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How Some Labour MPs Are Opposing The Tories Without Corbyn

Three-quarters of the former shadow cabinet ministers who resigned in June are still working on their briefs, in what's been nicknamed "the shadow shadow cabinet". But is the arrangement sustainable?

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Of the 20 shadow cabinet ministers who stepped down after the EU referendum, 15 are still doing work related to their former briefs, including interventions in Commons debates and media appearances.

The "shadow shadow ministers", as they have been nicknamed, are however afraid that working this way isn't sustainable, and think Jeremy Corbyn needs to come up with a better way of bringing Labour together if he is re-elected as leader later this month.

"Housing is an area where I have a deep passion, and a growing concern about the housing crisis," former minister John Healey told BuzzFeed News.

"But specifically, having stepped down from the shadow cabinet in the summer, there was no way that I was going to allow a government that has had a track record of six years of failure on every front of housing not to be held to account for want of someone in the shadow cabinet or on the front bench able to do that."

Since leaving the shadow cabinet, Healey has spoken in the chamber against cuts to housing benefits for social housing and to point out that fewer houses were built under David Cameron than under any other prime minister since the 1920s.

He is also still working on several reports which will be published later this year. His position as shadow housing and planning minister has not been filled in Corbyn's shadow cabinet since he quit.

Kerry McCarthy, the former shadow environment secretary, is also keeping up work on her brief out of a sense of duty.

The Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs "has a lot of stakeholders, particularly on animal welfare ... they're quite disappointed with the government and looking to Labour," she said. "We can't make people feel like there's a vacuum.

"On things like the badger cull, it's amazing how people seem to have to be told over and over again what Labour's position is; people even started to say to me, 'Has Labour changed position?', because Jeremy hasn't said anything about it. You keep having to get it out there."

This is why she has given interviews to relevant trade magazines, including "waste resources journals", and participated on debates in the Commons about the risks posed to animals by snares, the consequences of Brexit on environment-related issues, and other issues.

She is worried that her successor, Rachael Maskell, won't be able to do the job alone: "I sat down with Rachel and talked about the portfolio and she's trying to get her head around it, but she's one person, when I used to have a team of two shadow ministers and Maggie Jones in the Lords: She's going to struggle to keep up.

"In terms of legislation, there is going to need to be a concerted effort: If there was a DEFRA bill going through, I'd be quite keen to make sure that Rachael doesn't struggle along by herself. She's very capable but one person alone can't do it."

This sentiment was echoed by Lucy Powell, formerly shadow education secretary. She gave several interviews on grammar schools last week, knowing her replacement, Angela Rayner, had to be in the chamber after tabling some urgent questions.

"Education policy has long been a personal passion and commitment of mine so my intention was always to carry on campaign on those issues," Powell said, "but it's certainly not my intention for that to look like any kind of reflection on my successor."

She was keen to point out, however, that working like this may not work in the long run. "None of it is sustainable – it's not sustainable for Angela to do the work of six people," Powell said. "If Jeremy wins [the leadership contest], he's going to have to find a way to appoint more people to the front bench."

At time of writing, four shadow cabinet positions are still unfilled, and there are four shadow cabinet ministers who are in charge of not one but several portfolios. The shadow front bench, which normally includes junior shadow ministers helping their senior counterparts with their briefs, has over a dozen vacancies.

The issue Corbyn may face if he wins the leadership election on 24 September is that a lot of Labour MPs would not want to rejoin the shadow cabinet.

"Going back to the way things were is pretty unconceivable for most people," Powell said, but McCarthy was even clearer on where she stands.

"I wouldn't rejoin the shadow cabinet if Jeremy offered people to come back," she told BuzzFeed News. "If you're in the shadow cabinet, you get asked in the media if you have confidence in your leader and think if he's going to be prime minister, and it's very clear we don't think that. It's the dishonesty that would bother me."

She is equally as sceptical on the potential durability of a "shadow shadow cabinet", as she thinks the basis of it is always going to be flawed: "Who decides who's going to be in the shadow shadow cabinet? How do you decide who gets in these positions? How do you pull together a party line on things?"

Using an example covered by her former brief at DEFRA, she continued: "Let's say something like fracking – you can't really have a shadow shadow cabinet coming up with party policy...or can you?"

A possible solution, according to these MPs, would be for Labour to go back to an elected shadow cabinet, where shadow ministers are voted in by the parliamentary Labour party.

This was the case until 2011, when Ed Miliband changed the rules so the leader could appoint his shadow cabinet, and Labour MPs have now voted to change it back again: The decision will be taken later this month by the party's executive committee.

"I support an elected shadow cabinet," Healey said with a smile; "the last time we had an elected shadow cabinet I came top of the poll, so, you know."

He thinks the old system is better for accountability, as "generally, the people in the best position to judge you are those who see the most of you, and know what's required of the shadow cabinet, because they're there: They're with you in the chamber, they're with you when you're campaigning around the country."

Whatever happens on 24 September, Labour's shadow shadow ministers aren't very optimistic about their precarious position.

"There are things in the brief I'd really like to carry on with but I'm not sure there's a way yet," McCarthy admitted. "It may be better to do it on an ad hoc basis from the backbenches."

Marie Le Conte is a politics and media reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.

Contact Marie Le Conte at

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