Just two of Keir Starmer’s reshuffle changes are enough, to sum up, the political meaning of the manoeuvre. Making Yvette Cooper, who was a minister under Gordon Brown, shadow Home Secretary reinforces the message explicitly laid out in his pamphlet and conference speech that he was fully embracing Blair’s vision for Labour. The second was the removal of the portfolio dealing with workers’ rights that was held by Andy Macdonald. Starmer is more concerned with applauding business than worrying about some of the worst conditions and labour laws in an ‘advanced’ country.
During his leadership campaign and for a year or so afterwards, Starmer was careful not to identify too strongly with the Blair government. He presented himself as a continuity candidate and his ten pledges owed more to Corbynism than Blairism. Slapping down Miliband for proposing one of his won pledges for common ownership of energy companies, accelerated the purge of the left and removing the whip from Corbyn are all about the same thing – pleading with the establishment that Labour is safe to govern again.
The last apparently Corbynista shadow cabinet minister, Cat Smith, probably jumped before she was pushed, as she resigned just before the reshuffle, condemning her leader’s treatment of Corbyn in her resignation letter. Better late than never I suppose.
Deputy leader Angela Rayner and her team seem to be a regular feature of Starmer’s reshuffle. Last time after Hartlepool he tried to move against her but had not quite realised that the deputy leader is an elected post and cannot be rubbed out so easily. She ended up with more jobs and responsibilities than before. Indeed she was leading on the anti-sleaze offensive that has managed to wound Johnson to some extent. Starmer and his team obviously thought it would be payback time if they completely obscured her big speech on sleaze by announcing the reshuffle as she was approaching the podium. The leadership knew the speech was coming up – these days there are advance planning grids for all this stuff. It could have taken place the day after or even later. They tried to cover themselves by saying they said it was coming up and did slip her a note or something a few minutes before her big presentation. What they could not stop was the obvious annoyance displayed by Rayner to the media. She is no Corbynista and does not represent anybody the left should look to but she does have a certain base in the party and is a potential leadership candidate if Starmer were to crash in the polls again. However, even from their own point of view, it looked a bit counter-productive. Why turn the media focus on Rayner if you wanted to promote a new lean, mean ready for government team?
It shows a certain political clumsiness, a lack of maturity from Starmer, as well as a sectarian, nasty edge that his cool forensic image is supposed to completely hide. It reminds me of a comment from a Labour activist who spoke at our leadership hustings in Hackney. She used to live in Camden, Starmer’s constituency, and she recounted some of the underhand manoeuvres that went on there. As the admirable commentator, the Very Public Sociologist remarks today in his blog:
Like so many right-wing councillors and student activists who believe themselves temporarily embarrassed, he’s becoming a caricature of them – the sort that believes lots of swearing and shafting your own side because you can are positive proofs of the bastardry and tough decisions one has to make in politics.
Other promotions advance a slightly younger generation from the Labour right – Wes Streeting, Bridget Phillipson, Peter Kyle and David Lammy. Streeting in particular is another potential leadership contender so Starmer may be keeping his potential enemies close to him. Nandy’s switch from shadow Foreign Secretary is being spun as some sort of promotion since she is going to shadow Gove and his levelling up portfolio. She is another potential competitor.
The media has been rather appreciative of the changes. There is a narrative that these are seasoned hard hitters (Cooper) or great communicators (Streeting) and that this is the final clear out of the amateurs and dreamers of Corbyn shadow cabinets. Some people on the Labour left constantly suggest that Starmer’s continuing drive to the right and purge of activists makes it harder, if not impossible, for Labour to win an election, as though winning elections was mainly down to how many door knockers you have. It is entirely possible, although difficult given the current majority, for Labour to win on a moderate programme under Starmer. Already the sleaze scandal has shown Johnson’s vulnerability. All the attacks on working people’s living standards coming down the line could further weaken his support.
Governments lose elections as much as oppositions win them. Particularly if sections of the media are more favourable to Starmer he will have a chance.
What does not change is the need for the left inside Labour to recognise – if they still have not – that there is no alliance possible between the left and the soft left or centre of the party. The priority has to be on building new networks and movements class struggle activists who are both inside and outside the party. Working in campaigns and in the workplaces has to take priority over endless motion mongering, accumulating left councillors who are chained to group discipline and have an insufficient local base to oppose this and endless canvassing for policies that you do not support. Keeping your head down, pass policy that the leadership ignores and choosing one’s battles just does not cut it in today’s dog eat dog situation.
The situation with Corbyn and the trigger ballot that is coming up next year for selecting general election candidates could well re-focus the debate. Recently, unlike St Peter, who denied Christ three times, Starmer denied JC five times when he refused on TV to say that Corbyn, despite everything, would have been a better prime minister than Johnson. He has made it clear that the ball is in Corbyn’s court, unless he apologizes for this statement on the antisemitism report he will not get the whip back. What will people on the left inside and outside Labour do if Jeremy stands as an independent candidate? Details of the reshuffle are of pretty minor importance compared to that.
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