7 April 2020

What does the new shadow cabinet say about Labour’s future?


Sir Keir Starmer has spent the last 48 hours putting his own stamp on the Labour Party. Out goes the clique around the old leader, in comes a new breed of less easily pigeonholed talents. Most voters will not even have heard of more than one – or at the most two – of these shadow ministers.

So what does Starmer’s new team tell us about where Labour is going?

First of all, Starmer means to be his own man. He’s made absolutely clear, with actions and not just words, that he will have his own people in most of the key roles. Those Labour MPs most closely identified with Jeremy Corbyn’s years as leader are for the most part out in the cold. Diane Abbott and John McDonnell had already said they would return to the back benches; Shadow Justice Minister Richard Burgon was sacked even though he came third in Labour’s Deputy Leadership competition.

The message is unambiguous: mess with Sir Keir at your peril. Unrealistic talk of Jeremy Corbyn being offered some sort of frontbench role was dismissed. Shadow Trade Secretary Barry Gardiner found himself dumped, after long-running battles with Starmer over Brexit policy. Rebecca Long-Bailey, the Corbynites’ standard-bearer in the recent leadership election, stays – but outside the core economics team at Education.

Starmer also intends to hit a second critical target: looking professional. Labour has for years resembled an embarrassing rabble who you wouldn’t trust to put out your bins. Now the new leader has written to his MPs emphasising the need for high standards and teamwork in public – not that they can’t disagree, but that they’d better toe the line overall. Some MPs who have been used to roving around the policy landscape (and the TV studios) are about to be slapped down.

There’s a third element that’s just as important. This is a generational changing of the guard and, to be frank, a huge upgrade in sheer ability. The new Shadow Chancellor Anneleise Dodds was born in 1978, and she holds a PhD from the London School of Economics. The Shadow Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Rachel Reeves, was born in 1979 and used to work as an economist at the Bank of England. Nick Thomas-Symonds, now the Shadow Home Secretary, was born in 1980; he became a don at Oxford at the age of just 21 (the only other person to do so at such a young age was Harold Wilson).

All of these changes certainly do not mean that Labour will be ‘tacking to the right’, or whatever other nonsense the remnants of discredited Corbynism say on Twitter. Many, though not all, of the left-wing policies will stay: they will just be ordered with a strong sense of priorities, and actually resolve into proposals rather than airy ambitions. Relatively fresh faces they may be: ‘Blairites’ (whatever that means any more) they are not. Dodds marched against tuition fees and once called for an end to domestic air flights; Lisa Nandy, now Shadow Foreign Secretary, voted against intervention in Syria in 2015; Starmer’s deputy, Angela Rayner, is hardly on the party’s right.

Fourth on Starmer’s list is dealing with the stain that anti-Semitism has left on Labour’s very character. Straightaway, there was an apology, the sheer relief of which must have been felt physically by many Labour activists. Contrast with Corbyn, a man who simply refused to apologise for his tin-eared prejudices in the Andrew Neil TV interview which in retrospect helped to seal his fate.

Here the new leader will have his work cut out. He’s made a start and signalled his intent, by asking the author of Labour’s ill-fated 2016 report into anti-Semitism, Shami Chakrabati, to step down. He’s asked to meet with the Jewish Labour Movement and the Board of Deputies. Nandy was nominated by JLM as well as being chair of the Labour Friends of Palestine. Starmer’s next step will be harder: his reaction to the Equalities and Human Rights Commission, due at some point this spring or early summer. On present evidence, he will move hard and fast to expel, discipline and reform. That will be the moment to really judge progress on this front.

The fifth point in the Starmer blueprint is a genuine commitment to unity. Dodds and Thomas-Symonds served without much demur in the Corbyn team and have been promoted. The message is clear that, beyond the main ringleaders, anyone who wants to stay can stay. Reeves will ruffle left-wing feathers thanks to some of the fairly hard-hitting things she’s said about tax and benefits over the years – but she’s in too. And Ed Miliband is back, slotting in nicely at Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, given that he headed up Energy and Climate Change all those years ago under Gordon Brown.

The vast majority of Labour MPs will be pleased, helping to deliver Starmer that unity he is looking for. The intellectual sweet spot of the professional and activist party, which might caricature quite crudely as ‘soft left’ but is really more ‘socialism without the obsessives’, is actually fairly easy to locate: Sadiq Khan and Andy Burnham occupy it rather easily, though sometimes with rather more political success than policy achievement to show for it.

For years Labour MPs have been harangued, and sometimes threatened, by an old-new breed of activists who had joined and rejoined from outside a Labour Party whose core had settled for a mildly radical Brown-Miliband prescription. Now, a hostile takeover which they have suffered like an occupation is suddenly lifted. Once the terrible coronavirus crisis has passed, the smiles on their faces will help their new boss no end.

Starmer still faces an almost absurdly steep electoral mountain. He must win 124 seats to get to an overall majority of one – something that only Clement Attlee and Tony Blair have ever achieved before. If he wins no seats from the Scottish National Party or Plaid Cymru, he must take seats like Rugby. The Tories currently hold that seat with a majority of 13,447, and Starmer would need a swing of over 13% to take it.

But focusing on places like Rugby, which look so far out of Labour’s reach that they need a telescope to locate them, is a mistake. Labour could much more easily take power as a minority government, as they did in 1924, 1929 and February 1974. They are only 50 or at the most 60 seats away from being in power. Starmer’s prescription of ruthlessness, professionalism, a team of all the talents, internal reform, unity and a happier Parliamentary party can’t hurt. It will, in fact, probably heal many of the wounds that Corbynism left gaping.

Labour has not just gone round the houses to get here. It’s reversed into cul-de-sacs, raced around industrial estates, smashed into garden walls and screamed down bypasses – all on the way to leaving a burned-out party bricked up on a desolate patch of wasteland. It’s a shame any of that stupid, idiotic waste of time had to tick by before the British left started saving up for a new car, rather than making off in someone else’s.

But here we all are, making a bit of progress at last: and that has got to be good for British democracy. Britain’s Opposition has passed the baton, to a more disciplined, younger, cleverer, happier team, far more in keeping with the Labour Party’s governing traditions – and one more likely to say complex things that at least approximately aligned with reality.

This latest Labour Party might or might not make it anywhere near power. That will depend on events, as it always does. And there is only so much that Shadow Ministers can do to make the weather. Even so, they have begun to emerge from that embarrassed crouch of both mortification and victimhood which has been their shelter from the elements. Starmer’s start gives them at least a fighting chance: for now, and for Labour, that must feel like a tiny beam of sunlight in the storm.

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Glen O’Hara is Professor of Modern and Contemporary History at Oxford Brookes University. He is the author of a series of books on modern Britain, including most recently The Politics of Water in Post-War Britain (2017).

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