Other than seeming like a member of some secret organization the UK elects shadow members. What are they? Is there any corresponding member of US government?


2 Answers 2


The Shadow Cabinet consists of senior members of the Opposition (the largest party not forming part of the government). Each of these have a brief to represent a direct opposition ("a shadow") to the corresponding member of the government cabinet. In principle this means that alternatives to government policy are developed and expressed by a politician who has knowledge and experience in the area, and who could immediately take over the role in the event of a sudden change of government.

The idea is relatively recent, dating back only to the 1950s in the UK. As far as I know, there is no kind of corresponding organisation in the US, since there the executive cabinet is not formed from sitting legislative politicians and there is far less potential for an unforeseen change in the party in power. Until 2011 the Prime Minister had the de facto ability to dissolve parliament and call a general election at almost any time. Even now, a government which proved unable to govern could trigger a dissolution.

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    Your point about shadow ministers being ready to assume control of government reminds me that during the cold war Soviet intelligence regarded the shadow cabinet as a reserve brain, and so thought they had to make plans to kill the cabinet and shadow cabinet simultaneously, otherwise the nation would be able to resist sabotage if only cabinet ministers were assassinated. Not quite how it works, but you can see why they worried that killing the cabinet alone wouldn't be enough to paralyse the government.
    – user8398
    Commented Jul 1, 2016 at 17:07
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    "Senior" members of the Opposition is not quite accurate. At the present time, most of the senior members of the opposition Labour party have voted to declare no confidence in their own party leader (Corbyn) with a majority of 172-40 and about 60 shadow ministers and their assistants have resigned. When welcoming a newly elected Labour MP to the house a few days ago Prime Minister Cameron joked that she should leave her cellphone on, because she might be appointed as a shadow government minister before her first day in the job was over!
    – alephzero
    Commented Jul 1, 2016 at 20:14
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    I chose "senior" since I believe it to be the most understandable and least confusing term with regard to the US political system, at least phrases like "senior Republicans condemned the Secretary of Transportation's announcement" seem to get used a lot. But yes, the seniority is to some extent conferred by the appointment, rather than the other way round.
    – origimbo
    Commented Jul 1, 2016 at 20:35
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    You might consider whether the ranking members/chairs of committees are similar to the shadow ministers. The difference of course being that committees are purely legislative in nature. Part of the confusion is that in the US, the executive and legislative bodies are separated. In the UK, they are more intertwined. Majority and opposition make sense in terms of a legislative body but less so in terms of an executive. Note that current Speaker of the House Paul Ryan came to notice by proposing alternatives from his position as Ranking Member of the Budget committee.
    – Brythan
    Commented Jul 2, 2016 at 2:54
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    @Brythan Except that the UK also has parliamentary committees, which are analogous to the American ones. See Parliamentary_Committees_of_the_United_Kingdom
    – rojomoke
    Commented Jul 2, 2016 at 12:36

Supplemental to the other answer, the shadow cabinet is both a government-in-waiting and a day-to-day means of providing opposition to ministers on an issue-by-issue basis. Just as in football the defenders are there to 'mark' attacker.

Why the need for a government-in-waiting? Until 2011 Parliament itself could change the PM and hence the Cabinet at any time on a confidence vote with no need for elections. I'm not sure if this is still true after the Fixed Term Parliaments Act.

Theoretically, the PM could be replaced at any time by the Queen. It has been some time since this power has been used in the UK, but it was used in 1975 in Australia.

It's also there in the case of dire emergencies or disasters. Had the 1985 IRA bombing of the hotel holding the Conservative party conference been bigger, it could have killed the PM, Cabinet, and enough MPs to lose the majority in the House of Commons.

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    Losing a majority in the Commons does not automatically lead to a change of government. The Labour party formed a minority government for 7 months in 1974 and for 6 months in 1978-79. The Conservative party formed a minority government for about 6 months in 1996-97.
    – alephzero
    Commented Jul 1, 2016 at 20:07
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    In theory a minority government can survive indefinitely, if it is supported by a "confidence and supply" agreement with an opposition party. That means the party agrees to support the government in votes of no confidence tabled by the other opposition parties, and in essential legislation allowing the government to raise money (i.e. "supply") but has no other obligations. This was considered (and rejected) as an option for the Conservatives to form a minority government after the 2010 general election.
    – alephzero
    Commented Jul 1, 2016 at 22:14
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    The Fixed Term Parliaments Act causes Parliament to be dissolved if a government loses a confidence vote and then no new government wins a confidence vote within two weeks. So it does still permit a change of government without an election. Commented Jul 1, 2016 at 22:56
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    Nitpick: a vote of no confidence is in the whole government, not just the PM and Cabinet. Commented Jul 1, 2016 at 23:04

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