subliminal message and it is in contradiction to the one that Cameron is trying to get out there. It suggests that his party and its leadership since 1997 has not changed as much as he might like to think.
I wonder if this is one of the reasons why the Conservative poll lead is not as high as that of Labour's at a similar point in the electoral cycle in 1997.
*It is also worth bearing in mind that the Labour Party rules in opposition mean that the Shadow Cabinet is elected by the party and therefore Blair actually had little choice as to who he had, only over the roles they had. It is noteworthy that upon becoming Prime Minister, Blair refused to appoint Meacher to the cabinet and instead made him a junior minister. Although Strang was appointed as Minister of Transport in the cabinet in 1997 he was sacked in 1998 and has remained on the backbenches ever since.