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Back to School

September 4th 2023

Another brick in the wall

After the summer season of exam results, today the moment finally came when the shadow front bench were presented with their grades by Head Master Starmer.


Jim McMahon was asked to leave his course on agriculture and rural affairs, having been said to have put in very little effort and to have appeared distracted in class. He is replaced by Steve Reed, who impressed Starmer in his previous role in the Home Office team by promising to crack down ruthlessly on running in the corridors and smoking behind the bike sheds.

Special commendations go to Shabana Mahmood, Thangam Debbonaire and Pat McFadden - all of whom receive promotions as a reward for good behaviour, their studious attitudes and for demonstrating school pride. Former pupil Hilary Benn enjoys a return to the classroom, bringing the wisdom and the worldliness of an alumnus of previous administrations.

Of course, Starmer’s big challenge today was what to do about Head Girl Angela Rayner and prefect Lisa Nandy. In the end, Rayner got the Levelling Up brief whilst Nandy has been moved down a rung, becoming Shadow Minister of State for International Development. It was an odd and slightly petty move - Nandy is both hardworking and prepared to make the runs on difficult broadcast rounds.

But it is fair to say that some of the more insecure members of the Headmaster’s team saw her as something of a threat. So goes classroom politics and, in the long-run, Nandy might find that she can shape the policy agenda on development in profoundly interesting ways.

This is the team that Starmer wants to fight the election with, so what does that tell us?

One, the Labour Leader wants to bring more experience of (and credibility on) government into his frontbench. There are six Blair-era special advisers in this Shadow Cabinet and two former Secretaries of State and, today, Sue Gray takes up her role as his new Chief of Staff.

Two, he finally has loyalists whom he can reward. For a long time the ‘Starmer circle’ was incredibly small in the parliamentary party - as he has done better, so more colleagues have become enthused. He now has a camp.

Three, the switch from soft-Left, ‘Jeremy is a friend as well as a colleague’ Starmer to Labour right, pragmatism and prudence Starmer is now complete and permanent.

The first week back to school is always hard. Starmer has decided to head into the new term with a ruthless reshaping of his team - one that is designed to tell voters who he is and what his government will feel like. The upshot? No more Mr. Vague Guy. The coursework for this reshuffled class will be to add some definition to the Labour offer, to move from opposing to proposing and to demonstrate capability. The first test for each of them will be their oral exams in October, on the Conference stage, where they will be expected to have crammed their subject matter and be able to outline a plan. Heads down for revision!