Monday 6 April 2020

Understanding the New Shadow Cabinet

"It's the dregs of the Brown combined with the mediocrity of the Miliband era", so says a "senior Labour MP" finding themselves passed over for preferment in Keir Starmer's first shadow cabinet. That's one way of looking at it. The other is a candidate of the soft left fills his first appointments ... mostly from the soft left. Shocking, I know. In terms of political balance appointing Rachel Reeves the roving brief of the Shadow Chancellor for the Duchy of Westminster is a bone thrown to Labour First, while shuffling Rebecca Long-Bailey to Education is there to placate the left. Not that either wings are going to be satisfied by measly nuggets, but it doesn't matter. The left are strong, but not as strong as it might be, and the right have hitched their wagons to Keir's caravan - not the other way round.

What to make of the rest of the new appointments? Slotting Anneliese Dodds into shadow chancellor is a good shout. Upon her election in 2017 she served loyally with John McDonnell, obtaining his endorsement, and helped work up Labour's green industrial programme. She was part of the party's economics road show, for instance. This will at least mollify the left who are happy to take John's recommendation as good coin, even if they don't know her terribly well. And for those who enjoy entertaining counterfactuals, it's likely Anneliese would have got picked for this position had RLB won. Giving Lisa Nandy shadow foreign was probably not much of a surprise, though it will be noted in the scheme of the Westminster pecking order that she was awarded a more senior position than the woman who actually came second. Folks can read into that what they will. But from the standpoint of making an impact, as we saw in the leadership election Lisa easily had the best of Andrew Neil and would therefore prove more than a match for the hapless Dominic Raab in the post-Covid world. Despite an unwelcome propensity to be economical with the actualité, from Starmer's point of view a top drawer media performer with a proven ability to think on her feet will, he thinks, make her an asset to the new leadership.

Other appointments? I suppose the return of Ed Miliband is something Keir's core supporters will appreciate. Still popular in the party, politically it reconnects with the pre-Corbyn era and effectively parcels Jeremy's time off as adeparture from the norm. Now liberated from the Blairist constraints said to have saddled him between 2010 and 2015, we'll see whether there is radical mettle in his soul. The moving in of Jonathan Reynolds to shadow social security is interesting. Rare among the centre right of the party his idea of "radical welfare reform" isn't privatising and marketising everything, unlike some. But he is supportive of the basic income, which we hear today is now part of Spain's response to the Coronavirus crisis. Having an advocate for it in this position is encouraging. Scotland was only ever going to be given to Ian Murray, bringing back Charlie Falconer as shadow attorney general was entirely predictable, as was shifting Emily Thornberry to international development and giving David Lammy a prominent role (considering his exemplary work around Grenfell Tower).

Who's in and who's out - which is all of Corbyn's top team except for RLB, Jonathan Ashworth, Angela Rayner, and Emily - is jolly good fun, but what about the politics? First, Keir has not gone out of his way to troll the left and appoint some of the party's biggest idiots. Positions for the likes of Wes Streeting, Jess Phillips, Neil Coyle, and Margaret Hodge was sure to severely damage his creds as the unity candidate and, well, undermined the capacity of his team. Having one eye on the brief, while giving under the counter briefings to the lobby hacks wouldn't have done. As regards wider alignments in the party this spells the end of Unite's disproportionate influence over the party leadership. It's certainly true many trade union tops in other unions felt their nose was put out of joint these last few years, both in terms of Unite's out manoeuvring them for influence and the Corbynist pressures coming upwards from their activist wings. Why else, despite the over long contest, did many general secretaries scramble to convene candidate endorsement meetings before pressure could build from lower down the union echelons - a lesson learned from 2015 when the collective apparat were caught on the hop. And so now Unite is more out in the cold and the other union leaders enjoy more pre-eminence - again, a return to how matters were pre-Corbyn.

Overall though, folks claiming this is a neoliberal or Blairist restoration are wide of the mark. The left are right to harbour serious concerns about Keir Starmer, and his commitment to a Corbynish platform during the election probably owes more to positioning than genuine enthusiasm, but the politics of what we're seeing is a return to soft left Fabianism. A politics of brainy and socially concerned technocrats dispensing justice through a top down plan here, and tinkering with the state machinery there. This is a step back from Corbynism, which despite the criticisms that can be made of it recognised itself rooted in social struggles and class politics, whereas this - in as much as it tells itself a story of its lineage - is closest to ethical socialism (i.e. a better society is a nice idea as opposed to a material necessity) and therefore is liable to be overly wonky, remote from what's actually happening in the real world and, well, boring. But perhaps after the turbulent time we've had and the Coronavirus crisis, boring might just be what the electorate four years from now wants.

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Anonymous said...

Ace article. Wonder who the bods will be in the background writing the policy, the policy and media briefs- outlines and scripts as well as the main text of their speeches subject to minor tweaking. Not normally the same people who write their leaflets and campaign literature although at times there can be a bit of overlap.

Anonymous said...

It is about being pragmatic using the skills and knowledge of other people to make sure you do the best job you can, and to come across as well as you can. The process you describe is usual, and, quite the norm in politics particularly at that level.

It would have been good nonetheless to see Tom Watson and a few others go on to write their own books themselves. Pragmatic solution to practical problem.

