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29 June 2021

Labour MPs are in limbo as they wait for Keir Starmer’s strategy

MPs are angry after the Hartlepool defeat and angrier still about mistakes in Batley and Spen. But they don’t know where to direct their criticisms.

By Ailbhe Rea

What is the first thing Alastair Campbell would do if Keir Starmer hired him to turn around the fortunes of the Labour Party? That was the question put to Tony Blair’s former spin doctor at a private Zoom event by Labour in Communications earlier this month, and his answer was simple: “I would lock them all in a room together until they came up with a strategy,” he said.  

People don’t know what Labour stands for. That’s what Keir Starmer’s own former aide, Simon Fletcher, wrote for the New Statesman in his essay yesterday, and it’s a sentiment shared by figures across the party, from New Labour grandees and loyal shadow cabinet ministers to rebellious left-wing backbenchers. Ever since Labour suffered defeat in Hartlepool and a disappointing set of results in the local elections, a strategy is what the party has been clamouring for. 

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Labour now finds itself in a state of limbo, waiting for that strategy to materialise. Starmer has taken the first steps in changing the team of advisers around him, but departures have meant that many of the roles at the top of the party are vacant, held by interim appointees or waiting for high-profile appointees to take up their roles. While bitterness grows about an expected defeat in the Batley and Spen by-election on Thursday, and lingers over Hartlepool and the botched reshuffle that followed, many MPs feel it’s simply too early to tell whether improvements have been made, with the top team still in flux. 

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Labour is quite literally a party awaiting a strategy: its new director of strategy, Deborah Mattinson, Gordon Brown’s former pollster and the co-founder of BritainThinks, doesn’t formally start her new job until July. 

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The mood within Labour is a strange cocktail of rancour and cautious optimism at the changes that have taken place so far. While the appointment of Mattinson has antagonised some on the left, most have welcomed it, with one MP from the Socialist Campaign Group even expressing relief that a “grown-up” would soon be in place in Starmer’s office. There is a similar attitude towards the interim director of communications, Matthew Doyle, Tony Blair’s former political director. 

Shabana Mahmood and Conor McGinn, both MPs and shadow cabinet members, have meanwhile been warmly received as National Campaign Coordinator and Deputy, respectively, and praised for a “tough love” approach in daily 8am strategy calls. Neither holds back but “it’s just what we need,” one attendee says.

But Labour MPs are still waiting for some of the biggest changes to Starmer’s top team, namely the appointment of a new director of communications. “Everyone’s been saying that Keir doesn’t have an attack dog like Seumas Milne [director of communications for Jeremy Corbyn] or Alastair Campbell,” one frontbencher says. Rob Burley, formerly the BBC’s editor of live political programmes (including The Andrew Marr Show and Politics Live), and Pippa Crerar, the Daily Mirror’s political editor, are understood to be in consideration for the role. 

Kevin Maguire, the Mirror’s associate editor, is also a name that has been in the mix, but eyebrows have been raised within Labour at a line in a recent column of his in the New Statesman: “I understand a Westminster political hack who fancied a post in the past is no longer interested,” he writes. “They’re worried about employment security if Labour loses the Batley and Spen by-election.”

And everyone is braced for that result. “I can see how getting a grip on LOTO [the leader of the opposition’s office] strengthens Keir’s hand to some extent now, but it doesn’t stop the left pouring an absolute bucket of shit over him come Friday morning,” is how one Labour figure puts it. After one report at the weekend that Dawn Butler is planning a leadership challenge if Labour loses, and widespread suspicion that Angela Rayner is on manoeuvres (which she denies), no MP is quite sure how intense the fallout could be if Labour loses the by-election.

“There’ll be murmurings,” says one frontbencher. “But I don’t think Starmer will be challenged. He just hasn’t been there long enough.” While everyone agrees that Starmer would be weakened by defeat in Batley and Spen, many of his critics believe any credible challenge would be best delayed till next year.

“Nothing will happen directly as a result of a defeat in Batley and Spen,” predicts one Labour figure, even if the left calls for Starmer’s resignation. That is because the changes that many MPs on the centre and right of the party have called for will already be happening: a new director of communications, a strategy, a vision, and a set of policies have all been promised in short order. Within the last two days, a new political director, Luke Sullivan, a longstanding aide in the whips’ office, has been announced to replace Jenny Chapman as political director, and Martin Beecroft, HR director at the Health and Safety Executive, has been announced as the new executive director for people and talent. 

Some MPs on the left won’t be satisfied unless Starmer resigns. But many others are unsure where to direct criticisms of a campaign that began with one team and will finish with another, incomplete one. 

Starmer’s decision to change his top team directly before a potentially bruising by-election defeat could well be his wisest strategy since becoming leader, whether intentional or not. Or it could prove another strategic misfire.