In May, Sir Keir Starmer attempted to reshuffle his shadow cabinet following the disastrous byelection defeat in Hartlepool. It was a chaotically botched job, resulting in a damaging standoff with his deputy, Angela Rayner, and a slew of negative headlines. Six months on, bolstered by at last landing significant blows on the government over sleaze and broken promises, Labour’s leader did the job properly on Monday and dramatically reconfigured his frontbench. All bar five members of his top team have been replaced or moved.
After a long period of drift, Sir Keir’s determination to get on to the front foot is understandable and welcome. The new team contains strong and high-profile performers who have the talent and experience to discomfort their Tory opposite numbers. The appointment of Yvette Cooper as shadow home secretary follows an impressive performance as the longstanding chair of the home affairs select committee. Ms Cooper’s clashes with Priti Patel are likely to be Westminster box office. Her track record on immigration policy makes her an experienced pair of hands, in a debate that Labour must handle with care. David Lammy, who replaces Lisa Nandy as shadow foreign secretary, is also a former government minister and one of the party’s most accomplished media performers.
On the face of it, Ms Nandy looks to have been demoted. But her deployment as shadow levelling-up secretary sets up another intriguing and crucial head-to-head battle – in this case with Michael Gove. This is a return to familiar terrain for the MP for Wigan. Before and after the Brexit referendum, Ms Nandy was an acute analyst of the “red wall” disillusionment that contributed to the leave victory, and of the dangers it carried for Labour. As Mr Gove struggles to extract levelling-up resources from the Treasury, Ms Nandy is a smart choice to fight on this battleground.
The new team thus has important strengths. But the leadership’s suggestion that the reshuffle was merely a case of promoting the best people to the right roles is disingenuous. The removal of Ed Miliband as shadow business secretary – and his replacement by the City-friendly Jonathan Reynolds – is a retrograde step. Mr Miliband pursued his brief with vigour and radicalism when it came to the environment; he also fought a losing battle to keep public ownership on Labour’s economic agenda. Sir Keir seems intent on pushing the party down a far more cautious economic path. This is disappointing, at a time when ambition, imagination and proactive government is required to steer the post-Brexit, post-pandemic transition to net zero. The promotions of Bridget Phillipson to shadow education secretary and Wes Streeting to shadow health secretary – both youthful stars from the right of the party – also indicate the future direction of travel.
These are, of course, the calls that Sir Keir is entitled to make as Labour’s leader. But though he has pitched his tent on what used to be called the centre ground of British politics, he should be wary of causing gratuitous offence to the party’s left and its allies. The decision to launch the reshuffle while a blindsided Ms Rayner made a key speech on sleaze seemed disrespectful. Disunited parties rarely make a good impression on the electorate. With some caveats, it is fair to say Sir Keir has strengthened his team. But to mount an effective election campaign, he will need the whole party to get behind it.