Labour reshuffle: a focus on big beasts and savvy performers

“Reshuffle” seemed an understatement, given the radical scope of the shake-up Keir Starmer carried out among Labour’s top ranks on Monday, with few posts left untouched.

Starmer’s aides saw it as completing the work begun in May’s botched overhaul, which saw Anneliese Dodds replaced by Rachel Reeves as shadow chancellor; but was derailed by Angela Rayner, who resisted a move for herself.

Changes for both Jon Ashworth and Lisa Nandy were mooted at the time, and have now been acted on.

And this time around, Starmer publicly asserted his authority over Rayner – with whom relations have continued to be scratchy – by kicking off the reshuffle as she was delivering a major speech in Westminster on cleaning up public life.

She was briefly informed that a shake-up was under way; but not consulted (though Jeremy Corbyn certainly didn’t consult his deputy, Tom Watson, on the makeup of his shadow team either).

The end result marked a shift to the political right, and created a powerful platform for rising stars Wes Streeting and Bridget Phillipson, both viewed as effective media performers.

Shadow cabinet ministers had recently complained about how much airtime Streeting was getting, despite holding the relatively junior post of shadow schools minister.

As shadow health secretary in the midst of a pandemic, he will now be a key spokesperson and public face of a potential future Labour government.

One Labour insider suggested there had been little effort to match people to their expertise – citing Steve Reed’s move to shadow justice, for example – and an overwhelming focus on who can deliver a punchy media performance.

More low-key shadow ministers, including Kate Green at education and Luke Pollard at environment, both of whom were viewed by colleagues as diligent and thoughtful, were unceremoniously ditched.

Tellingly, one Starmer aide told the Politico newsletter – a daily note for Westminster insiders – that the reshuffle had put, “fresh hungry effective message-carriers in key briefs”.

His team are ruthlessly pursuing the aim of winning over swing voters in a handful of key seats, many of them in the “red wall”, and want people in place who are reassuring to Conservative-Labour switchers, not redolent of Corbyn.

They believe they are succeeding for the first time in a long time in having a leader voters can imagine as prime minister; and are delighted by the performance of Reeves, including, recently, a highly positive profile in the Telegraph; but they now want to build on that by creating a wider team the public can imagine as a government.

To that end, the overhaul also saw the return of Labour “big beast” Yvette Cooper, one of a relatively small number of sitting MPs – with Ed Miliband and Hilary Benn – who have been cabinet ministers.

Starmer appeared to avoid such tall poppies in his first frontbench team, instead promoting Nick Thomas-Symonds and Dodds, both intellectuals with deep expertise, but without their own powerbases in the party.

One longtime Labour insider remarked that both Cooper and Miliband are “more experienced politicians than Keir,” suggesting that by moving Miliband sideways and bringing Cooper into the tent, he must now feel his own position is more secure.

So for Starmer’s team, the reshuffle was an assertion of his authority, which had been battered by the ham-fisted reshuffle back in May; and a signal of intent to voters, with a general election potentially just a couple of years away.

For MPs on Labour’s soft left, who had previously regarded Starmer as one of their own, the end result was a sense of gnawing disquiet about a continued drift to the right, however.

And some warned that the relentless focus on target voters in the red wall, while understandable given the shape of 2019’s crushing defeat, risked alienating other groups Labour may need if it is ultimately to succeed in forming the next government.

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