Starmer opts for experience, energy and emotion in a bid to build his credible alternative government

By James Frith
01/12/2021


With personal polling streets ahead of the Prime Minister’s and his Labour Party creeping in front in the polls, Sir Keir Starmer seized the initiative with a reshuffle that had an air of unfinished business about it. His earlier Spring reshuffle was hampered by haggling with his Deputy. No such consternation or consultation this time: instead he strode out, confidently making changes that will age better than the dissenting tweets fired out by those who sponsored Labour’s worst ever defeat in modern times. 

The Marginal Seat test - a political leader’s ability to appeal to those voters who switch between elections - remains one which Keir Starmer and his new Shadow Cabinet are yet to pass. The polls are uncannily accurate for those of us back on the doorstep listening to voters. Any love for Johnson has disappeared – he seems to have served his purpose in the eyes of many voters. From the Labour Party, the public want an emotional connection, not an explanation. They want single vision, not single issue. With this reshuffle, Keir Starmer is reaching for experience, energy and those, he hopes, are capable of making that emotional connection. 

Starmer loves football. He loves to play it, watch it and share it. In recent interviews he’s talked of being on the field of play to win, he’s not happy with simply playing the game or losing well. This emotional, heartfelt side to Starmer is a new reveal. It recognises that an alternative government should have an alternative vision. Starmer wants goals from his new Shadow Cabinet, not just to rely on the government’s own goals, but to win with their own. 

The promotion of smart, brilliant communicators like Wes Streeting (Health) or the Mancunian no-nonsense instincts of Lucy Powell (Culture, Media and Sport) both to Shadow Cabinet is smart. Johnny Reynolds will take a consultative, patient but astute line and a focus on the Producers as Shadow Business Secretary. The strategically gifted Bridget Phillipson is promoted to Shadow Education in what is a huge step forward for Labour’s education brief, consigned to a blind spot under successive Labour Shadow Ministers obsessed with structures instead of standards, or the past rather than a modern bright future where every child matters. Given her link to the Treasury before now, we can expect a comprehensive, exciting plan for every child to succeed, served and fulfilled by school, prepared and skilled for life.

Lisa Nandy’s versatility and tenacity can be cold and capable, emotional and evaluative. Her appointment to talk towns, economic renewal and Levelling Up is a solid move that will play best to her considerable strengths and her historic instinct to oppose Gove, who will know she’s a strong and quick-witted new opponent on the government’s central proposition. David Lammy will guide Labour’s foreign policy with a progressive, strong and modern voice on world affairs and one that will offer a passionate challenge to government claims in a post-Brexit world.

The biggest headline grabbing move is the re-appointment of Yvette Cooper who becomes Shadow Home Secretary once again. An MP since 1997 and a proud parliamentary record including as Chair of the Home Affairs select committee, Starmer will hope Cooper’s talents can be scaled up again to lead the Opposition’s attack and alternative to the government’s questionable performance at the Home Office and especially that of Johnson’s close ally, Priti Patel.

Starmer’s intent here is to speak to a country in pragmatic mood. It says that what matters is what works and that he is leading a credible alternative government. This was an unfinished business reshuffle but in this latest and possibly last incarnation of Starmer’s Shadow Cabinet, he hopes that those he’s retained, returned or rewarded will prove capable of cutting through with their energy and experience and, with him, emotionally connect to the country if they are to address a final piece of unfinished business - that of Labour’s return to government. It’s all to play for.