05 Sep 2023

Starmer puts Labour front bench on election footing

In a long-awaited reshuffle, Labour Leader Keir Starmer rebalances his shadow cabinet and shows he’s prepared to move to the centre-ground to ready his party for the General Election

David Patterson

Keir Starmer readied his party for the election today, as he carried out his long-awaited reshuffle just the nine months after it was first mooted. However, what it lacked in timeliness, it made up for in scale and scope. The reshuffle follows months of speculation that Angela Rayner could be moved as Starmer attempts to slim down his team to mirror that of the government before the next election. Senior party insiders wanted to avoid a repeat of the chaotic 2021 reshuffle in which Rayner was initially demoted but then given an expanded brief. Remember, she’s directly elected deputy leader by the members.

However, Rayner’s move to shadow deputy prime minister and shadow levelling-up secretary demonstrates that her relationship with the leader has considerably improved; this is a clear promotion and an excellent brief for her, marrying well with her avowedly northern working-class roots which plays well in the media. It’s not without merit – Rayner has been loyal to Starmer, not only toeing the line on the two-child limit, but also with her CBI speech in March on the future of work and in her parroting of the Party’s fiscal lines without complaint.

She takes this role from Lisa Nandy who was moved to the international development brief, a ‘bruising’ demotion amid a reshuffle in which the fortunes of MPs on the Blairite right of the party largely prospered at the expense of those seen as being more on the centre-left. The international development is now part of the Foreign Office, but Nandy will still attend shadow cabinet.

A particularly interesting move is Pat McFadden to shadow cabinet office minister and Labour’s national campaign co-ordinator – putting him at the helm for Labour’s election drive. Moreover, if Labour gets into government he’d essentially be in charge of the machinery of government. McFadden is an established party figure, and he’s on board with Starmer’s vision. He has been a right-hand man to Rachel Reeves, the shadow chancellor, these last few years. The high tax, low growth attack on the government was his brainchild and it destabilised the Tories ahead of the leadership race. Labour are gearing up to fight.

Darren Jones takes over from him as shadow chief secretary to the treasury – no real surprise, as he was tipped for promotion after putting in what many thought was a good performance as a committee chair.

Peter Kyle’s promotion to shadow minister for science, innovation and technology is also well deserved; he made the Northern Ireland brief something of an international brief, using it as an opportunity to connect with Joe Biden’s team, and position Labour as a party with serious international ideas. He’s smart, and is expected to make an impression in his new role.

On the way down, Steve Reed moves from shadow justice to shadow secretary of state for environment, food and rural affairs, a demotion following a reputation as being ineffectual, and similarly a demotion for Ashworth, who becomes shadow paymaster general in the cabinet office – also struggling under a reputation for in-action.

This reshuffle has been about balance for Starmer, but if Louise Haigh doesn’t get a promotion that will mean the three big soft-left players will have been demoted, grumbling may follow. Liz Kendall and Hillary Benn also have returned to Cabinet, showing a willingness to reposition the shadow cabinet to suit the needs of a party on an election footing.

Out of the shadow cabinet entirely are Preet Gill, Jim McMahon, and Rosena Allin-Khan, who published a  resignation letter that is being received as churlish or scathing depending on who you ask (“You do not see a space for a mental health portfolio in a Labour cabinet”).

The changes so far

  • Angela Rayner, Labour’s deputy leader, has been given the levelling up brief
  • Lisa Nandy, previously shadow levelling up secretary, has been moved to international development, taking over from Preet Gill Kaur
  • Liz Kendall, previously a shadow health minister and a former Labour leadership candidate, is made shadow work and pensions secretary. She replaces Jonathan Ashworth
  • Ashworth becomes shadow paymaster general in the cabinet office
  • Thangam Debbonaire, previously shadow leader of the House of Commons, moves to shadow secretary of state for culture, media and sport, taking over from Lucy Powell in a direct job swap
  • Steve Reed has been appointed shadow secretary of state for environment, food and rural affairs, after Jim McMahon stood aside due to ill health
  • Hillary Benn returns to the shadow cabinet as shadow Northern Ireland secretary
  • Peter Kyle, who previously covered Benn’s new brief, has been appointed shadow secretary of state for science, innovation and technology
  • Shabana Mahmood becomes shadow secretary of state for justice, replacing Reed
  • Pat McFadden has been appointed as shadow chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Labour’s national campaign coordinator, roles previously held by Rayner and Mahmood respectively
  • Darren Jones is now shadow chief secretary to the treasury, taking over from McFadden
  • Nick Thomas-Symonds becomes shadow minister without portfolio in the cabinet office

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