Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Sunday, 17 January 2010

Is this one of the reasons why the Tories are not doing better?

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.


Cardinal Richelieu's mole said...

So it really is about personalities, not policies then.

There are two distinctions between the acceptability of Wilson/Callaghan retreads and Thatcher/major retreads though: -

1. the political philosophy of Old (Real) Labour was repudiated and reviled by New Labour - it was jarring enough to have the shift - it could not have been passed off with the same talking heads promoting it.

Dave needs to update for a changed world but the philosophy endures.

2. The Callaghan years saw a long, slow death of a government, demonstrably discredited and discreditable - in his words by the end the government had "used up its political capital" and any that was left was expended in the Winter of Discontent. The Labour ministers associated with that could not be fronted afresh to the public - especially in view of 1. above.

Dave has but a slight echo of the same problem with some ministers from the Major years - but not with the ones he is using. Also, those who can be identified with the Thatcher years bring net credit.

Tim Roll-Pickering said...

I can't find a list of the Shadow Cabinet from the 1992 election, but IIRC it had just two ex Cabinet Ministers - Roy Hattersley and John Smith. Only four other members of Callaghan's cabinet stood in that election - John Morris, who was Shadow Attorney General but not in the Shadow Cabinet, and three backbenchers - Tony Benn, Peter Shore and Stanley Orme. The length of time had meant the others had retired off or left the party. (Note that only four of the first Blair Cabinet are in the Cabinet today and only a handful more are restanding.) I'm not sure how many of the Shadow Cabinet had been junior ministers, but Beckett, Meacher and Dewar (at least) were in it. (Oh and of course the 1990s was a period when tabloid headlines decided that PPSes are junior ministers...)

But I find the premise hard to agree with. I don't it really registers with the public at all that people like Fox, Gillan, Maude, Strathclyde or McLoughlin were junior ministers in the Thatcher/Major governments. Few non-Cabinet ministers from that era had any real public profile at all, with a handful of exceptions like Edwina Currie and Ann Widdecombe, and there isn't an endless procession of stock footage on television to remind people.

That leaves the three former Cabinet ministers but two only re-entered the Shadow Cabinet within the last twelve months - and the Shadow Leader of the House of Commons is not a role that automatically grabs the attention of the public of large. Are some of the public really being put off by the presence of Hague and Clarke? Do the poll trends show any sign of Clarke's return having a negative impact?

Oranjepan said...

I had a similar thought as Tim, that it'd be fairer to compare with the 1992 shadow cabinet, but I draw a slightly different conclusion to him.

I agree that it doesn't really register with the public directly, but there will almost cerainly be some hold-over effects of the thought that their experience is of benefit and using that to support the case for the arguments they propose.

Of course all experience is valuable to some extent, but as you day, it can also hold people back when pushong on would be better.

So perhaps a less perceptable indirect effect then - the odd percent, rather than a massive influencing factor.

But while many people are asking about the potential of a hung parliament odd percentages will be decisive.

Mark Wadsworth said...

"his party had moved on from the discredited government that lost the 1997 election"

1979, surely?

Mark Thompson said...

Mark - Thanks. Fixed!

Tim - I take your point about most voters not knowing exactly who used to be in government but my point is more about the mood music. They may not know exact numbers but the idea that there are still quite a lot of the old guard floating around in senior positions does I think drip through into the public consciousness in an almost subliminal way.

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Letters From A Tory said...

Sorry but I disagree with your analysis simply on the basis that electoral cycles will always ensure that only a handful of Cabinet members survive until their party comes to power again.

In addition, it is highly unlikely that many politicians will survive from the 'good years' of a government until they next win power seeing as this gap could be at least 20-25 years in British politics.

Oranjepan said...

LFAT, I don't think you can generalise from the past couple of decades because this period has been historically anomalous in that governments have lasted for an abnormally long time.

6 years is the historic average, yet even John Major lasted 7!