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14 July 2021

Keir Starmer’s second chance: can the Labour leader find the direction he has lacked?

Starmer’s bid to restore the faith of his party’s MPs rests on six people.

By Stephen Bush

Starmer’s bid to restore the faith of his party’s MPs rests on six people.

Labour’s win in the Batley and Spen by-election hasn’t changed Keir Starmer’s position, but it has changed how his allies feel about it. The relief at Kim Leadbeater’s victory on 1 July, in the constituency formerly held by her sister Jo Cox, indicates that Starmer now has a second chance to assert his leadership.

However, the reality is that, even if 162 voters had backed the Conservative candidate Ryan Stephenson instead of Leadbeater, there would have been no serious prospect of a challenge to Starmer’s leadership or of his resignation. None of Labour’s warring tribes have an alternative candidate or the numbers to make a challenge.

Starmer’s deputy, Angela Rayner, is not trusted by the party’s left, who worry that swapping Rayner for Starmer would mean, in the words of one, “the same problem with a different accent”. The party’s right doesn’t have a candidate of its own, and in any case, it fears that to bring the Starmer leadership to an early end is to invite a Corbynite counter-revolution, with the Leeds East MP and former shadow cabinet minister Richard Burgon at its head. As for Labour’s middle, from where Starmer springs, they believe that if his leadership ends in failure they could lose control of the party, just as the left did after the electoral defeat of 2019 and the right did after the loss of 2010.

[See also: Labour’s victory in Batley and Spen shows the party is learning how to fight back]

Starmer still faces the same immediate challenges: to provide the strategic direction that will restore the faith of Labour MPs; to reconstruct his inner team; and to have a successful Labour Party conference in the autumn. If he falls short on any of those, his chances of surviving past the end of 2022 will be in doubt. If he fails on all three measures, he’ll be doomed.

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His hopes rest on six people. Three of those work in his office. They are Deborah Mattinson, his new director of strategy, Matthew Doyle, his interim communications director, and Luke Sullivan, his new political director. Doyle is a sufficiently committed Blairite that his personal email address references New Labour’s heroics, and his appointment, even as an interim communications director, has been taken by the party’s left as proof that the Starmer project is really about moving the Labour Party to the right. The reality, however, is more mundane: because Starmer’s long-term prospects are still considered to be poor, the Labour leader’s hires are restricted to the ranks of, as one ally put it, “people who have big enough reputations to walk away unscathed and employable if this collapses after the Labour Party conference”.

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Doyle has the job of steering Labour through the summer, usually a difficult time for opposition parties. As a veteran of David Cameron’s opposition team once observed to me: “There are plenty of bored hacks wandering around the place, looking for stories, and usually the only story on hand is ‘trouble in the opposition party’, whether it’s true or not.” Doyle will either go down in history as the person who took Labour through a period of transition, or as Starmer’s final appointment.

Mattinson, whose pedigree in Labour politics goes back to the party’s last prolonged stay in opposition (she advised Neil Kinnock and John Smith as well as Tony Blair), is the author of a much-discussed analysis of the 2019 election, Beyond the Red Wall, and has a big reputation at Westminster. Mattinson came to Starmer’s attention when she was invited to address shadow cabinet ministers at a series of away days over Zoom throughout the past year – an exercise that was partly about “making the grandees feel included so they didn’t create bad headlines”, as one Labour aide put it. Starmer was impressed by her presentations, and she was offered the job.