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Stephen Daisley

Keir’s Centrist Dad reshuffle is the sign of a decadent party

Keir's Centrist Dad reshuffle is the sign of a decadent party
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Sir Keir Starmer has rarely enjoyed such good press as he’s received for overhauling his frontbench. His Centrist Dad reshuffle saw promotions for soft-left pin-ups like Yvette Cooper, David Lammy, Wes Streeting and Lucy Powell, while Corbynista Cat Smith got told to clear her desk. It was a pitch-perfect signal to Labour moderates that they were getting their party back — not least the crucial newspaper columnist demographic — who got to see all their princes return across the water at once. Well, almost. If Sir Keir had really wanted to earn some sweet, sweet commentariat love he'd have arranged a by-election and the first available flight from JFK to Heathrow for David Miliband.

There is undoubtedly a need for more robust opposition to Boris Johnson's government and an alternative administration to offer the voters at the next election. It's just not obvious that this new shadow cabinet fits the bill. Two of the promotions (Cooper and Lammy) were ministers in the party's last government. That puts both in serious danger of being called Labour veterans these days but it also means they hail from an era of the party that was rejected by the voters and repudiated by party members. This was a reshuffle for people who think what Labour really needs is another searching pamphlet by Alan Milburn.

Sir Keir's frontbench looks even more like a People's Vote reunion tour now, with Lammy and Streeting both having enthusiastically backed a do-over referendum, while Cooper tried to delay Brexit with an amendment to extend the Article 50 period. Even Powell, the least favourable to blocking Brexit, devised a motion with Tory rebel Nick Boles that would have meant staying in the single market and continuing free movement of people. Whether the country remembers (or cares) who did what in the last parliament is debatable, but these promotions strengthen the hand of a particular kind of Labour politician, the kind that cares about democracy too much to let the voters undermine it.

It's easier to criticise Sir Keir than it is to propose an alternative reshuffle. But that's because there isn't a wealth of big-hitters on the Labour benches — and it might not matter if there were. An opposition comes down to its leader, and 19 months into the job Starmer is still trying to define himself. Oppositions don't win elections: governments lose them, but I remain to be convinced that even this government is fated to lose to this opposition. Or, rather, that this Prime Minister, with all his many faults and failings, will lose to this leader of the opposition.

Early on in his leadership, I managed to pin down what it was about Sir Keir that bothered me: ‘Too left, too lawyerly, too London’. I should probably have said ‘liberal’ rather than ‘left’ but, other than that, these doubts have remained consistent. There might be something in them. It’s not hugely encouraging that 52 per cent of Remain voters tell YouGov the Labour leader is performing badly but it’s better than the 68 per cent of Leave voters who think the same. The geographical disparity isn’t as wide but it’s worth noting that London is the only part of Great Britain where his ‘doing badly’ rating isn’t above 50 per cent.

True, the overall percentage of voters who say Sir Keir is doing a poor job is at its lowest since April. But the figure is still 56 per cent (versus 24 per cent ‘doing well’) and has been in the high 50s to low 60s since June. That’s better than Jeremy Corbyn (high 60s to low 70s ‘doing badly’) and Ed Miliband (mid-60s badly) at the same point in their leadership, but it’s also for a year in which he’s had fuel and grocery shortages, a migrant crisis, sleaze, deteriorating relations with the EU and the government’s handling of the pandemic to throw at the Prime Minister.

Among some demographics in certain parts of London (plus other English cities and university towns), Sir Keir may well look like a prime minister in waiting. Viewed from afar — and perhaps with tartan-tinted spectacles — it just doesn’t click. He seems like he’d make a decent mayor of London or a good Attorney General but he does not strike me as someone with the kind of appeal outside London that the last election-winning Labour leader enjoyed. I could be wrong, of course, but I suspect it’s down to perspective. Most professional commentary and analysis about British politics is produced from London, a fine city but one that is, in some important ways, politically and culturally remote from much of British life. It's Not London where Labour needs to win and Not London where its leader seems most out of place.

That's why the reshuffle doesn't work. Sir Keir Starmer has yet to convince the voters Labour is after, and his reshuffle has just remade the frontbench in his own, uncertain image.