Before the extraordinary political summer of 2015 and the birth of New Politics, if one notion was as inconceivable as Jeremy Corbyn becoming Leader of the Labour Party, it was having John McDonnell as Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer. Asked whether he “supported” the appointment, Hilary Benn, the Shadow Foreign Secretary, replied that McDonnell “is the choice Jeremy has made”. It was a pointed comment about the most controversial of many controversial appointments to the latest iteration of what Victor Wiseman (1966) called “this peculiarly British phenomenon”.
Though now a well-established part of the unwritten constitution, the Shadow Cabinet has not attracted much scholarly scrutiny. The term appeared in the press for the first time in 1910, and only became normalised in the 1920s. It remained uncommon until the 1960s, and attained its contemporary prominence only in the 1990s.
Shadow Cabinets offer parties both a means of opposing the government, and a ready-made replacement, while offering voters a rival team to choose from. Shadow Cabinets evolved from cliques and cabals, with greater formalisation occuring as early as 1836, when Peel summoned members of his former Cabinet to oppose Melbourne’s ministry. Asquith cared more for the convention than did his successor, and indeed in 1926 Lloyd George dropped it altogether. When Labour became the official opposition in 1922 the body became more politic. Churchill’s Shadow Cabinet in 1945 consisted of meeting over a fortnightly lunch, until the scale of the Government’s programme forced discipline on it.
A major cohesive influence was the media. In the first ‘television election’ – 1959 – parties presented a team to voters, named onscreen. In 1964 all but one ‘shadow’ went into the Cabinet when Labour won (as happened in 1924, though not, to the late Michael Meacher’s chagrin, in 1997; there may have been more shadow than there were cabinet posts, but Meacher had still come tenth in the 1996 Shadow Cabinet election). Majority governments give oppositions longer to plan. Wilson’s 1966 landslide meant that Heath’s Shadow Cabinet was formed with the 1970s in mind. When Heath won (in 1970) no government had assumed office better prepared.
Collective responsibility would become – thanks to the attentions of the media – as important for a Shadow Cabinet as it was for a Cabinet (which Corbyn’s and Meacher’s mentor Tony Benn found “amazing” after Labour’s 1979 defeat). Indeed, given that there is no real power, it is striking how significant resignations, sackings, and self-abnegation can be: Churchill resigning over India in 1931, and Roy Jenkins over Europe in 1960 and 1972; Powell sacked by Heath in 1968, and Maudling by Thatcher in 1976; Benn declining in 1979, and Kenneth Clarke in 1997 and 2001. By far the main – and growing – reason for so frequent Shadow Cabinet – and Cabinet – personnel changes, however, is the capriciousness of the leader.
The differences in the two major parties’ use of the concept reflect wider truths. The Conservative leader has traditionally been freer to choose whoever they wish for their ‘Consultative Committee’. From Fred Jowett’s ‘Bradford Resolution’ (1914) onwards, Labour has been sceptical of “cabinet government”, and the leader required to observe democratic principles for its ‘Parliamentary Committee’. The elections held at the opening session of every parliament since 1923 (when in opposition) were nevertheless abolished by Ed Miliband in 2011. (Corbyn’s leadership campaign shrewdly flirted with their reintroduction). Shadow Cabinets have been more important for Labour, if for no other reason than that the party has more often had them. Two Shadow Ministers even took to print, in volumes edited by Gerald Kaufman (1983) and John Denham (2012), neither being conspicuously effective in their intention of paving the way for victory.
Shadow Cabinets also reflect broader changes. With Hilary Benn, John McDonnell, and Andy Burnham (Home Office) appointed to the three main portfolios by Corbyn, the top five positions in the Parliamentary Labour Party were occupied by men. Partly in response, the completed Shadow Cabinet had women in the majority, albeit with some prestidigitation (“Shadow Minister for Young People and Voter Registration”). It is a remarkable transformation: in the 1963 Shadow Cabinet elections, the highest placed woman was 23rd (Barbara Castle; the only others, Judith Hart and Alice Bacon, were 26th and 27th). In 1980, 21 MPs were elected to the Shadow Cabinet, all male. Angela Eagle is from a different age.
The range of candidates available to this Labour leader is unusually limited, and only Burnham, Benn, and Lord Falconer (Justice) have any significant cabinet experience. This is necessarily so: in the absence of elections, Labour List canvasses the most popular shadow ministers (just as Conservative Home did) and of the nineteen who topped the last poll before Corbyn’s election, twelve declined to serve, including – unprecedentedly – over half of those who had contested the leadership and deputy leadership. Seamus Milne, Labour’s new head of strategy and communications, thinks it merely “a kind of stabilisation Shadow Cabinet”, although Maria Eagle summarily repudiated collective responsibility as a principle.
Ultimately a leader requires the assent of their parliamentary colleagues, of whom the Shadow Cabinet should be a balanced expression. No new leader of a major party has had so little support from them as Corbyn. Railing against Westminster – fuel for his campaign and its remarkable success – was fun in the summer when touring the country, but the dispositions of his Honourable and Right Honourable friends will have consequences, particularly given that no leader has also had so great an extra-parliamentary mandate, and claim to momentum. At least clientelism, a primal feature of the ‘old politics’, is not an option.
About The Author: Dr. Martin Farr is senior lecturer in modern and contemporary British history at Newcastle University, and is writing an international history of Thatcherism, and articles on Labour leaders in the 1980s, and on the deaths of Hugh Gaitskell and John Smith. @martinjohnfarr
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