Red steel: Nick Thomas-Symonds MP appointed as the new Shadow Trade Secretary

By Ciaran Gill

Nick Thomas-Symonds MP has been appointed as the new Shadow Secretary of State for International Trade, replacing Emily Thornberry MP who had held the role since April 2020.

In the 19 months that she held the Shadow Trade brief, Thornberry (in her own words) spent her time “exposing the blunders, lies & betrayals of Tory trade policy, and the continuing act of economic self-harm that is their botched Brexit deal”. With Thornberry now moving to the role of Shadow Attorney General, what can we expect from Thomas-Symonds taking up the Labour trade reins?

Representing the constituency of Torfaen, Thomas-Symonds has been an MP since 2015 and has held the roles of Shadow Minister for Work and Pensions (2015-2016), Shadow Solicitor-General (2016-2020), Shadow Minister for Security (2017-2020) and Shadow Home Secretary (2020-2021).

Although his acquisition of the trade brief means that he is no longer shadowing one of the ‘Great Offices of State’, Thomas-Symonds’ change of position may allow him to develop a more prominent role within the Labour of the next few years. In recent months Labour leader Keir Starmer MP has said that the party would seek to “make Brexit work” and yesterday confirmed that Thomas-Symonds, in his new trade role, would play a central role in the development of this new strategy.

60% of the constituency of Torfaen, located in south Wales, voted for Brexit in the 2016 referendum and Thomas-Symonds, who was born and raised in the area but voted Remain, is highly likely to have a very strong insight into why the area voted for the UK to leave the EU. The son of a steelworker, Thomas-Symonds will have seen first-hand the impact that deindustrialisation has had on the local area since the time of the Thatcher premiership.

The new Shadow Trade Secretary, moreover, is steeped in the party’s history and the Welsh Labour tradition, having written biographies on Aneurin Bevan and Clement Attlee (with a third on Harold Wilson to be published next year). As such, it is arguably Labour’s thinking that Thomas-Symonds is a person who fully grasps both the sentiment of deindustrialised UK communities and how Labour can learn from the lessons of the past to mount an electoral comeback.

For those who opposed Brexit, international trade has the potential to somewhat reduce the economic damage of leaving the EU. As a result, it’s likely that the new Shadow Trade Secretary will take a lead in highlighting the impact that the UK’s new trade deals will have on communities that have already seen industry move away over the past 40 years, many of which were in receipt of EU funding which has now, of course, been removed.

Former Shadow Trade Secretary Emily Thornberry MP represents the constituency of Islington South and Finsbury, which voted to Remain by over 70% and which hasn’t gone through a level of deindustrialisation seen by areas such as Torfaen. As such, it may be the case that Labour sees Thomas-Symonds as a more suitable person to illustrate how the UK’s trade agenda can better benefit communities outside the UK’s major cities, therefore making Brexit ‘work’ and widening the party’s appeal across the country.

In this regard, we could see the appointment of the new Shadow Trade Secretary as complementing the party’s appointment of Lisa Nandy MP as the new Shadow Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities given that they both highlight Labour’s renewed focus on the ‘politics of place’.

In Parliament, Thomas-Symonds has spoken about the need for the UK’s trade negotiations to result in outcomes such as the preservation of the environment, the protection of the UK steel sector and the shielding of the NHS from privatisation. As these points will have been made by the previous Shadow Trade Secretary, it is unlikely that Labour’s positioning on the Government’s trade agenda will change greatly over the upcoming months. Instead, it is likely that Nick Thomas-Symonds’ appointment will see trade being used more prominently within Labour’s new strategy to win back the support of communities that it has lost in recent years.