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When did a reshuffle last boost the Labour left?

The ‘who’s up, who’s down’ narrative inevitably forms the main thrust of much commentary whenever a ministerial reshuffle takes place. But for the majority of us, who know of the politicians involved solely from what the media chooses to tell us about them, that will be of little interest.

Rather more important is the new ideological balance at the top, after David Cameron yesterday unveiled the only cabinet without a single non-white face so far this century.

With Chris Grayling replacing ‘one nation’ Tory Kenneth Clarke at a key Laura Norder brief, and Owen Paterson licensed to sock it to us namby pamby believers in global warming, we have been treated to the advancement of two men who clearly stand on the right of the Conservative Party.

This is an obvious concession to those sections of the Tory activist base – egged on by numerous commentators in an increasingly hysterical rightwing press – that have been demanding strengthened representation for politicians that uphold their gut convictions.

Those inside the Westminster bubble are reading way too much significance into what is basically crowd-pleasing stuff. Despite all the dramatic ‘Cameron tilts to the right’ headlines, let us remember that on any objective measure, the coalition is very much a government of the right already.

The appointments are designed primarily to give sustenance to those layers aggrieved that it is implementing its policies rapidly rather than bringing them in overnight. In the wider scheme of things, the shake up will move the coalition’s centre of gravity only fractionally to starboard, if at all.

Yet the symbolism involved does make me wonder when was the last time the Labour left was important enough to appease, and the best answer I can come up with is sometime in the 1970s, when even Callaghan felt unable to exclude Tony Benn from a place round the cabinet table.

Only a small handful of cabinet level appointees under New Labour – the likes of Robin Cook, Clare Short and Peter Hain – could loosely be considered as being the left, and even then, their credentials rested on what they had achieved long before 1994.

Now I accept that the Blair and Brown administrations were scarcely characterised by a laid back and easy going consensual vibe, in which all viewpoints were equally cherished prior to arrival at a decision.

But New Labour’s token leftists all signalled their willingness to get with the programme prior to being given their jobs, leaving them unable to speak publicly in support of policies they advocated in private conversation. Unfortunately, we are still living with that resultant legacy.

So while Cameron is happy to offer Tory rightwingers a number of figureheads, presumably the better to detract them from the allures of UKIP, Ed Miliband feels under no compunction to court the Labour left.

Even the presence of Diane Abbott on the front benches is down more to payback time for the votes transferred during the leadership contest than any genuine willingness to listen to the concerns of a substantial minority of Labour Party members. No way would the Tory right put up with that kind of treatment.

Jim Callaghan famously described Labour as a broad church, invoking comparisons with the Church of England to highlight Labour’s capacity to encompass a wide range of opinion. It looks like any residue of latitudinarianism is long gone

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