Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. The Politics Interview
20 August 2021

The year that tested Anneliese Dodds’ loyalty

Keir Starmer's first shadow chancellor has a warning for his new one

By Ailbhe Rea and Stephen Bush

Anneliese Dodds is something of a rarity in Labour politics. In a party famous for its infighting, factions, and bitter ideological divisions, she is a unifying figure, genuinely liked by MPs from across the spectrum of Labour opinion, from the reddest Corbynite to the Blairite closest to the centre. She doesn’t brief against colleagues, she despairs of “red on red” conflict, and she thinks and talks, always, about what is best for the party, rather than what is best for herself.

“Whatever I might think privately, I just never think it helps the Labour Party to wash its laundry in public,” she says, sipping a coffee in a quaint café in the southern seaside resort of Worthing. “It’s always, always proved to be bad for us.”

Dodds has had a bruising year at the top of the party she loves. When she was removed as Keir Starmer’s shadow chancellor in May she had already endured months of speculation in the press that she would be sacked, and months of whispers from colleagues – the same ones who do, sincerely, like her – that she wasn’t up to the job. She held to her commitment to Labour loyalty above all else, never briefing back, never making a fuss, and quietly taking on her new role as party chair.

It is only now, by the seaside with her family in the depths of the summer recess (we spoke before the American withdrawal from Afghanistan), that she is reflecting publicly about the year she has had.

“It was irritating,” she admits, in her gentle, smiling way, “that some of the kind of media interest was focused on internecine issues” during her time as shadow chancellor. “I never find that helpful for Labour, whoever it’s targeted at. So, you know, I’ve been very critical of that in relation to other colleagues. I just think we need to remember that it’s the Conservative Party who are the problem and not our own colleagues, and to be disciplined in that sense.”

Sign up for The New Statesman’s newsletters Tick the boxes of the newsletters you would like to receive. Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. A weekly round-up of The New Statesman's climate, environment and sustainability content. A handy, three-minute glance at the week ahead in companies, markets, regulation and investment, landing in your inbox every Monday morning. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A weekly dig into the New Statesman’s archive of over 100 years of stellar and influential journalism, sent each Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.

“It’s not something that I’ve ever engaged with myself,” she says, pointedly, of briefing against colleagues. “And I think that, obviously, we’ve seen quite a large change within the leadership team in Labour and I think that there’s a strong recognition there as well that it’s really important that we’re always sending our best foot forwards, and the focus is always on Labour and not red on red. So I think that’s very helpful indeed,” she says, with a glint in her eye, the subtext clear. She may be committed to an outward show of unity, but she plainly feels the same discipline was lacking in Keir Starmer’s own team of advisers during the months of anonymous briefing that she was set for the chop. Anneliese Dodds is always loyal to Labour, but Labour has not always been so loyal to her.

***

Dodds, the MP for Oxford East, a former MEP and academic in public policy, was appointed shadow chancellor by the new Labour leader at the height of the coronavirus pandemic, shadowing Rishi Sunak in the sombre era of vast economic uncertainty, huge spending announcements, and a vast death toll, and when politics was being conducted largely remotely. “It was not managing to shift government policy, I would say, that was my main frustration,” she reflects. Support for people to self-isolate is a particular area where she wishes she had been able to push the government to be more generous.

Content from our partners
Cyber security is a team game
Why consistency matters
Community safety includes cyber security

“There are cases like that, where, not just myself, but other colleagues – Jon Ashworth, Keir himself, many others pushed for a very long time – and where we haven’t made the progress that we wanted to see. And that’s very frustrating, because obviously, it’s had such a direct impact on many people.

“I was very frustrated by the fact that I tried and tried and tried to drag the Chancellor into the House of Commons, and it’s very, very difficult to get him in there. That frustrated me, because I find that that helps when you can have that kind of robust exchange, and obviously the Chancellor just ran away from that. And he’s running away from Rachel [Reeves, her successor] now. It’s exactly the same pattern. Some people could have misinterpreted that, saying there was no challenge. There was a hell of a lot of challenge. The problem was the Chancellor wasn’t willing to face up to any of it, he was just running away from me. It’s very difficult to get coverage off that, if there isn’t that Conservative foil there.”

She is speaking directly to the most frequent criticism of her time as shadow chancellor: that she was failing to “cut through”, or to land a glove on the tremendously popular Sunak. It is not a criticism she found helpful. “I was always very interested to hear from people with their views about what I should have been doing, and I still am very keen to hear people’s comments. When they’re very generalised, it’s obviously harder to act on the basis of them, right,” she smiles, wrinkling her nose. In her pleasant way, she seems to be saying she doesn’t think her successor, Reeves, is doing any better in terms of “cut through” than she did. Dodds is similarly unimpressed by those who thought she was “too nice” for the job: “I think there’s a confusion there, between being open to new ideas and new perspectives, which I always have been, and being sure in your own mind about how you will take decisions.” She thinks, basically, that colleagues confused her generosity with her time for a lack of clout or clarity.

“And I think, for me, the absolutely fundamental thing for a shadow chancellor – I mean, Rachel’s doing this very effectively – is to be improving that economic credibility. That’s what I was focused on, and actually, for many months we were doing that. It was evidenced in opinion polling that Labour’s economic credibility was improving really quite quickly, that we also had, I think, more of a hearing in more specialised economic circles.”

In January, Dodds delivered the prestigious Mais Lecture, a keynote annual event for the banking and finance community of the City of London, where she unveiled Labour’s new fiscal framework and made the case that the UK’s economic approach after the global financial crisis “was economically illiterate, essentially”. It was well received, and she views her work on improving Labour’s economic credibility as the unrecognised legacy of her time as shadow chancellor.

