Keir Starmer has brought Ed Miliband back to front-line politics and purged the frontbench of all but a handful of its Corbynites as he completed the finishing touches to his first shadow cabinet.
If this new-look front bench gets any headlines – the Covid-19 crisis means it may well not – then they will be dominated by the return of Miliband, who has been made the shadow business, energy and industrial strategy secretary. Even when the pattern of politics returns to its pre-pandemic position, the Conservatives will still have a majority of 80 and the opposition will struggle to make headlines most of the time.
As Nick Clegg demonstrated when he returned to Tim Farron’s front benches as Brexit spokesperson, there is media clout in being a former leader, which makes you newsworthy in your own right. Miliband also has a wealth of necessary experience: most of the work of the now-dissolved Department of Energy and Climate Change, for which Miliband was the secretary of state from 2008 to 2010, is today included within the business, energy and industrial strategy brief, while his long experience as a Treasury special adviser will serve him well in the business and industrial strategy elements.
Bringing back Miliband also means that the focus won’t be on the massacre of the Corbynites, of which only a handful have survived; Marsha de Cordova, a rare member of the Campaign Group to have endorsed Starmer, is the shadow women and equalities secretary; Rebecca Long-Bailey goes to shadow education; Cat Smith remains as shadow minister for young people while Andy McDonald moves from transport to shadow employment rights and protections. There has otherwise been a thorough pruning of the previous front bench: Richard Burgon joins Ian Lavery on the back benches, as does Dan Carden, regarded for some time as a rising talent of the Labour left, while Shami Chakrabarti, Rachael Maskell, Margaret Greenwood and Peter Dowd are all out of the shadow cabinet.
A consequence of the sacking of Barry Gardiner and Chakrabarti, coupled with the voluntary exits of Andrew Gwynne, Diane Abbott and John McDonnell, is that the Labour Party will sound very different on the airwaves: that quintet have done the bulk of the media heavy-lifting.
While several supporters of Starmer, such as Tracy Brabin, Christina Rees and Barbara Keeley, have been removed from the shadow cabinet, the big winners and the new appointments are overwhelmingly drawn from his supporters’ club. Having using his top team to balance the party, Starmer has clearly felt free to reward his allies across the rest of the shadow cabinet. Jonathan Reynolds, the MP for Stalybridge and Hyde, and a long-term advocate of a Universal Basic Income, becomes shadow work and pensions secretary. David Lammy, Thangam Debbonaire and Preet Kaur Gill are made shadow justice, housing and Dfid respectively, ensuring that, despite the sacking of Dawn Butler, Starmer’s first shadow cabinet is more diverse than its immediate predecessor. Luke Pollard, a Starmer backer, remains as shadow environment secretary, while Bridget Phillipson and Jo Stevens are made shadow chief secretary to the Treasury and culture secretary respectively.
While the shadow cabinet is diverse in terms of gender and race and has opponents of a second Brexit referendum in senior positions, Starmer has recruited in his own image in one major way: the bulk of his new hires are competent operators from the centre of the party, with only one or two from the party’s right. It’s, ironically, a far more Millibandite shadow cabinet than any of Miliband’s, in part because the only plausible candidates for the role of shadow chancellor under Miliband were Ed Balls and Yvette Cooper, both to Miliband’s right. That Milibandite theme will likely continue as Starmer completes his front bench with a slew of junior positions tomorrow.