Shadow Cabinet reshuffles often get referred to as ‘shuffling deckchairs on the Titanic’ by Government figures. It’s a cliché and an easy line used to undermine the Opposition as the Government can do so from a position of strength – the public may have a rough idea of who some of the main figures in Cabinet are but for the most part, most people won’t have a clue who is in the Shadow Cabinet. This particular reshuffle may be different as there are now several legitimate Labour big-hitters that the public will recognize.
Alongside Starmer, Ed Miliband takes on a slimmed-down role focusing on climate change and Yvette Cooper returns to the post of Shadow Home Secretary that she previously held from 2011-2015. David Lammy and Pat McFadden were both ministers in the Brown Government so there is now genuine experience in Labour’s frontbench team. But with Emily Thornberry also returning to role she previously held ten years ago, there is a danger that this Shadow Cabinet gets framed as ‘Milibandism:The Sequel’ – and we all know how well the original panned out.
Many of the moves were a long time coming – when Wes Streeting, Peter Kyle, Lucy Powell and Bridget Phillipson have all regularly been sent on Newsnight and Today in recent months despite not being full Shadow Cabinet members, its clear they were in the running for promotions.
What was unusual about this particular reshuffle was that there were very few ups and downs, hirings and firings – most of the main moves were sideways. In terms of traditional ‘prestige’ and ‘hierarchy’, there isn’t a huge amount of difference between Jonathan Reynolds moving from DWP to BEIS, Steve Reed moving from Local Communities to Justice or Jonathan Ashworth moving from Health to DWP. Undeniably, Louise Haigh and Wes Streeting have been promoted but for the most part, the majority of these moves reflect tactical decisions to ensure the right people are shadowing the right departments where the leadership believes they can make the biggest impact.
But what does ‘impact’ even mean? Shadow Cabinet members have to perform a variety of roles –performing well in the chamber, leading shadow teams to scrutinize government legislation, acting as a competent outrider for potentially controversial future policies, being visible to the public through astute media performances, managing policy development and liaising with PLP colleagues on the backbenches. Starmer will need more of his team doing more of these roles more successfully before his Shadow Cabinet can be judged to be ‘making an impact’.
All in all, Labour appears stronger today than it did yesterday. But Shadow Cabinet reshuffles are tactical moves by definition; Starmer is still in need of a comprehensive strategy to get Labour back into government. Labour still faces the considerable strategic challenges of winning seats in Scotland, reconnecting with red wall voters who previously voted Tory, diversifying Labour’s electoral base beyond major cities and university areas, convincing the electorate of Labour’s economic credibility, making Labour relevant against a Conservative Party that steals its clothes on tax policy and public service funding, and articulating a vison for what Labour would do in government.
Regardless of yesterday’s reshuffle, Labour still faces considerable challenges if it is to form another Government. Its best chance of doing so rests with another reshuffle cliché – ‘it’s time to get on with the job’.
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