As speculation of a reshuffle in the shadow cabinet grows, shadow health secretary John Healey is being tipped for a move – with some commentators arguing that he has not made enough of an impact in his first year in the job despite the ongoing political row over the NHS, and Labour re-establishing a significant lead on the issue.
Is this criticism fair – and if so, would Ed Miliband be right to pick a new shadow health secretary? It’s true that Healey’s popularity with the party has dropped off this year. Coming second to Yvette Cooper in the shadow cabinet elections last year, he was recently rated twelfth most popular shadow cabinet member in a poll of Labour members. In part this is because Healey has not always been viewed as an effective shadow. While the NHS has been a regular feature on the front pages, Healey has more often been in the last paragraph than the first – responding to the agenda rather than setting it.
One interesting point of comparison is with Andrew Lansley’s early years in the shadow health role. Arguably one of the more effective shadow health secretaries, Lansley held the job for nearly seven years (before becoming Secretary of State under David Cameron), helping to decontaminate the Conservative brand on the NHS. His love for detail meant that he could use traditional parliamentary scrutiny techniques, like written questions, to generate new stories and media coverage, boosting party morale and landing blows in an area of traditional Labour strength.
Appointed to the role in November 2003, Lansley asked over 150 written questions in his first year. Healey (who we mustn’t forget was ranked second most active in January’s Labour Uncut study of the shadow cabinet) has asked around 100. Fewer, but not devastatingly so. More surprisingly, though, Healey asked more than half of those questions in his first month in office, with a remarkable decline since.
Of course asking the questions, and speaking in debates, is not in itself the marker of an effective opposition. What you do with the answers, or the opportunities to scrutinise, is what really counts. Without asking the questions, though, you are likely to get nowhere in terms of generating your own stories or critiques of the Government.
This needn’t be the end for Healey, though – and there is a strong case against moving him on from the role after only one year. It has become widely accepted that Government ministers should be allowed time to bed in to their roles, and that regular cabinet reshuffles can be damaging – in fact Cameron has made a virtue of keeping his team as they are. This case is less often made for opposition teams, and yet may be even more pertinent. Shadow ministers do not have the same support to get to grips with their brief as their counterparts in Government, and so surely one year (with over 14 weeks of recess) is not enough time to demonstrate effectiveness – particularly from a party which hasn’t been in opposition for 13 years (and it is worth noting that, having been elected in 1997, John Healey had never before experienced life in opposition).
Again, looking at Lansley’s early years as shadow health secretary can provide some illumination. Year two on the job saw a significant increase in the volume of activity from Lansley’s office – he actually asked three times as many parliamentary questions and so multiplied the opportunities for scrutiny and challenge.
The next few weeks will be important for Healey. As the Health and Social Care Bill begins its passage through the House of Lords, noise around the NHS will likely increase once again. Healey needs to show that he can scrutinise the legislation while also highlighting stories and issues that matter to patients and the public. Given the time it can take to settle into such a complex brief as health, Ed Miliband may wish to think twice before installing a new shadow secretary of state. History tells us that it can take at least a year before shadows hit their stride.