As MPs returned to Westminster, with a probable 2024 general election on their minds, Sir Keir Starmer wasted no time reshuffling his Shadow team. Barring unforeseen circumstances, this is his ‘election team’ for what promises to be a period of ever intensifying campaigning.
The most high-profile change was the appointment of Deputy Leader Angela Rayner as Shadow Deputy Prime Minister and Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities. She succeeds Lisa Nandy, whose departure (to International Development) was not a surprise.
Rayner is seen as a stronger communicator and, as one of Labour’s most well-known and vocal frontbench figures, she is well suited to shadow the current Secretary of State, Michael Gove, who has made a number of high-profile interventions over recent months.
Sitting on the ‘soft left’ of the party, Rayner is the first Labour Deputy Leader to hold the housing, planning and local government portfolio since John Prescott, in the Blair government. With a reputation for being forthright, it is likely she will pursue a more aggressive approach to scrutinising the Government, particularly with an election looming.
What’s more, she can perform with the confidence of having her own mandate, given that the party membership directly elected her, and her general popularity among the rank and file.
In predicting how she will approach the role, it’s important to remember that she remains very ambitious. She won’t be afraid of raising her profile so that she is in pole position with the party’s grassroots if a vacancy arises at the top. She now also has the perfect opportunity to impress councillors, who are the party’s biggest activists (and potential future leadership bid supporters).
Rayner’s background is clearly important to her (born and raised in Stockport, she left school at 16 with no qualifications), and she is effective in how she draws on her experience and sincere about wanting to uplift similar communities. We can therefore expect ‘levelling up’ deprived areas outside London and the South East to be a particular priority. It will certainly appeal to her support base.
That said, she will also likely want to continue Labour’s attack on the Government’s housing record, and the coming months will see how she evolves her predecessor’s announcements on issues like building on the Green Belt, expanding Compulsory Purchase powers and reintroducing housebuilding targets for local authorities. She will want settled positions on all these in good time, rather than allowing uncertainty to fester until an election is close.
Meanwhile, Matthew Pennycook has been kept in place as Shadow Minister for Housing and Planning – a role he has held since 2021 – providing a degree of continuity in the shadow ministerial team and indicating an intention to build upon what has gone before in terms of policy.
Rayner will soon find that there are competing pressures from within the Labour movement. There is a strong and growing YIMBY (particularly pro-housing) tendency within the party – driven in large part by younger members who pay high rents and can’t afford to get on the housing ladder. They will be looking for promises to supply more homes.
However, the party’s net zero and ‘green’ credentials remain very important to activists too – even after the Uxbridge ‘ULEZ’ by-election. So it won’t be easy for her to appeal to everyone she wants on topics like ‘retrofit vs redevelopment’ – whose profile has been raised by Michael Gove’s recent M&S decision – or on nutrient neutrality, which has provoked concerns from RIBA and the RSPB alike.
While she might be tempted to offer left-wing backers some red meat by promising interventionist policies like rent controls or tougher affordable housing requirements for developers, these will need to be balanced against the Labour Party’s core focus on promoting growth in difficult economic circumstances.
One thing we can be sure of is that, however Rayner and her team take the brief forward, the sector will take notice.
All eyes are now on the Labour Party Conference next month.
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