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27 September 2021

Andy McDonald’s resignation is the trigger for a new and dangerous time for Keir Starmer

The Labour leadership’s already fraught relations with the party’s left are about to get much worse.

By Ailbhe Rea and Stephen Bush

Andy McDonald, the shadow secretary of state for employment rights and protections, has dramatically resigned from Keir Starmer’s shadow cabinet during the Labour Party conference. 

In his resignation letter this evening, McDonald has told Starmer that “after eighteen months of your leadership, our movement is more divided than ever and the pledges that you made to the membership are not being honoured.” He claims that his resignation was sparked by an exchange with the Labour leader’s office earlier in which they told him to argue against a £15 minimum wage and statutory sick pay at the living wage ahead of a fringe meeting on the issue today. 

The timing of the announcement is severely damaging for the Labour leadership, with splits and tensions at the top of the party already overshadowing key policy announcements at the annual conference in Brighton.

[See also: Angela Rayner is told to apologise for calling Tories “scum” as Labour row deepens – New Statesman]

McDonald’s exit comes on an evening when Starmer’s team will have wanted a clear run for media coverage of Rachel Reeves’ speech, a rare moment for the shadow chancellor to speak directly to the country about her economic vision. Instead, the message on evening news bulletins will be that Labour is divided over its economic agenda.

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McDonald is on the left of the party and his resignation letter is reflective of the frustration shared among MPs of the left at Starmer breaking some of the pledges he made during his 2020 leadership campaign. “Keir won very convincingly on those ten pledges. If he wants to change to a different set of pledges, he should stand on those,” one MP from the left of the party said. 

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“The Labour Party is trying to be all things to all people, and as a result they’re failing to do anything. Their obsession with respectability politics means we’ve got lines on the economy that are to the right of the Tories. It’s appalling.” They added that it “should be a given” that Labour supports a £15 minimum wage and higher statutory sick pay.

But for all of the fighting talk, this is not some longstanding plan by the left to cause maximum disruption at conference: McDonald’s departure has taken many MPs of the left off-guard (indeed, the New Statesman was the first to inform several of them of his resignation).

Another MP from the left has suggested that the resignation has in fact done damage to three people: Keir Starmer, whose conference has been disrupted by McDonald’s exit, but also Richard Burgon and Jon Trickett, the two politicians on the Corbynite left who are most frequently talked of as potential left challengers to Starmer and as standard-bearers in future leadership elections. Now, McDonald, a respected operator and communicator on the left, may himself become a candidate in future. 

An MP on the party’s right suggested that McDonald’s resignation was more a product of a desire to jump before he was pushed after the Times revealed he was co-hosting an event with Jeremy Corbyn, who is currently suspended from the Parliamentary Labour Party.

Keir Starmer said: “I want to thank Andy for his service in the Shadow Cabinet. Labour’s comprehensive New Deal for Working People shows the scale of our ambition and where our priorities lie. My focus and that of the whole party is on winning the next general election so we can deliver for working people who need a Labour government.”

Regardless of the exact why and how of McDonald’s exit, it marks a transition to a new and more openly acrimonious relationship between the leader and the party’s left. Starmer has been bolstered by changes to the party’s rulebook and an increased majority on the ruling National Executive Committee (it has increased by two after the election of the Musicians’ Union at the expense of the bakers’ union). The leadership may now feel it is institutionally well-placed to weather the storm but it may be underestimating the strength of its opponents.