Keir Starmer has completed his first reshuffle, and the biggest move is riskier than many suppose. The headline change is the demotion of Anneliese Dodds, who moves to party chair overseeing the policy review, with Rachel Reeves replacing her as shadow chancellor. In the other major change, Angela Rayner moves from party chair to shadow Michael Gove at the Cabinet Office.
The demotion of Dodds has been long-trailed, and is being hailed as a major step forward by most commentators. Dodds’ supposed crime is a failure to “cut through”, which was also true of George Osborne in 2010, Gordon Brown in 1997, and John McDonnell in 2017, the three most recent elections in which the opposition party has gained seats in any significant way. The only shadow chancellors to have “cut through” in recent times are Ed Balls and Michael Portillo, neither of whom were popular at the time of their incumbency. More importantly, Balls was not politically at one with his leader, Ed Miliband. Although the Eds’ working relationship was good, that they were not aligned politically was part of the confusion that fatally undermined the Miliband project.
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At first glance, the promotion of Reeves appears a similarly risky decision: like Miliband in 2011, Starmer has appointed arguably the most qualified economist in the Parliamentary Labour Party to fulfil the role. (The only other candidates with a greater claim to that are Ed Miliband and Stephen Timms, who for various reasons could not be appointed to that role without creating a political headache for Starmer, and Yvette Cooper, whose appointment would mean forgoing a valuable political asset as chair of the Home Affairs Select Committee.) Unlike Miliband in 2011, he does not have the argument that he has done it under duress.
It may work out better this time. Although Starmer’s close allies insist that he is firmly from the middle of the Labour Party, and although he and Reeves disagreed on, among other things, whether it was appropriate to serve in Jeremy Corbyn’s shadow cabinet, and who the best candidate for the 2020 leadership was, it is not clear that Starmer actually has a particularly developed sense of economic policy or strategy. One reason why the Miliband-Balls relationship did not work is that Miliband had a highly developed sense of the economic policy and strategy he wanted. It may be that the experiment works better the second time around. Or it may have a familiar ending.