The “reshuffle” seemed an understatement, given the sweeping scale of the reshuffle Keir Starmer made on Monday among the top ranks of Labor, with few positions left untouched.
Starmer’s assistants saw it as the completion of the work started in May’s botched overhaul, which saw Anneliese Dodds replaced by Rachel Reeves as Phantom Chancellor; but derailed by Angela Rayner, who resisted a move for herself.
Changes for Jon Ashworth and Lisa Nandy were mentioned at the time and have now been implemented.
And this time around, Starmer publicly asserted her authority over Rayner – with whom relations have remained difficult – by launching the reshuffle as she gave a major speech in Westminster on the cleansing of public life.
She was briefly informed that a reshuffle was underway; but not consulted (although Jeremy Corbyn certainly also did not consult his deputy, Tom Watson, on the composition of his shadow team).
The end result marked a shift to the political right and created a powerful platform for rising stars Wes Streeting and Bridget Phillipson, both considered effective media artists.
Shadow cabinet ministers had recently complained about the airtime Streeting was getting, despite the relatively junior post of shadow school minister.
As the shadow health secretary in the midst of a pandemic, he will now be a key spokesperson and public face of a potential future Labor government.
A Labor insider suggested there had been little effort to match people with their expertise – citing Steve Reed’s move towards shadow justice, for example – and an overwhelming focus on who can deliver a hard-hitting media performance .
More low-profile shadow ministers including Kate Green of education and Luke Pollard of the environment, both seen by their colleagues as diligent and thoughtful, have been bluntly abandoned.
Tellingly, a Starmer contributor told the Politico newsletter – a daily note to Westminster insiders – that the reshuffle had put “effective and fresh messengers in key memories.”
His team ruthlessly pursues the goal of winning swing voters in a handful of key seats, many of them in the ‘red wall’, and wants people in place who reassure Tory-Labor switches, not evocative of Corbyn.
They believe they are succeeding for the first time in a long time to have a leader that voters can imagine as prime minister; and are delighted with Reeves’ performance, including, recently, a very positive profile in The Telegraph; but now they want to build on that by creating a larger team than the public can imagine as a government.
To that end, the overhaul also saw the return of Labor ‘big beast’ Yvette Cooper, one of the relatively few MPs – along with Ed Miliband and Hilary Benn – who served as ministers.
Starmer appeared to avoid such tall poppies in his top tier first team, instead promoting Nick Thomas-Symonds and Dodds, both intellectuals with deep expertise but without their own power bases in the party.
A longtime Labor insider pointed out that Cooper and Miliband are “more experienced politicians than Keir,” suggesting that by moving Miliband sideways and bringing Cooper into the tent, he must now feel that his own position is more secure.
So for Starmer’s team, the reshuffle was an assertion of its authority, which had been undermined by May’s brutal reshuffle; and a signal of intent to voters, with a general election potentially in a few years.
For Labor’s soft left MPs, who previously viewed Starmer as one of their own, however, the end result was a sense of uneasiness gnawing at a continued drift to the right.
And some have warned that the relentless focus on target voters in the Red Wall, while understandable given the shape of the 2019 crushing defeat, risked alienating other groups Labor might need if they were to. ultimately want to succeed in forming the next government.