Isabel Hardman

Is Keir Starmer’s shadow cabinet really a rejection of Corbynism?

Is Keir Starmer's shadow cabinet really a rejection of Corbynism?
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On the surface, Keir Starmer's new shadow cabinet looks like a rejection of Corbynism. Over the past 24 hours, the new Labour leader has sacked most of his predecessor's allies such as Ian Lavery, Richard Burgon, Shami Chakrabarti and Dawn Butler. But if you run through the list of appointments, and the names of those who remain, this is still a reshuffle designed not to upset Jeremy Corbyn's allies.

There hasn't been a full clear out, but the faces remaining are largely figures who were never really associated with Corbynism to begin with. Emily Thornberry is still in, but despite being very loyal to the leader, she was never a true Corbynite. She had taken care to stay quiet during the 2019 election campaign before vocally criticising Corbyn's leadership after the result. She has always been politically flexible, and has been moved to International Trade.

Rebecca Long-Bailey gets Education: to pack her into a lesser job would have been an obviously brutal move against the Corbynites given she came second to Starmer in the contest. Jon Ashworth was never a Corbynite but an Old Right type, and earned the respect of many of his colleagues for keeping the party far sharper on the health brief than it otherwise would have been. He also took the job as a consolation for being booted off the party's ruling National Executive Committee by Corbyn.

Similarly John Healey managed to carry on as shadow housing secretary without ever seeming to be a cheerleader for Corbyn. He is now shadow defence, replacing Nia Griffith, who was probably the most adept at distancing herself from Corbyn to maintain the party's policy on Trident renewal, for instance. Griffith has moved to shadow the Wales Office. One exception is Cat Smith, who worked for Corbyn before entering parliament but who had privately become disillusioned with some aspects of his leadership. She is not a particularly prominent figure on the Labour frontbench, remaining as shadow minister for young people and voter engagement.

Meanwhile, many of the new appointments are soft left, with Ed Miliband returning to the frontline as shadow business secretary, David Lammy replacing Burgon at Justice, Anneliese Dodds the new shadow chancellor, and Nick Thomas Symonds the shadow Home Secretary. 

The most visibly 'right-wing' shadow ministers are Rachel Reeves – who was a Milibandite back in the day, and Jonathan Reynolds, who left the rebel 'Birthday Club' group which plotted the attempted coup against Corbyn in 2016 to join the frontbench. Perhaps that's why Hilary Benn, who resigned on a point of principle in 2016, isn't back on the frontbench, or why Yvette Cooper, who refused to serve in Corbyn's team, hasn't returned either. Cooper was expecting a big job, but still has a powerful brief as chair of the Home Affairs Committee. The only out-and-out critic of Corbyn who is in this shadow cabinet is Ian Murray, who as the only Scottish Labour MP left in the village has returned to the post of shadow Scottish secretary.

So Starmer is aiming for unity by appointing those who kept their heads down and their criticisms private. In fact, Starmer seems to have gone to some efforts to avoid annoying the Cornbynites by making no controversial new appointments of vocal Corbyn critics. He may not want to continue with his predecessor's legacy, but he's also clearly keen not to start a factional war in the party. Which is largely a reflection of his own approach both over the past five years and during the leadership campaign.

Written byIsabel Hardman

Isabel Hardman is assistant editor of The Spectator. She also presents Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is author of Why We Get The Wrong Politicians.

Topics in this articlePolitics