What’s behind the appointments to Labour’s front bench?
First published: December 2021.
Labour leader Keir Starmer’s reshuffle of his shadow cabinet has ended up proving far-reaching in scope. This changing of the guard is clearly the sequel to a piecemeal reshuffle in May that was botched because of a struggle between Starmer and his deputy Angela Rayner.
We are about halfway through the life of this parliament so it’s likely that this is the team Labour will deploy to fight the next election (due in 2024). Starmer may also be gambling that Boris Johnson plans to go to the polls even earlier and so wants a strong team in place.
What Labour now has is emphatically a post-Jeremy Corbyn cabinet. There seems to be little prospect of bold experiments (which some will find a problem). Whereas the 2019 manifesto promised a national investment bank and free broadband to promote modernisation, Starmer’s leadership so far has been characterised by caution.
The new lineup also represents a bid for the political centre. Although Starmer was elected as leader in 2020 as a figure acceptable to the left (having served in Corbyn’s shadow cabinet), he clearly sees the party’s identification with the far left as a turn off for voters, especially those in the so-called red wall constituencies (which swapped life-long allegiances to Labour in favour of voting Tory in 2019).
The mood music is instead all about experience and reassurance. It tells the electorate that the grown-ups are back in charge. We have the return of Yvette Cooper to the shadow cabinet, facing off against Priti Patel at the Home Office, and the promotion of David Lammy to become shadow foreign secretary. Both have served in government and carry authority.
Yet the key appointment is the shift of Lisa Nandy from shadow foreign secretary to taking on Michael Gove in his levelling up brief. This is the demotion that is not a demotion. The next election will partly be fought over Johnson’s promises to invest in the red wall. Nandy’s work with the Centre for Towns think tank and her experience as MP for Wigan place her in an excellent position to contest government claims about delivering for the north of England.
Nandy has an ability to identify the issues that voters actually care about (not always a characteristic of the post-2010 Labour party). She has long publicised issues such as the lack of effective bus networks that blight the lives of many voters, for example. Few would deny this is a smart appointment.
Ready for battle
The elevation of Wes Streeting to shadow health secretary is significant for another reason. For an opposition to be effective it needs its warriors. These are not just good communicators or people who can be guaranteed to turn in a good performance on television.
It needs figures who will quite simply take the battle to the enemy and make life difficult for the government. Streeting has a fearless and sometimes aggressive quality (so does Lammy), which a good opposition needs to have. Another person to watch is Bridget Phillipson, who will now shadow education, and could well prove to be the first female leader of the Labour Party some time in the future.
Ed Miliband has been sidelined. His business brief has been taken over by Jonathan Reynolds, leaving the former Labour leader to concentrate on climate change. While there is a case for a shadow minister focusing on the most important issue of our times, Miliband has no equivalent cabinet minister to shadow, which may limit his ability to make an impact (though Alok Sharma, the minister who served as president of COP26, retains cabinet status).
Miliband and Starmer seem to have disagreed on nationalising the top energy companies. The appointment of Reynolds instead reflects Starmer’s determination to be pro-business at a time when businesses seem disenchanted with the government. He told the CBI business association in November that Labour would embrace fiscal discipline and that he does not think “the solution to every problem is to throw cash at it”.
The broad church narrows
What is missing is any significant figure on the left of the party. Cat Smith (previously a supporter of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership) opted to give up her role as shadow minister for young people and democracy. This is a problem for the new lineup as it does not feel like a broad church. Even Tony Blair (both in opposition and in government) found room for left-wing figures such as Robin Cook and Clare Short. Where is their equivalent here? This matters because Starmer could find he has huge problems taking the party with him.
There is also no figure who has a history of supporting Brexit, even if Lisa Nandy is associated with the view that the only way that red wall voters could have been brought on board in the 2019 election was through Labour embracing a soft Brexit position. This matters if a political conversation is to start with voters in constituencies like North-East Derbyshire (now represented by a Conservative MP). They may want someone who shares their worldview if they are to return to Labour.
Corbyn’s shadow cabinet was big on vision but never could persuade large parts of the electorate that it would be good at running things. This shadow cabinet feels the opposite. It exudes competence and capability. However, it has yet to answer the big question: what is Labour for in the 2020s?
— AUTHOR —
▫ Professor Rowan McWilliam, Professor of Modern British History, Anglia Ruskin University & Co-Director of the Labour History Research Unit.
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- Text: This piece was originally published in The Conversation and re-published in PMP Magazine on 6 December 2021. | The author writes in a personal capacity.
- Cover: Flickr/UK Parliament - Jessica Taylor. - The Leader of the Opposition Sir Keir Starmer MP. | 22 April 2020. (Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.)