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This should be Labour's last pre-election reshuffle

McFadden brings experience – but has a sprawling brief 

Angela Rayner’s move means there is a new occupant of the crucial role shadowing Oliver Dowden as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (CDL). This is a flexible role but usually includes acting as a broker for the leader, party management and campaigning, and crucially, taking responsibility for much of the everyday working of government, including civil service management and ethics in government. 

Rayner’s replacement is Pat McFadden, previously shadow chief secretary to the Treasury, suggesting that Starmer recognises how crucial the CDL role has become in driving progress in government. McFadden has extensive experience as a former minister under the Blair and Brown governments, including at the centre of government – he also served as political secretary to Blair. 

The new shadow CDL will have to grapple with how a Labour government would organise itself around its missions, and how it will approach cross-cutting policymaking – something Whitehall finds particularly difficult but which is of vital importance to the civil service and government generally. And he will also have to work out how Labour will approach civil service reform. Labour reportedly have charged Starmer’s recently appointed chief of staff Sue Gray with coming up with a plan for reforming Whitehall to suit Labour's priorities should the party form the next government but in government that work would be the responsibility of and flow through the Cabinet Office under the CDL. 

McFadden’s other challenge – or Starmer’s – will be to manage a Cabinet Office brief which may be over-stuffed with ministers. Including Anneliese Dodds, who remains party chair and minister for women and equalities, there will be four shadow cabinet ministers covering the Cabinet Office brief. Lots of these may in practice be campaigning jobs in the run-up to the election, but Starmer may face a challenge in finding a home for them post-election were he to win. 

Relative stability in the big public services jobs 

While there has been major change elsewhere, the key public services shadow ministers have largely stayed put – with Yvette Cooper remaining shadow home secretary, Bridget Phillipson as shadow education secretary and Wes Streeting continuing as shadow health secretary. This may reflect Labour’s confidence that their messages are hitting home on public services, but could also be a recognition of the complexity of all of these briefs – it will help to have experienced heads who fully know their these issues, particularly given their centrality to Starmer’s five ‘missions’. 

Where there has been change is the person shadowing the Ministry of Justice (MoJ), where Steve Reed was replaced by Shabana Mahmood, who previously served as campaign co-ordinator. Mahmood takes on her first full shadow secretary of state role, but she has relevant experience, having served as shadow prisons minister a decade ago and worked as a barrister before entering parliament. Her relationship with Yvette Cooper as shadow home secretary will be crucial to her success in the role. Decisions around policing, in particular, have a major knock-on effect on the criminal justice system, so good co-ordination between the two departments is crucial. 

Despite receiving more money in recent years, courts have been struggling. While the twin effects of the pandemic and the barristers’ strike had severe effects on performance, crown courts in particular have struggled to process more cases, even as these problems receded. This has contributed to record backlogs, delays of more than two years, and an increasing number of suspects awaiting trial on remand. 

Further downstream, the prison system is also on its knees. A recent population boom, driven by increased sentences and the courts working their way through the backlog, is set to continue into the coming years, with the MoJ projecting a population of 106,300 by March 2027, around 20,000 higher than current levels. 

Changes are significant – but they should be the last before the next election 

The Labour reshuffle has been expected for some time and briefed about extensively, but, unlike Rishi Sunak, Keir Starmer seems to have opted for one big reshuffle. Of the 31 shadow cabinet members,15 are in a new job, or at least have major new responsibilities. The timing is a challenge for the new front benchers: those who have moved will have a short time to get to grips with their new briefs before the party conference.  

But it is welcome that Starmer has now completed a reshuffle that looks set to last until the general election. As we argued in a recent paper,  experience shadowing a brief is hugely helpful if you become a minister in the equivalent role. Even those who moved a year before the election, in 1996 and 2009, often struggled with their briefs in government, or were moved on again quickly – just one appointee from the 2009 Conservative reshuffle kept his job on reaching government.  

With pre-election access talks between the opposition and the civil service likely to start by January, if not this autumn, Starmer needs to ensure that the plans discussed and relationships developed are those that will pay dividends if his party does win the next general election. 1 https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/keir-starmer-hopes-sue-gray-will-be-chief-of-staff-by-autumn-hfg58lvl5   This reshuffle suggests that Starmer has accepted that advice and settled on the team that will fight the election with him and prepare for what a Labour government could look like in just over a year’s time.