Shades of grey: a challenging frontbench recognition test

I’ve written before about the frontbench recognition test which I inflict upon my first year politics students (see ‘Is it Yvette Harman?’). The test involves showing the students a  small selection of photographs of members of the frontbench team of each of the main parties and asking them, in groups, to identify the individuals and their current job. Aside from a little bit of fun, more so for me than the students, the purpose of this exercise is to reveal some very simple truths about executive power in the UK. Most obviously that while the UK doesn’t elect Prime Ministers by a popular vote, the Prime Minister generally remains the most recognisable politician in the country. Similarly, it also tends to show that leaders of the other main parties enjoy considerably higher levels of recognition than other frontbench politicians. This might also lead us to reflect on the notion that while Britain operates a system of Cabinet Government in which the Prime Minister is merely one of a number of potential Prime Ministers, encapsulated in the phrase ‘first among equals’, in terms of levels of public recognition there is very little equality. Running this test year on year it is clear that one does not need to move very far along the frontbench before drifting into obscurity. If public recognition is a source of power in politics, and it surely is, then Prime Ministers and other party leaders do have a resource which is not widely distributed.

This year’s test was perhaps more cruel and unusual than in the past as May’s general election followed by leadership contests in the Labour and the Liberal Democrat parties mean that many of the frontbench teams for all of the main parties are new to their job. To make it easier this time I omitted the Liberal Democrats, despite the fact that I could have fitted the entire parliamentary party on one slide, and also the SNP.

The first slide always comprises a selection of what I assume to be the most prominent Cabinet ministers. However, even this was not easy this year. In addition to Cameron, Osborne and Theresa May, who all appeared on the first slide last year, I added Foreign Secretary, Philip Hammond and Defence Secretary Michael Fallon, who were considerably less recognisable than Nick Clegg and William Hague who they replaced from last year’s slide. Of the three groups of students taking the test, all three were able to identify Cameron, Osborne and May and their roles. However, only two recognised Hammond and Fallon, although in Fallon’s case this is an improvement on last year when only one of three groups was able to identify him.

The second slide comprised Transport Secretary, Patrick McLoughlin, Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, recently appointed Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Greg Clark, and three women from the Cabinet, Amber Rudd, the new Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, and two longer serving Ministers, Theresa Villiers, Northern Ireland Secretary and Education Secretary, Nicky Morgan.

Nicky Morgan was the only one of this six whose name and role was correctly identified by all three groups. Jeremy Hunt was identified by all three groups, although one group did not know his job, while Patrick McLoughlin and Theresa Villiers were identified by two groups both of whom knew their current jobs. This is an improvement on last year when Hunt, Villiers and Morgan were only recognised by one group, perhaps reflecting the fact that all three have now been in office for some time. Only one group recognised Amber Rudd although this is an improvement on her predecessor, Ed Davey who failed to be recognised by anyone last year. That honour this year goes to Greg Clark.

In previous years the Shadow Cabinet has, by far, enjoyed the lowest levels of recognition and this year was no exception, although this was perhaps more understandable this time, when as one student pointed out ‘all of them were on the backbenches until a few weeks ago.’ As usual I omitted the Leader of the Opposition on the, perhaps bold, assumption that everyone would know who Jeremy Corbyn is. Not something I could have said 12 months ago. One group failed to identify any of the Labour front bench. The only two shadow ministers recognised by both of the remaining groups were John McDonnell and Hilary Benn. One group recognised two more Shadow Education Secretary, Lucy Powell, and Owen Smith, although they didn’t know that he had moved Shadow Welsh Secretary to Work and Pensions. Nobody identified Shadow Health Secretary, Heidi Alexander and Shadow Transport Secretary, Lilian Greenwood.

Despite the fact that many of the politicians in this year’s test could not reasonably be called household names, in some cases even in their own homes, the overall results were good. However, they were somewhat flattered by one group (and largely one student) who was able to identify all but three of the seventeen politicians on the slides and, with one exception, their roles. This was a level of recognition which in this year’s test I will freely admit I would not have achieved. In several years of running the test this is somewhat unusual. The remaining two groups identified eleven and five MPs. The only individuals to be identified by all three groups were Cameron, Osborne, May, Hunt and Morgan. As usual students were more likely to be able to identify male politicians than female politicians, despite the fact that the men all look remarkably similar – suits, ties, greying hair.

Last year I speculated about what the results might mean for a potential future leadership contest. In this respect Theresa May appears to be more prominent than last year, but so are Jeremy Hunt and Nicky Morgan. If public recognition is anything to go by a replacement for Jeremy Corbyn is unlikely to come from the Shadow Cabinet, although Hilary Benn might be a good outside bet.

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