In May, Sir Keir Starmer attempted to reshuffle his shadow cabinet following the disastrous by-election defeat at Hartlepool. It was a chaotically sloppy job, resulting in a damaging standoff with her assistant, Angela Rayner, and a slew of negative headlines. Six months later, reinforced by hard blows finally dealt against the government over silliness and broken promises, the Labor leader did the job correctly on Monday and radically reconfigured his frontbench. All but five of his best team have been replaced or relocated.
After a long period of drift, Sir Keir’s determination to take center stage is understandable and welcome. The new team contains strong, high profile artists who have the talent and experience to hamper their conservative counterparts. Yvette Cooper’s appointment as shadow Home Secretary follows an impressive performance as longtime chair of the Home Affairs Select Committee. Ms Cooper’s clashes with Priti Patel are likely to be at the Westminster box office. Her background in immigration policy makes her a seasoned pair of hands, in a debate Labor must handle with caution. David Lammy, who replaces Lisa Nandy as fictitious Foreign Secretary, is also a former government minister and one of the party’s most accomplished media actors.
At first glance, Ms. Nandy appears to have been demoted. But his deployment as Shadow Upgrade Secretary sets up another intriguing and crucial one-on-one battle – in this case with Michael Gove. It is a return to familiar ground for the member for Wigan. Before and after the Brexit referendum, Ms Nandy was a keen analyst of the ‘red wall’ disillusionment that contributed to the holiday’s victory and the dangers it entailed for Labor. As Mr. Gove struggles to extract leveling resources from the treasury, Ms. Nandy is a smart choice to fight on this battlefield.
The new team therefore has important assets. But management’s suggestion that the reshuffle was simply a case of promoting the best people to the right roles is misleading. The impeachment of Ed Miliband as shadow business secretary – and his replacement by the sympathetic Jonathan Reynolds – is a retrograde step. Mr. Miliband pursued his case with vigor and radicalism in environmental matters; he also fought a losing battle to keep public ownership on the Labor economic agenda. Sir Keir appears determined to push the party down a much more cautious economic path. It’s disappointing, at a time when it takes ambition, imagination and a proactive government to steer the post-Brexit and post-pandemic transition towards net zero. The promotions of Bridget Phillipson to shadow secretary of education and Wes Streeting to shadow secretary of health – two young stars from the right wing of the party – also point to the future direction of the trip.
These are, of course, the calls Sir Keir is entitled to make as a Labor leader. But although he has pitched his tent in what was once called the center of British politics, he should beware of gratuitously undermining the party left and its allies. The decision to initiate the reshuffle as a blinded Ms Rayner gave a key speech on the sleaze seemed disrespectful. Disunited parties rarely make a good impression on the electorate. With a few caveats, it’s fair to say that Sir Keir has made his squad stronger. But to mount an effective election campaign, he will need the whole party to support him.