Anonymous said...

Yes Keir could very likely win the next general election and make some difference. Good luck.

William Large said...

The real long term issue the ongoing battle between the members and the PLP. I am pretty sure that this team will lock out members as much as possible. It will be interesting to see how members will take it over the next couple of years.

Dialectician1 said...

Some question:
- what's his position on Palestine?
- how much does he buy into Nandy's Blue Labour rhetoric?
- is he required to attend dinner parties with Murdoch?
- where are the Snowdens of yesteryear?

Anonymous said...

Look I know of even some recently elected back bench MPs who get their speeches written etc. for them, hardly news. (They want to make an impact). And of course all MPs get their constituency letters etc written for them. Again hardly news. As for Members involvement, organise to get influence with policy matters if that's what you want.

Shai Masot said...

Falconer, Murray, and Reeves are particularly repellent Blairites. So this looks like a slow but sure right-wing rehabilitation to me.

We socialists need to get Paul Mason back on his meds again asap. We've a real fight on our hands.

Karl Greenall said...

I am pleased with the choice for shadow chancellor. She will make an interesting match for her opposite number and his devotion, in spite of the spin, to the preservation of the City.
ILB for education is not a bad choice either. I am afraid that, as a teacher, I have yet to be convinced that Labour has a clue as to what to do in this area. Leaving a system to churn out further generations of Tory-voting fodder, with their lack of thinking skills is not really on.
Yes, Ed Milli and can now show his radical credentials if the exist, and one or two other choices are ok as well.
The foreign brief will be interesting to watch, and I share Phil's thinking in that direction.
As I have said to others, we shall see. But bearing in mind the current manoeuvring on the right, the left really does need to get it's act together.
It is not good enough to wait for the Tories to screw up - as they invariably do - and it is no good following the Gaitskillite line that "Labour's job is to get power". As Anthony Greenwood said in his foreword to Arthur Deakin's book "A Faith to Fight For", (Gollancz, 1964),"The Labour Party's job is to get power to apply certain fundamental principles - not simply to capture Whitehall".
It is an excellent read, and,in spirit at least, applies to, and has lessons for today.

Anonymous said...

Murray is a pick forced on Starmer as there are no other Scottish MPs - he would surely have chosen Lesley Laird had she held her seat.

Reeves has a grand sounding job, but one of unclear actual significance.

Overall this is a rather better SC than many on the left were predicting, and some have been honest enough to admit this.

asquith said...

This interview between Starmer & Nick Robinson, which took place in 2018 (ie before the leadership contest), took place in 2018 and was broadcast on the radio on Sunday, as I was taking my daily exercise in Burslem Park.

Anonymous said...

Regarding Keir Starmer, where is he? He has nothing to say right now?

I understand not wanting to oppose for the mere sake of it, but how about opposing because the government's political priorities and basic incompetence are causing thousands of avoidable deaths every week?

Bur Labour, under it's new leadership, is silent, passive, absent. If anyone is in contact with Keir Starmer, please tell him to stir himself and do something: Lead! Oppose! Put some pressure on the government to do better! Offer an alternative!

Anonymous said...

Starmer was in tonight's Peston programme on ITV.

Anonymous said...

You may want to revise your position in light of today’s appointments coming almost exclusively from the right and amusingly including all those previously name checked.

Phil said...

Yes, very annoying. All very junior positions and, interestingly, he's kept on Dan Carden when it was widely expected he'd get the heave ho. But the overall dynamic remains unchanged - Starmer as the great unifier is firmly in control and his lieutenants get the most important gigs.

Anonymous said...

It is still generally too early to promote people from the more left wing 2019 intake to the front bench - but the opportunity will come later and this shouldn't be forgotten.

A few of the more hard to swallow appointments (OK then, P******s and S*******g) seem an actual challenge to them of whether they are capable of p***ing out of the tent (as opposed to their usual opposite) or not.

If they can't, no doubt our new leader will draw the appropriate conclusions ;)

Anonymous said...

Congratulations to Keir- what will be the Labour Party policy response be to the present structural reality that whilst the United Kingdom is the fifth richest country 14 million people are living in poverty; 1.9 million are pensioners; 4.1 million are children and over 8 million are of working age (JRF, 2017, UN, 2019).

O. H.

George Carty said...

Dialectician1, isn't one of Labour's biggest problems that many of its members are more bothered about overseas causes than they are about British workers?

That sea of Palestinian flags at the 2019 Labour party conference must surely have cost Labour hundreds of thousands of votes in the subsequent General Election, as it gave voters good reason to believe that Labour's loyalty was not to Britain but rather to the global South.

Could anyone imagine the Tories waving any foreign flag (American? Israeli?) with that level of passion?

The Red Wall was demolished primarily by nationalism – not just re Brexit, the fact that many such constituencies had a lot of their young men in the armed forces surely also had an impact. And since many of the lost constituencies are highly car-dependent (many have seen lots of new-build housing estates miles away from amenities) a yellow vest backlash against environmentalism may also have been a factor.

Anonymous said...

Well dunno about Tories, but NI Unionists have got quite keen on waving the Israeli flag in recent years. Tories used to be *very* pro-USA in the Cold War, too - rather more so than now.