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Starmer's balancing act

06 April 2020

Public Affairs Director and former Labour Party Political Adviser Christine Quigley writes about what the new Labour Leader means for the Party

When Labour’s leadership election was launched following a historic defeat for the party, it’s fair to say that none of us could have expected the circumstances in which the new leader was announced over the weekend. While coronavirus continues to dominate public life, how Her Majesty’s Opposition responds to this challenge and establishes itself in the coming weeks will have significant implications for British politics going forward.

New leader Sir Keir Starmer announced key appointments to his Shadow Cabinet on Sunday, specifically those positions that would be joining a new coronavirus committee, with the rest appointed on Monday. While some of the names may be less familiar to casual Labour-watchers than others, the initial raft of appointments represent clever triangulation, bringing together people who served under Corbyn’s leadership with more explicit Corbynsceptics to demonstrate unity and clear direction. Key members of the Corbyn project including Barry Gardiner, Richard Burgon and Jon Trickett have been formally stood down from the Shadow Cabinet, but other Corbyn-era members such as Shadow Chief Whip Nick Brown MP and Shadow Leader of the House of Lords Baroness Smith have been reappointed, demonstrating a degree of continuity and drawing on their experience as shadow ministers. Some Corbyn allies including Rebecca Long-Bailey, Andy McDonald and Cat Smith have been reappointed to the Shadow Cabinet, while Ed Miliband's return to Labour's top team as Shadow BEIS Secretary is a strong indication that Starmer is keen to bring back talented former shadow cabinet members in their areas of expertise.

While Labour has replaced one north London MP as leader with another, the voting pattern suggests that many members sought to balance their tickets with Angela Rayner as a northern and more explicitly working-class MP as deputy leader. Following criticism that Labour has never had an elected female leader, the new Shadow Cabinet is one of the most diverse yet. Two of the four positions shadowing the great offices of state are held by women, with Anneliese Dodds the first woman ever to serve as Shadow Chancellor and leadership contender and new Shadow Foreign Secretary Lisa Nandy becoming one of the party’s most senior BAME politicians. The appointment of Welsh MP Nick Thomas-Symonds to the key role of Shadow Home Secretary indicates an understanding of the need to win back Labour votes in Wales, following a loss of six seats by the party in December.

Some commentators have expressed surprise at the rapid rise of Anneliese Dodds to the role of Shadow Chancellor, having only become an MP in 2017. However, Dodds is an experienced politician and public policy expert. She was previously an MEP, where she sat on the European Parliament’s Committee on Economic and Monetary Affairs, with responsibility for financial services regulation, taxation and competition policies and oversight of the European Central Bank. Well-liked across the party, she served as a Shadow Treasury Minister under Corbyn’s leadership, but is a member of the soft-left Tribune Group of MPs and sits as a Labour and Co-operative Party MP. She is likely to continue her focus on economic policies to improve productivity across the UK, particularly regionally.

New Shadow Home Secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds is also less well-known than other shadow cabinet appointees.  Another soft-left MP, he is a former barrister first elected in 2015 with a background in commercial law.  He has been part of the Shadow Home Office team since 2017 and is chair of the Aneurin Bevan Society.

Former Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary Rachel Reeves MP makes a return to the Shadow Cabinet – not, as expected, as Shadow BEIS Secretary, but shadowing Michael Gove’s role as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. With Keir Starmer giving up his role as Labour’s Brexit lead, he will have been looking for a highly competent and trustworthy replacement to focus on Britain’s future relationship with the European Union, which increasingly sits within this ministerial portfolio.  In vacating the role of BEIS Select Committee Chair, which will be crucial in holding the Government to account for its actions to support business and workers during the coronavirus crisis, she is likely to prompt a hotly-contested election among Labour MPs for this role in the coming weeks.

Overall, Starmer’s new Shadow Cabinet indicates a willingness to bring together people from across the party and a recognition of the need to move forward from Corbynism, which the electorate rejected in December. However, with the party now out of government for nearly ten years and few shadow cabinet members having Ministerial experience, demonstrating competence and building the electorate's faith in Labour will be critical during the Covid-19 crisis and in the coming months.  The road back to Government may be long, but this new leadership means business.