1 December 2021

Labour’s reshuffle underlines how far it has drifted from its former heartlands

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Is Labour’s new look Shadow Cabinet a government-in-waiting or a misjudged attempt to appear relevant?

On a first pass, it certainly seems more likely to be the latter. Keir Starmer seems to have concluded that the best way for Labour to get back in the game is to promote some of his better known faces and bring in one or two newer ones. It was, for the most part, a reshuffle in the most literal sense, with lots of MPs moving about the shadow cabinet and not much in the way of out-and-out demotion. David Lammy’s move to Shadow Foreign Secretary is undoubtedly a promotion, but the woman he replaced, Lisa Nandy, will probably not consider her move to shadow Michael Gove’s mega-department a demotion as such, given the centrality of ‘Levelling Up’ to the Government’s agenda. Similarly, Wes Streeting’s move to Health is a big vote of confidence in him, but Jon Ashworth will take on an equally important brief shadowing Therese Coffey at Work and Pensions.

The appointment of Yvette Cooper as Shadow Home Secretary was certainly one of Starmer’s better appointments. However, with respect to Cooper, the excitement over her finally rejoining the front bench only underscores the distinct lack of big hitters elsewhere in the parliamentary party. (One prominent Twitter lefty even compared her to Lionel Messi…)

Of course, experience is a very fine thing and she has bags of it, not just shadowing Theresa May in the coalition years, but latterly as chair of the Home Affairs Select Committee. Still, it’s hard to overstate how adrift Labour is from many of its former supporters when it comes to one of the main issues Cooper will be tasked with – immigration. And for all her experience, will Cooper’s views really chime with the 68% of Britons who would refuse asylum applications from people who have entered the UK illegally, and could have claimed in another safe country? Or, indeed, with the 61% who support turning boats in the Channel back.

If this was a reshuffle designed to win back voters in Labour’s heartlands, Lammy’s promotion is little short of baffling. Here is a senior politician who was not so much a pro-European as an EU fanatic. He once compared the European Research Group of Tory Brexiteers to ‘Nazis’ and, when asked to clarify, said that his comment was ‘not strong enough’. Nor is his description of gender-critical voices as ‘dinosaurs’ who want to ‘hoard rights’ likely to go down well with a lot of women. Perhaps most importantly, Lammy’s appointment suggests poor judgment on Starmer’s part. Why promote someone with a record of making remarks likely to aggravate the very voters Labour desperately needs to win back?

Nandy, the MP for Wigan, is far more in tune with those kind of voters than many of her colleagues, but people in areas like mine want more than a familiar accent and an ego massage about our ‘great communities’. Like everyone else, they want to see a competent opposition, which takes a rational approach to policy. Nandy also has to tread carefully in her criticism of the Levelling Up agenda, as plenty of people in the Tories’ newly won Red Wall seats rather like the sound of their area getting more attention, prestige and money from Whitehall, even if Boris Johnson’s overall plans remain rather nebulous.

Who, then, is this reshuffle meant to impress? It certainly doesn’t look like a front bench focused on winning back or holding on to seats in the so-called Red Wall. Though certainly a huge improvement on the Corbyn era, this remains a Shadow Cabinet that oozes Miliband 2.0 (not least as Ed himself features in it). Labour have been down that route before too – and we all know how that turned out.

The left loves talking about ‘institutional’ and ‘structural’ problems, but few are as intractable as the lack of talent on Labour’s benches at the moment. That is both cause and consequence of the party’s humbling at the 2019 election: put simply, there are only so many MPs Starmer can pick from. Still, in holding fast to the likes of Lammy and the white van man’s bête noire, Emily Thornberry, he gives the impression of a stroppy teenager who refuses to accept the assignment at hand because it isn’t the one they wanted.

With a team like this, Labour may carry on doing well in big cities and university towns, but they will be cast even further adrift in the seats they used to take for granted.

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Jordan Tyldesley is a freelance journalist.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.