Mr Ed’s Team Invisible

Yesterday LabourList posted the results of their most recent survey of approval ratings for members of the Shadow Cabinet. While it would be unwise to place too much weight on such figures, they gave me cause to reflect on the current state of the political game.

The survey indicated that the approval ratings for some key members of the Shadow Cabinet – Ed Miliband and Alan Johnson in particular – have weakened, with the proportion of respondents indicating they felt these senior politicians are doing a ‘poor’ job increasing markedly.

In contrast, the approval ratings for the dynamic duo of Balls and Cooper held firm, while Andy Burnham recorded the most positive net rating of any Shadow Cabinet member. Equally notably, a good chunk of those surveyed felt unable to pass judgement either way on a significant proportion of the more junior members of the Shadow Cabinet.

Simply from eyeballing the data it would appear that the approval ratings correlate quite strongly with media profile. Those who do not find themselves on Andrew Marr’s sofa or in similar locations very regularly are less likely to register in the collective consciousness. But that cannot be the whole story. For all that I disagree with quite a bit of what he say, Alan Johnson is one of the best and more regular media performers Labour has. No one can deliver the party line in quite the same fluent, relaxed but authoritative manner – giving the impression that these ideas are entirely the speaker’s own. So it’s got to be something about what is, or isn’t, being said – criticisms that are not registering or not being seen as plausible.

Regardless of differences in the media profile of its members, for me the bigger problem would be the overall profile of the Shadow Cabinet. The current approach feels relatively low-key. Robust high profile engagement with the Coalition’s agenda is sadly lacking. If someone were to tell me that the whole Shadow Cabinet has been on a strategy away month at a secret location since mid-November it wouldn’t come entirely as a surprise.

And when they do find a voice Labour don’t seem to be opposing the Coalition in anything other than a slightly cartoonish manner. Locked in the boot – ha!

So there doesn’t appear to be an awful lot of effective opposing going on. The label ‘Team Invisible’ wouldn’t be entirely without justification.

Clearly, Labour has a big credibility problem. The Coalition has managed to construct a narrative of Labour profligacy and make it stick. Personally I don’t feel that narrative is entirely fair or justified, but it has certainly been effective. So they’ve rather had the rug pulled out from under them.

Back in May, once they’d lost power after 13 years in government, Labour adopted quite a conventional narrative of renewal. New leader, revitalised agenda – we need to go away and think. Time and patience are required.

Yet, I don’t think anyone, perhaps outside those in the inner circle of the Coalition negotiations, expected the policy agenda to be moving forward at the breakneck speed that it has. Labour hasn’t been afforded the time to regroup before our democratic process requires they be stuck back in there opposing. The danger is that by the time Labour has got its line of argument straight, knows its own mind, and has restored the credibility to allow it to make the case, much damage will already have been done.

This is where the LibDems could have stepped in. But their opposition to the agenda – and I am certain that outside of the Coalition the LibDems would have opposed much of the current agenda vigorously – has been spiked by the party leadership being implicated in pushing forward these dramatic changes.

The Coalition is engaged in a programme that will fundamentally transform British society. Many of those changes will not, in my view, be for the better. It is a time when effective opposition is more important than ever. But a specific constellation of circumstances has resulted in the neutering of the voices of dissent within Parliament. It has been left to those outside to organise, and to contest where we appear to be heading. This is at one and the same time an impoverishment and a potential reanimation of our political culture. Personally, I would prefer the popular protest to be accompanied by a rather better showing from Her Majesty’s Opposition.

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