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7 October 2011

“New generation“? Miliband really meant it, says Mehdi Hasan

Umunna and Reeves are among the "newbies" joining Labour's new shadow cabinet.

By Mehdi Hasan

At the start of his first conference speech as Labour leader, in September 2010, Ed Miliband proclaimed:

Conference, I stand here today ready to lead: a new generation now leading Labour.

He used the phrase 14 times in that single speech.

A year later, in the form of his first shadow cabinet reshuffle, Miliband has shown us how actions speak louder than words. The Labour leader appointed six new MPs to his shadow cabinet today: Chuka Umunna, Rachel Reeves, Michael Dugher, Stephen Twigg, Margaret Curren and Liz Kendall.

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It is a bold (unprecedented?) move — but one that I believe will pay dividends. Here’s what I wrote in my NS column 12 months ago:

Where are the newbies? If Labour wants to construct an appealing shadow cabinet, rather than a cabinet of shadows, the party has to be bold and unorthodox; it has to promote new blood.

Members of the 2010 intake, such as Chuka Umunna, Rachel Reeves and Lisa Nandy — all young, dynamic, articulate and intelligent — have kept their heads down. A senior Labour MP says: “Stop mentioning Chuka’s name . . . You’re going to make him unpopular in the eyes of his peers and wreck his career.”

Why? Because “experience”, it seems, matters. Candidates are keen to stress their experience, ministerial or otherwise, in the various missives clogging up inboxes across the PLP. But experience is overrated. As Tony Blair proudly says at the outset of his memoir, A Journey, he arrived at No 10 on 1 May 1997 with no ministerial experience. The same is true of David Cameron — elected to the Commons as an opposition MP in 2001 but Prime Minister by 2010. Barack Obama, meanwhile, spent just 26 months in the Senate before running for the most important job in world politics.

Nor does a lengthy CV automatically translate into good political judgement. As Ed Balls has argued, the “fortysomethings” in the cabinet who were attracted by the prospect of an “early” general election in the autumn of 2007, including himself, Ed Miliband and Douglas Alexander, were proved right in the end, compared to the “greybeards”, such as Jack Straw and Geoff Hoon, who wrongly urged caution.

This isn’t about ageism (Curren, after all, is 52), or turning a blind eye to the value of experience. It is about the political advantage to Miliband of having a fresh crop of Labour frontbenchers who are untainted by the Blair-Brown wars, don’t have to blindly defend the last Labour government, are loyal, energised and enthusiastic, and, crucially, symbolise “change”, “newness” and a break with the past. Opposition, remember, is a team activity; it isn’t a solo sport.

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