UK’s opposition Labour leader reshuffles top team before election

By Elizabeth Piper

LONDON (Reuters) -Britain’s opposition Labour leader, Keir Starmer, launched a reshuffle of his top team on Monday to fight a national election expected next year, appointing his deputy Angela Rayner as the party’s levelling up policy chief.

Rayner, a popular lawmaker among the party’s members, will take the higher profile role which will ‘shadow’ the government’s policies, led by veteran Conservative Michael Gove, to try to level up or address regional inequality in Britain.

She will also ‘shadow’ Oliver Dowden, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s deputy.

“Keir is delighted that Angela has accepted this important role. In addition, she will continue to be the strategic lead on Labour’s new deal for working people,” a Labour source said.

Labour is way ahead in the opinion polls before next year’s expected national election, but the party is cautious in its approach, mindful that it needs to win back its traditional supporters who switched to vote for the Conservatives in 2019.

Former Prime Minister Boris Johnson won a large majority in 2019 by tapping anger in traditionally Labour-supporting areas in northern and central England, and his “levelling up agenda” became one of his main priorities.

Next year’s election is expected to return the focus to so-called levelling up and how both parties plan to ease social and economic inequalities, particularly between the affluent southeast of England and former industrial areas.

Johnson’s successor Sunak has been criticised for failing to prioritise the levelling up agenda, with some questioning whether he is too concerned about losing traditional Conservative voters in more affluent parts of southern England.

In Starmer’s reshuffle, Lisa Nandy, who was Labour’s levelling up policy chief, was demoted to the position as shadow minister for international development, and Steve Reed replaced Jim McMahon as agriculture policy chief after the latter stepped down.

Shabana Mahmood, a Starmer ally, was promoted to the justice brief after running successful campaigns, and Darren Jones, who has won credit for his work on the parliament’s business committee, becomes Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury.

Pat McFadden, a veteran Labour lawmaker, replaced Mahmood as national campaign coordinator and will shadow the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, a senior role, and Hilary Benn, who served under former Prime Minister Tony Blair, becomes Northern Ireland policy chief.

Sunak, currently battling criticism for his party’s handling of crumbling school buildings, is also under pressure by some of his lawmakers to change course by offering tax cuts to boost support for the Conservatives.

Some in his party expect the British leader to come up with new ideas at the party conference next month to try to close the gap in the polls with the Labour Party, which is sticking to its policy to only make funded policy commitments.

(Reporting by Elizabeth Piper; Editing by Michael Holden and Mike Harrison)