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6 September 2023

Starmer’s transition from soft-left to Labour right is complete

The shadow cabinet reshuffle confirms his abandonment of the leadership platform he stood on in 2020.

By Freddie Hayward

Keir Starmer’s transition from soft-left Labour politician to the right of the party is now complete. On Monday (4 September), a reshuffle that was expected to focus on finding a new role for Angela Rayner quickly became an extensive overhaul of Labour’s top team. Starmer executed it without public dissent among his troops: a sign of his authority.

The reshuffle – probably his final before the election – elevated key Blairite politicians such as Peter Kyle, Pat McFadden (you can read Rachel Wearmouth’s excellent profile of McFadden here) and Liz Kendall (Morgan McSweeney, Starmer’s campaign director, ran her leadership campaign in 2015 while Matthew Doyle, Starmer’s director of communications, led her press operation). Compare that with his first shadow cabinet in 2020 when soft-left figures Anneliese Dodds, Nick Thomas-Symonds and Lisa Nandy all occupied senior positions. Insiders argue the reshuffle sought to reward performance. The result, one shadow cabinet minister put it to me, is “a serious group, with balanced perspectives but all extremely hungry to win”. But the ideological shift within the shadow cabinet reflects Starmer’s decision to abandon the platform he stood on during the leadership contest in 2020.

Someone on the soft left he couldn’t demote because of her independent mandate as deputy leader was Rayner. She was seen as ill-suited to the backroom management necessary to excel as the shadow chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, and has been handed the levelling-up brief, which has been absent from Labour’s messaging in recent months. One question is whether Rayner will seek to rehabilitate the concept, or whether Labour lets Boris Johnson’s slogan fall away in favour of the green prosperity plan and devolution.

A more representative move was the promotion of Kyle – the former shadow Northern Ireland secretary and a zealous Blair fan – to the coveted position of shadow secretary for science, innovation and technology. This is the biggest sign yet that Starmer will retain the Rishi Sunak-created department, which will play a leading role in integrating AI into the economy. It’s also a promotion for Kyle, who was well-liked by politicians in Northern Ireland and is seen as a strong media performer.

Darren Jones, a 36-year-old Bristolian with a background in technology law, was tipped for the science role. Instead, he has been promoted from the backbenches to shadow chief secretary to the Treasury. Jones takes a keen interest in public service reform. He will have less room for manoeuvre in the Treasury than in the science department. But a reshuffle is as much about the party hierarchy as it is about handing out fresh jobs. Jones is now on the pitch, which increases his chances of heading a major department if Labour wins office.

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As Rachel Cunliffe points out, those responsible for Labour’s five national missions – covering education, health, the economy, climate and the Home Office – have stayed in place. That makes sense given each was involved in developing the policies that will comprise the bulk of the manifesto. But on the periphery, the reshuffle is the story of the Blairites’ long march through Keir Starmer’s Labour Party.

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