The question of Welsh Labour MPs and the shadow cabinet is an intriguing one. Nine MPs ran, including some odd choices (Alun Michael has carved out a significant role for himself on various select committees since he left government in 2007, for example). Of the 258 Labour MPs, 26 sit for Welsh seats – so proportionately, one might expect at least one and maybe even two to get elected to the 19 places. None did. (The party insisted on a measure of gender balance, but none of territorial balance.) Now, among other things, the shadow Welsh Secretary is likely to be chosen from outside the shadow cabinet, even though with a total of 25 members (19 elected, six ex officio), the shadow cabinet is already pretty big.
Interestingly, of the three Scottish MPs elected, two – Douglas Alexander and Jim Murphy – have already been Scottish Secretary in Government, and the third (Ann McKechin) has been junior minister at the Scotland Office. Only for McKechin would the shadow post therefore count as advancement.
It’s hard to avoid a shadow cabinet largely following the lines of the real one, so it’s not really an option not to have a Welsh portfolio – for all the problems that separating the various territorial offices raises. But a shadow Secretary who isn’t in the shadow cabinet either by election or ex officio is inevitably going to speak with much less weight than his or her colleagues (if not their ministerial counterpart). Preserving that job on the opposition front bench is much more to do with responding to the Coalition than giving Wales a substantive voice at the centre.
UPDATE, 2 pm: The list of members of the shadow Cabinet is now out (and available here). Ann McKechin has been made shadow Scottish Secretary. Both the Northern Ireland and Welsh shadows are from outside the number of the elected shadow Cabinet, but both have extensive experience of their portfolios in office: they are respectively Shaun Woodward and Peter Hain.
Peter Hain’s position is probably the most awkward of the three. In no sense can he be called a ‘new face’, unlike most of the shadow cabinet, and he comes with plenty of baggage. The main item on his agenda will be the referendum on legislative powers for the National Assembly in March (though no doubt he will find himself involved in May’s election campaign). Hain’s opposition to an early referendum was long-standing and sincere. As the framer of the Government of Wales Act 2006, he created the requirement to hold a referendum to appease opposition to proper legislative powers from Labour MPs – only to create a system that both the All Wales Convention and the Electoral Commission have concluded is simply not understood by the public. He also agreed earlier this year with evident reluctance ‘not to obstruct’ the holding of an early referendum if the Assembly called one – as it promptly did. He is hardly an enthusiast for the position that Welsh constitutional politics are now in. However, he will be called on to put his formidable campaigning skills to use in that ‘Yes’ campaign, which is strongly backed by the party in the Assembly if less strongly by Welsh MPs at Westminster, knowing that anything less than a clear win will now be a strong rejection of much of his own work as well. Moreover, in his dealings with Carwyn Jones, he will have to be conscious that Jones has mandates both to form a government and to serve as leader of his party group that Hain conspicuously does not. In that respect, the initiative within the Welsh Labour Party has shifted substantially toward the Assembly and away from Westminster.
McKechin, by contrast, has relatively little baggage. Her main difficulty will be her presumed endorsement of the UK white paper responding to Calman from November 2009, and substantially diluting its recommendations. It now seems likely that the bill due in a few weeks will be very largely an undiluted form of the Calman Commission’s recommendations from June 2009, rather than the more radical approach that might have been hoped for. She will therefore have to work out how to support the implementation of recommendations that her government’s white paper rejected (discussed earlier HERE).
Woodward has the advantage of understanding the issues involved in Northern Ireland, knowing all the players well, and seeming genuinely to care about both the North and the peace process.
It’s interesting that the other two Scottish MPs have both got portfolios of ‘reserved’ matters – Jim Murphy following the long line of Scots at Defence, and Douglas Alexander at Work & Pensions. But the two big English portfolios whose decisions spill over into devolved matters, health and education, have gone to English MPs (John Healey and Andy Burnham) whose awareness of the implications of devolution – particularly the effect decisions on apparently England-only matters have on devolved policy – is questionable.
The big question will be to what extent the Scottish and Welsh Secretaries are concerned with Westminster business relating to Scottish or Welsh devolution, and how much they are platforms for wider campaigning on Labour’s behalf in Scotland and Wales. Each is treated as a full-time portfolio, even though each has relatively little substantive business to deal with. How AMs and MSPs might respond to ‘fraternal assistance’ from the party in London in the run-up to next May’s elections is an interesting, and open, question.
FURTHER UPDATE, 11 October: The lower rungs of the shadow Cabinet have now been filled out, with a clutch of Welsh MPs including David Hanson, Kevin Brennan, Wayne David and Chris Bryant taking up shadow roles across government, though fewer Scots. The official list is here, and BBC News’s coverage is here. It’s not clear from this who, if anyone, is shadowing David Jones as junior Wales Office Minister, but Tom Greatrex is the junior shadow for Scotland. Although a brand-new MP, when Labour were in government he was a special adviser at Dover House for a number of years.
Yet further update: Owen Smith (the new MP for Blaenau Gwent) has been named as the junior Wales Office shadow. By a quirk of Parliamentary procedure, he and the Conservative Glyn Davies (who is Cheryl Gillan’s PPS) both remain on the Welsh Affairs Committee, though neither is now strictly a back-bencher.