What is a reshuffle? On the surface, it is a way to rework your top team, refine briefs and ensure that the parliamentary party’s best are afforded bargaining power in the policy battles to come.
This view can be described as encompassing those things Starmer had to accomplish with his reshuffle yesterday. See also: ensuring the shadow cabinet reflects the Whitehall rejig conducted last February, and appointing frothing election attack dogs to spur the salience of issues, such as justice and the environment, where the Conservatives are assumed to be weak.
But reshuffles are about so much more. For an opposition party, they can be a rare moment in the spotlight as it continues to set out its case to the country. This point, of course, is no longer an immediate priority for Starmer (the Labour party’s enduringly vast lead in polls proffers Sir Keir more than his fair share of the media spotlight). In fact, it is a testament to how seriously Keir Starmer is taken in the media that the Labour reshuffle figured so prominently on a day otherwise dominated by the unfolding disaster in Britain’s schools.
Therefore, to understand this latest Labour reshuffle you need to re-familiarise yourself with the defining principles of “Starmerism” and how it operates as a political methodology. For the reshuffle was profoundly consistent with Keir Starmer’s wider approach to opposition, based around unmooring the Labour leader from the maxims he majored on in his 2020 leadership bid.
It gets to one of the many paradoxes of Sir Keir’s political approach — and therefore Starmerism generally — that the Labour leader is considered as “playing it safe” in siding so unashamedly with his party’s “Blairites” and making no concession to perceived intra-party antagonists.
Indeed, over the course of three years and three major reshuffles, Starmer has worked, often quietly but with ruthless intent, to utterly enervate those deemed to be electoral liabilities. He took them in turn: first his party left, sacking them (Rebecca Long-Bailey) and even expelling them (Jeremy Corbyn). Now his factional antipathy creeps rightward, isolating his “soft left” and dispossessing their champions of high office.
Viewed in full, the distance Starmer has travelled since 2020, both politically and personally, is stark. Lisa Nandy and Nick Thomas-Symonds, who shadowed two great offices of state until November 2021, cling onto the shadow cabinet by the barest of margins. Neither holds the title of shadow secretary of state.
Opponents lament the brutishness of the approach — while Labour figures praise Starmer’s abiding “ruthlessness”. It shows how the factional fallout of the leadership’s approach, both on policy and personnel, must be seen as a feature, not a bug, of the Starmerite project. The more the leadership’s opponents howl, in full view of the public, the more the ghosts of populisms past are supposedly exorcised from the electorate’s memory. Sir Keir never seems more confident and more comfortable than when he is dealing with his party.
Thus the Labour leader continues to pursue this core strategy — with Monday’s reshuffle showing how Starmer intends to fortify his ideological foundations by surrounding himself with a constellation of figures from the Labour right.
Indeed, with the “soft left” enfeebled following previous reshuffles — and under fire from a ruthless briefing campaign orchestrated by Starmer allies — the party right is on the march.
Pat McFadden, who amassed such power as Rachel Reeves’ deputy, said to apparate at any mention of the word “spending”, is the new shadow chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. The onetime political secretary to Tony Blair, who also becomes the party’s national campaign coordinator, is confirmed as one of the most important figures in the Starmerite project.
Meanwhile, party-right rising star Darren Jones replaces McFadden as shadow chief secretary to the Treasury; Peter Kyle cements his status, alongside his ally and friend Wes Streeting, as one of the new breed of modernisers with his promotion to shadow science and innovation secretary; and Steve Reed, the Starmer ally thought to be behind the first wave of controversial attack ads, is handed Jim McMahon’s old post as environment spokesperson.
Shabana Mahmood, a former barrister who impressed insiders as national campaign coordinator, takes Reed’s place at justice. And veteran of the New Labour years Hilary Benn is back in the frontbench fold as shadow Northern Ireland secretary.
But the greatest coup de grâce for the party’s Blairites over its intra-party opponents might be the elevation of Liz Kendall to the post of shadow work and pensions secretary. Kendall, who famously secured just 4.5 per cent of the leadership vote in 2015, is proof of how far the party’s right flank has travelled since its subjugation in the Corbyn years.
So what does the shadow cabinet reshuffle and the rewarding of proven performers from the party right tell us about the evolving character of Starmerism? Well, ultimately, it tells us that it really isn’t evolving — strategically, at least.
Viewed in full and “Starmerism”, as a process, has been focused on wrestling the Ming Vase from Labour’s staggering left-wing and butter-fingered “soft left”.
And, after yesterday’s reshuffle, Sir Keir has free rein to grip the metaphoric porcelain as securely as he deems fit. The reshuffle is, therefore, both a signal that Starmer wields the Ming Vase in Labour and demonstrative of his designs for it: he will clutch it ever tighter as we approach a general election, traversing only the least polished floors with his Blairite allies as ballasts.
Of course, there remain standard-bearers for the “soft left” in the shadow cabinet. Angela Rayner, for example, becomes shadow deputy prime minister and has gained a big spending department. Her brief will be roughly analogous to that held by John Prescott under Tony Blair. Elsewhere, Ed Miliband retains his place as shadow secretary of state for climate and net zero, perhaps reflecting how Starmer could yet “Go Big” on net zero. Louise Haigh also stays as shadow secretary of state for transport.
But still, for Starmer, this reshuffle was about pursuing a long-held strategy that has yielded significant polling success. And the recent rejig ensures any future “Go Big” departures from Labour — either in opposition or in government — will be shaped by loyal Labour minds.
Such is the Labour party’s new factional settlement: a largely dispossessed soft left and an utterly enervated left wing.
The question remains, however, that if Starmerism is a political methodology defined by its adherence to strict processes, (which are, 1, ditching high-spending policies and, 2, those wannabe ministers not fully committed to process 1), then what is the end goal?
Starmer may have decided that ruthlessness in and around one’s party is as an electoral virtue in opposition, but come election time — and a period in government moreover — Starmer will need to set out what his “ruthless” intent over the past three years will culminate in.
Thus Starmerism, as is it is right now configured, is a mode of political thought shaped by the unique pressures of opposition — conditioned by the record of 13 years of failed forebears. In the end, it is perhaps little surprise that Sir Keir is exceptionally comfortable running his party.
But running the country, time may soon prove, will be a different task altogether. “Ruthlessness” cannot be considered an end in and of itself.
Josh Self is a Political Correspondent at politics.co.uk, follow him on Twitter here.
Image from Keir Starmer’s Flickr Account.