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By Women in Westminster

Labour Insiders Say Prioritising Talent Over Loyalty On His Front Bench Could Be Keir Starmer’s Undoing

Labour Insiders Say Prioritising Talent Over Loyalty On His Front Bench Could Be Keir Starmer’s Undoing
6 min read

Keir Starmer’s reshuffle began with a bang.

The firing gun started mid-way through deputy leader Angela Rayner’s speech on Parliamentary standards. The frenetic energy of announcing who was in and who was out culminated with newly-promoted Peter Kyle appearing on Newsnight to repeatedly say the frontbench was “hungry for power”, and that the leader now had a team of “reformers” and “big hitters” that could modernise and make Labour electable.

The eschewing of the left was evident and expected. Bringing New Labour MP and Brownite minister Yvette Cooper back to be shadow home secretary barely raised the eyebrows of the Corbyn-supporting contingent of the party. 

Many staffers are genuinely excited about the new shadow cabinet and think it will take the party forward. One told PoliticsHome: “The new shadow cabinet have got the hunger and communication skills we need to give the Tories a proper fight. Going up against the likes of Yvette Cooper, Pat McFadden and Peter Kyle will scare the living daylights out of the government.”

But as the dust settles, there’s concern among some that Starmer may have made a misjudgement, and that this prioritising of talent over loyalty could come to bite. They say that promoting so many big names all at once carries its own brand of political risk. 

The first is inadvertently weakening Starmer’s own position by surrounding himself with those who in the not-too-distant future may be hungry for his job. By making so many changes, and shifting long-standing political friends, including Nick Thomas-Symonds, Jo Stevens and before that Anneliese Dodds and Carolyn Harris, he could find himself isolated if stronger forces start to push him in a particular direction. 

Party insiders were surprised by the demotion of Luke Pollard, who was viewed as a moderate and loyal ally to Starmer. Starmer allegedly offered the former Shadow Secretary for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs his choice of any junior ministerial brief, but Pollard opted for a return to the backbenches instead.

One Labour staffer said: “He has surrounded himself with some really strong characters. But there are people like Wes Streeting who would be a natural contender for a future leader. That could make for an interesting dynamic.

“He’s now got lots of people that have no deep loyalty to him. Getting rid of Carolyn Harris was a big example of losing a loyal ally.”

Any threats to Starmer’s leadership are liable to be further exacerbated by the Angela Rayner situation. One Labour insider said that while it's now common knowledge that privately the two put up with one another, the relationship doesn't extend far beyond that – while relationships between their teams are fractious. 

When news of a reshuffle surfaced midway through Rayner’s anti-sleaze speech to the Institute for Government, journalists were quick to jump on the idea LOTO was undermining her big moment, fuelled by Rayner saying she did not know the details of the reshuffle – though she did say she'd had a phone call. 

A senior Labour source suggested Starmer was not left with much choice for timing after his botched attempt to rejig the shadow cabinet in May ended up with Rayner being given more roles. Sources suggest that to avoid a descent into a very public briefing war, as was seen in May, LOTO chose to give limited notice of a reshuffle.

One Labour staffer said they doubted that Starmer even realised that was happening when he amassed so many powerful people around him, whereas another went so far as to label him a “masochist” for promoting Cooper and Lammy who they say “want to be Prime Minister”. 

However, another Labour source hit back, describing the misgivings as “ridiculous”. 

“Obviously the Leader should pick the strongest team available to him,” they said.

"Keir’s totally in control of the party, which he demonstrated by getting exactly the reshuffle he wanted, after he got the rule changes he wanted at conference," they added. Another Starmer ally said it would make “no sense” to banish strong performers with high ambitions to the back benches. This would only make the leader “weaker” and would ultimately undermine his position, they said.

Conversations among Labour staff and MPs this week have also centred on the influence of Matthew Doyle and Deborah Mattinson, and the shadow cabinet now being assembled in their image. Doyle, the party's director of communications appointed by Starmer, was Tony Blair's former political director, and Mattinson, who joined in the summer, is a well-respected pollster who worked for Gordon Brown. Some are convinced this is about repeating the New Labour playbook with a shift to Labour's centre-right ground hoping to repeat some of the magic of '97.

Brown-era minister Pat McFadden, a former Blair adviser, is also back as shadow chief secretary to the Treasury. Blairite campaign group Progress, now called Progressive Britain, has a notable presence. Wes Streeting, shadow education secretary, worked for the group, Lucy Powell, shadow culture, Baroness Jenny Chapman, shadow minister for the cabinet office, Steve Reed, shadow justice, and Jonathan Reynolds, shadow business, have all been vice chairs. It’s going back a decade, but shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves also contributed to its essay collection, The Purple Book. 

The charismatic David Lammy came up through the ranks in the same political era as a minister under Blair, though he nominated Corbyn for leader, and is going to be front and centre of the team as shadow foreign secretary. He has apparently been brought in due to his links “to the Biden administration” according to one source, referring to his network of friends within the Democrats, and his past connections to Obama. 

Asked about the new front bench, one shadow minister said: “It’s unquestionably an improvement but I think some people have been significantly over promoted and it’s a risk for the right. 

“If they don’t win, that’s a lot of eggs in one basket. They really have to prove themselves now.”

Another MP said: “Winning in the way that he did meant that Starmer had masses of support and could keep his biggest threats out of the top team. He should have struck a balance earlier on, his first line up was too heavy on people that would never threaten him. Now if you’re surrounded by enemies and have just demoted all your friends, that does leave you vulnerable,” said one Labour MP. 

“It’s clear that loyalty buys you nothing and it’s not been a great way to treat your nearest and dearest.” 

That’s not the view of Starmer’s supporters, however. Another staffer to a senior Labour MP said: “It shows we’re serious about government. As much as the people who got demoted are talented, they’re not national election winners and they had their chances...Keir has also chosen talent over loyalty to his leadership too, which just shows how serious he is.”

They’ll be hoping that the view given by a backbencher on his wing of the party is the one that is eventually shared by all: “I think the new shadow cabinet is the strongest it has been in some time. There is a great wealth of experience, fresh energy which I think is vital as we head into a potential snap general election. The murmurings I’ve been hearing have been overwhelmingly positive.”

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