“I hate blowing my own trumpet,” she says, “but I suppose if there’s one thing that I was very encouraged by is that we have a much more explicit recognition of the fact that the austerity we saw after the global financial crisis is not going to work now.”

It means that she has a very different view from critics about what the role of shadow chancellor is for, and how much it should involve “cut-through”. Economic credibility is “a bedrock that is absolutely fundamental for the Labour Party”, she explains, noting that it has only ever won power when it polled well on trust and economic credibility. “If you don’t have that trust and perceived credibility, it’s very, very difficult for Labour to move forward. So short-term, attention-grabbing announcements, if, in the long term, they detract from that economic credibility, are actually very problematic. I wouldn’t advise anybody to adopt that approach. I don’t think that would be sensible at all.”

And there it is. In her oblique, determinedly loyal way, she nods to the dividing line between her and the leader who sacked her. While Starmer may have favoured spending announcements to attract attention to a party failing to make an impact during a time of crisis, Dodds had a fundamentally different priority – a longer-term focus on mending the party’s economic reputation.

She declines to be any more explicit about what she clearly thinks is the reason why she was removed as shadow chancellor. “Obviously, I was shifted into a different job. That’s the prerogative of the Labour Party leader. He’s the manager of the football team, as I put it,” she smiles nervously. “You know, he decides where the players go. But I’m just pleased that I’m still in a role where hopefully I can contribute to that next general election and to, hopefully, Labour’s success there.”

As party chair she is now leading a major policy review or “policy roadmap” for the party. It’s not quite the same as the economics brief, but “I’m really enjoying being party chair”, she insists. “I find it really satisfying to be working on getting our party fit for the future. I was first a Labour Party candidate over 20 years ago. So actually being able to be involved in trying to deliver a more effective party is really exciting for me.”

The policy review is where Dodds will have sway over the Labour offer at the next election. “After [Labour Party] conference, we’ll need to narrow down very quickly because obviously we could have a general election very soon. My view is that we need to be developing a small number of very strongly worked through evidence-based, resonant policies that we’ll be presenting before the next general election. That’s what this policy work needs to be doing.

“I think as a movement, we’ve sometimes not always looked at those great examples of Labour delivery locally, at the mayoral level, Welsh level, obviously the Welsh Labour government. And indeed, from when Labour was in government previously, as well. And I think when we draw those all together, we’ve got a really strong body of very innovative action that a future Labour government will have to draw on.” She also thinks that coming out of the pandemic “there is more of an opportunity for us to be more explicit about the values driving our approach to policy”. In other words, if people haven’t known what Labour stands for in recent months, her policy review intends to fix that.

***

We have been speaking with this senior Labour politician for over an hour, and there is something notable for its absence. Unlike most people at the top of Labour at the moment, Dodds never uses the phrase “Red Wall”. She also doesn’t talk explicitly about “the voters Labour lost” as a distinct group, or talk about Labour-Conservative switchers as her particular focus.

That omission seems to speak to the quiet debate happening within Labour at the moment about the party’s “Red Wall” strategy: whether it is focusing too much on the voters it has lost in its heartlands at the expense of forgetting the other voters it will need at the next election – namely its existing core vote of younger, liberal, metropolitan voters, as well as motivating non-voters to turn out to support Labour as they did in 2017.

“My view is that there’s no explicit trade-off” between these groups, Dodds argues. “And I think people who assume there is are actually potentially quite patronising towards the public.” She names some of the major challenges facing the country, from tackling crime to preparing the UK for a green jobs revolution. “That is something that people want up and down the country, and putting them into different pockets, I really don’t think helps with that. I have a big problem with people being put into those kinds of brackets.”

She identifies a problem with those in her party who take parts of Labour’s current support for granted. “I think there’s a very big problem generally with, you know, any Labour politician describing an area as ‘rock solid Labour for the future’, frankly, wherever it is in the country, because as soon as people start to feel that they might be taken for granted, they’re going to start turning away from us.”

That is another area where, under the surface, Dodds is perhaps not entirely aligned with the Labour leader, whose focus is resolutely on the “Red Wall”. But it is fundamental to Dodds’ entire approach to politics that she doesn’t make hay of these differences. “I think we’re a party where everyone’s so passionate about changing the world, that very often, I think we become very passionate about the exact means of doing that, as well as about the end. And when we actually sit down and talk together, about what we want to do from different perspectives, we agree on like, 99 per cent of things.”

But, again, she thinks a degree of discipline is the key: and that disagreements should be kept in-house and in confidence. “I just think we’ve got to focus on that ultimate aim, we’ve got to have that discipline among ourselves. There will always be some aspects of, for example, what Labour might be setting out at an election that not every single member is going to necessarily sign up to every element of. But that’s the reality of a political party.”

While many within Labour happily brief against each other and collapse into internal disputes, the person who most steadfastly avoids all of that is the one who must have found it hardest to do so in the past year. Dodds has paid the heaviest cost for the ups and downs of Keir Starmer’s first year, as the most prominent casualty of his botched reshuffle and the person most frequently targeted by the red-on-red speculation and distraction that she hates. But Anneliese Dodds wouldn’t be the kind of politician that she is if she aired those grievances publicly.

She walks us to the pier at Worthing before taking her leave. She is planning to run, quite literally, the many miles back to the seaside village where she is staying to look after six children (some of them her own) and a puppy. Her adviser jokes that she will be ringing him with work thoughts on her way. It is typical of Anneliese Dodds’ approach: warm, generous with her time, but with a quiet discipline.