The strategy appears to be based on betting the House that the Conservatives will eventually implode
Public opinion has definitely shifted away from government in recent months, but to capitalize on Labour, people must be given a reason to vote for them, and that requires clear policy to be articulated well and repeatedly.
Politics should be about politics, not personalities, as Tony Benn used to say, although Labor currently does not have enough of either. When it comes to the big issues of the day – whether it’s welfare, Brexit, migration, or even second jobs in Westminster – Labor is either a vacuum or a wavering jumble of points. There does not seem to be a clear message and reshuffle of the shadow cabinet will not solve that.
On one level, it’s understandable that Keir Starmer wants a stronger frontbench team despite having already made two reshuffles in 18 months to the shadow cabinet he vacated in April 2020. This reshuffle seems more definitive, and counts on eliminating any remaining belief that Starmer is trying to unite the party. Yesterday’s moves show very clearly that the party’s right is now in control and the left is unloaded.
Yvette Cooper’s return as shadow Home Secretary makes sense given that she was an effective reviewer of Priti Patel as Chair of the Home Affairs Select Committee. Demonstrating Patel’s incompetence is not a challenge, the question is whether Cooper can win an argument for a more humane migration policy. Her previous statements offer little hope – as she has called for stricter benefit restrictions for migrants.
The man she replaces, Nick Thomas-Symonds, will provide a forensic and legal look at the messy trade agenda first pursued by Liz Truss before she became secretary of state in September. Lisa Nandy, a Northern MP, also makes sense shadowing the government’s leveling-up department, especially given that it’s headed by Michael Gove, an MP for Surrey – one of the last places in England to need upgrading. I was surprised Rosena Allin-Khan wasn’t given a health briefing – as she was a brilliant folk performer and is an NHS doctor. Ideological conformity presumably got Wes Streeting there instead.
But the big problem they all face is that the party’s right hasn’t produced a single inspiring idea or policy for over a decade. This loophole was exploited by Jeremy Corbyn in 2015, when he loosely beat three originally more prominent candidates (including Cooper) with a clear socialist policy program – which Starmer poached and then discarded when he ran for Labor leader in 2020.
Politics is very dovish for Starmer’s Labour, and the strategy seems to revolve around betting the House that the Conservatives will eventually implode, so all that’s needed is a safe pair of hands waiting in the wings. For this reason, Labour’s criticism of the government is based on its lack of good management, efficiency and competence – all commendable qualities which Starmer believes he can beat Johnson. But is it enough?
Lineup reshuffles are often big pantomimes, but Starmer had a particularly notable start to the season when his team briefed the media without telling his assistant director, Angela Rayner. Blind Rayner didn’t quite reply, “Oh, no, he’s not,” when asked if Starmer was starting a cast reshuffle, but apparently he hadn’t been told. This reflected Starmer’s increasing factionalism within the party, playing out not just in Westminster but across the country, as local members were suspended – on often flimsy grounds – and expelled without due process.
Party morale and membership have plummeted, with consequences for the party’s ability to organize and fund successful election campaigns.
Ultimately, it will not be the media hype surrounding the return of Yvette Cooper (competent as she undoubtedly is) or the left’s marginalization that will matter, but whether Labor gains support in the country. The jury is still very divided on this. Starmer needs to stop shuffling and start campaigning now.
Andrew Fisher was Executive Director of Policy for the Labor Party from 2016 to 2019. He is the author of The Failed Experiment – a book about UK economic policy and the financial crash of 2007/08.