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5 September 2023

Starmer’s new shadow cabinet is a Blairite tribute band

The Labour leader’s team is without precedent in the narrowness of its political scope.

By Neal Lawson

In what is likely to be Keir Starmer’s last big reshuffle before the next general election, Labour has shifted further to the right. It’s hard to recall a Labour shadow cabinet that adheres so closely to a single flavour, Blairism. And not the early, vibrant and more plural form of New Labour, but the dryer narrower end of that era.

Angela Rayner is now an isolated figure who may like to compare herself to John Prescott, but Prescott was surrounded by figures from the left such as Robin Cook, David Blunkett, Peter Hain and more. Ed Miliband is thankfully still there, but hemmed in, deep behind enemy lines.

In the three and half years since Starmer was elected leader, it is remarkable how far he has travelled from the position he took to win. Then, it wasn’t even about being on the centre left – the offering to the party was no less than Corbynism without Corbyn. Today it’s Blairism without Blair (and without money).

The promotion of arch-Blairites such as Pat McFadden, Peter Kyle and Liz Kendall, and the demotion or sacking of soft-left figures like Lisa Nandy, Rosena Allin-Khan and Jonathan Ashworth is merely the public face of a silent takeover that not a single member voted for.

Labour’s new shadow cabinet is without precedent in the narrowness of its political scope. Under every previous Labour leader, the cabinet or shadow cabinet reflected the big-tent nature of the party. If the leader was on the right, such as Hugh Gaitskell, figures from the left, like an Aneurin Bevan and Harold Wilson, would feature centrally. When Michael Foot led the party there was a place for leading right-wingers such as Roy Hattersley. That tradition of balance and pluralism has been extinguished.

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This matters, not out of some abstract commitment to equity across the party. But from the recognition that the sheer scale of the challenges facing Labour, if it is to win and govern effectively, demands robust and agile responses. That can only come from the full range of talents, thoughts, ideas and experiences of people across the whole of the party. Successful and enduring political projects require deep reservoirs of cultural and intellectual energy to draw on. Critically, they need the feedback loops that tell them when they go wrong so that they can auto-correct in government, rather than be ejected from it.

The right of the party doesn’t have a monopoly of competence, and certainly doesn’t have a monopoly on radical new thinking. With Blairism back in the driving seat we can only expect a profoundly technocratic project. But, shock, this isn’t 1997. Then, a strong economy allowed for mild but short-lived public spending and redistribution. Today’s car-crash economy denies any possibility of a New Labour rehash. This is unlikely to end well.

For now, this tribute-band politics is safe. But while the Tory party continues to be Labour’s biggest asset, by seemingly handing it victory on a plate, problems are stored up. The shrinking of the ideological base of the party in the shadow cabinet, the Parliamentary Labour Party and the party more widely is taking place alongside the shrinking of the policy offer, from wealth taxes to benefit cuts, from the Ultra Low Emission Zone to workers’ rights. You can’t describe a country suffering from Tory chaos and then not even offer a sticking plaster to hold it together. 

Shrinking ideas inevitably shrink support. Almost 200,000 members have left the party since 2020. Financially they’ve been replaced by rich donors, but they are unlikely to back policies that cause them private grief. More importantly, this shift to the right, as we saw with New Labour, is premised on the assumption that voters have nowhere else to go. This clearly wasn’t the case in the 2000s, as the loss of Scotland and, eventually, the Red Wall showed. Will those voters really come back if Labour is offering so little of substance?

The Rutherglen and Hamilton West by-election will be a test of whether Labour can win from the right of the SNP. Just as intriguing is whether the Lib Dems turn out to be the main challenger in Mid Bedfordshire, and if the Green vote continues to grow. Turnout is going to plummet.

When Starmer appeared at the Blairfest before the summer, the love-in between the two was marred by one moment. Blair said he was fighting for the centre against the radicalism and populism of both the right and the left. Starmer politely demurred from this position and claimed to be for the left. That may be how he sees himself, but the enormous strides he has made in the other direction during his leadership, and the fact that his staff and his shadow cabinet are now dominated by old-school right-wing figures, suggests that he is sealing his own fate even if he wants to keep more radical options open. Equally, the Blairites have lashed themselves to Starmer. Whatever happens next, they will have to own it.

[See also: Keir Starmer’s reshuffle was politically ruthless]

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