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4 April 2020updated 02 Aug 2021 2:29pm

Who will be in Keir Starmer’s shadow cabinet?

The new Labour leader faces a string of key strategic decisions

By Ailbhe Rea

As Labour’s new leader, Keir Starmer faces a string of key decisions over the coming days that will set the direction and tone of his leadership. He will appoint a team for the leader of the opposition’s office. He may well make immediate moves to tackle anti-Semitism within the party. And he will appoint a shadow cabinet: a string of strategic decisions, each to be carefully examined. What can they tell us about Starmer’s intentions for Labour?

The first major decision will be his choice of shadow chancellor. This appointment has caused the most speculation in the (now entirely online) world of Westminster and the media. It is also one of the most difficult decisions facing Starmer: as Stephen has written in the past, there is only a small pool of people with the skillset and experience to actually do the job, one of the most difficult in politics. 

Rachel Reeves, a former Bank of England economist and the MP for Leeds West since 2010, could plausibly take on the role. She has a reputation as a highly intelligent and competent politician but, as a former shadow work and pensions secretary under Ed Miliband, she has baggage and the potential to alienate those further to the left of the party, typified by her commitment to Labour being “tougher” on benefits than the Conservative Party when she took on the role in 2013. 

But the possibility of Reeves as shadow chancellor also raises the question of how Starmer will utilise experienced Labour MPs who are currently chairs of influential select committees within parliament. Reeves chairs the business select committee, while Yvette Cooper is chair of the home affairs select committee and Meg Hillier, another former Miliband-era shadow minister with government experience from the Brown years, is chair of the public accounts committee, considered the most important select committee in parliament. These figures, and others, perform important scrutiny of government outside of the shadow ministerial system. Some doubt whether it would be wise to move any of them from positions where they already exert such clout, running the risk they would be replaced by someone less capable.

Hillier is expected to stay in place, while speculation persists as to whether Yvette Cooper could be moved into a prominent role in shadow cabinet. A source suggests Cooper herself would be in two minds about taking on a shadow cabinet job, having carved out an influential role on the home affairs select committee. But, the source adds, it is very hard to say no to the leader of your party, and it is thought that if Starmer came calling, Cooper would probably take a shadow cabinet job. Reeves has fewer qualms about leaving her position on the business select committee, however, and “is keen” to take on the shadow chancellor job, says a source. 

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The other name most frequently mentioned as a potential shadow chancellor is Anneliese Dodds, the MP for Oxford East since 2017, who has previously been an MEP and a lecturer in public policy. Also considered very able and in the small cohort of people who could do the job adequately, she is, however, described by colleagues as pragmatic and “not very political”, just as happy working with John McDonnell when she was a shadow treasury minister as she would be with Starmer. 

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Sources suggest Dodds herself does not expect to be offered the role, but it hasn’t stopped her name being floated as the most likely contender alongside Reeves. In choosing Dodds, Starmer could well reinforce with colleagues a pre-existing perception that he is more pragmatic than political. Labour MPs describe him as “lawyerly” in his approach, less steeped in parliament, more prone to take an incremental approach and less keen on broad brush stroke messaging. The choice of Dodds, who is, similarly, an accomplished, details-orientated professional and who has arrived relatively recently to parliament would send a clear message about the Labour approach under Starmer. It could, however, expose a weakness, if the two most senior figures in the Labour leadership are both relatively new to the machinations of Westminster. 

Sources are also frustrated that Angela Eagle, the MP for Wallasey, is not being publicly touted as a contender for the job, and it is suggested that she could surprise people as Starmer’s choice. A chess player, like Reeves, and a former government minister, she would offer the experience and sharpness required in the job but would again carry more political baggage than Dodds. And, of course, there’s no ruling out a return to the top of politics for Ed Miliband who, as Stephen has written, could be a shrewd and newsworthy choice either for shadow chancellor or in a similarly senior role such as shadow foreign secretary.  

Of less interest in the run-up to the announcement of the new Labour leader has been the choice of shadow home secretary or of shadow foreign secretary. The former, however, will send a firm signal as to Starmer’s stance on immigration. Someone such as David Lammy, the MP for Tottenham who has co-chaired Starmer’s campaign, would signal an unequivocally pro-immigration stance for the years to come, while another appointment could suggest more of a willingness to triangulate on the issue in an attempt to win back lost Labour voters in Leave heartlands.

Lammy is strongly tipped by sources to be Starmer’s choice for shafow home secretary, while fellow campaign co-chair Carolyn Harris, the well-liked MP for Swansea East, is rumoured to be set to be appointed Starmer’s chief whip. MPs joked months ago that Harris was the person colleagues were “brown-nosing” to angle for a job; her influence over Starmer will be demonstrated not only by whether he appoints her chief whip, but by whether her preferences for other roles are honoured: she is understood to have lobbied for Jo Stevens, MP for Cardiff Central, to be shadow culture secretary, Nick Thomas-Symonds, MP for Torfaen, as shadow justice secretary, and Nia Griffith, MP for Llanelli, as shadow Welsh secretary.

Others expected to be given shadow cabinet roles after proving their loyalty to Starmer over the past few months include Sarah Jones, Chris Matheson, Steve Reed, Tulip Siddiq and Preet Kaur Gill. Rewarding these people and others for their early support of his campaign will, however, have to be balanced against Starmer’s understood commitment to achieving balance across his shadow cabinet, with representation of all wings of the party and all parts of the country.

And that raises the other question among Labour MPs: what will happen to Rebecca Long-Bailey? Starmer has already pledged to give Nandy and Long-Bailey shadow cabinet roles if he wins, and this commitment is reinforced by Starmer’s expected efforts to achieve “balance” in his shadow cabinet. MPs are almost unanimous in wanting to see Long-Bailey kept in shadow cabinet and an end to the era of “us and them”.

But there is a wide scope of available roles for Long-Bailey, from a climate change-related post to something more marginal. As a strategic decision for Starmer, her exact appointment will signal his willingness or otherwise to accommodate her strand of thinking within his leadership, but it also poses a strategic decision for Long-Bailey: should she aim to be the figure the left of the party rallies behind even after an unsuccessful leadership bid, or will she drift away from the left of the party with an eye on the long game, carving out a new role simply as a pragmatic and competent shadow cabinet minister? On the New Statesman podcast last week she stated her intention to be publicly loyal to the next leader, already providing a hint as to what approach she might take. 

Beyond the headline jobs, high-profile sackings and the fate of someone like Long-Bailey, however, Labour figures argue that the big strategic decisions facing Starmer are much more prosaic. The huge problem of the Corbyn era, many more experienced Labour MPs argue, was the lack of strategic oversight, spanning all aspects of the party’s parliamentary operation. As a result of some figures’ unwillingness to serve under Corbyn, in tandem with the staunch loyalty of other relative newcomers, some people were elevated straight to shadow cabinet without time on the back benches, resulting in a dearth of collective shadow cabinet experience. Many of the party’s MPs now hope those people will be moved into more junior ministerial roles, allowing them to find their feet in parliament and gain ministerial experience in a more typical timeframe. 

Further than that, many MPs hope the new leader will get rid of “dead weight” in shadow cabinet and ministerial positions, from people who aren’t pulling their weight to those who stepped into shadow roles simply because there was no one else to do the job. While the party more generally may feel a debt of loyalty to those people for stepping up, these MPs hope Starmer will realise that he personally “owes them nothing”. 

Many Labour MPs hope Starmer will be ruthless in his approach to this reshuffle, but not in terms of purging a particular faction. Instead, they hope to see a ruthless purge of anyone who has underperformed or been overpromoted in recent years. For many in the parliamentary party, they are yearning for a return to strategic discipline. Starmer has made much of his ability to lead and reform large organisations in his bid for the leadership. These shadow cabinet appointments will be his first chance to deliver on that.