Late one September evening, as she was preparing for bed, Labour’s deputy leader, Angela Rayner, received a phone call from Keir Starmer. After nearly ten minutes of pleasantries, Starmer reached his point: he wanted to rip up the party’s rule book for electing future leaders. Rayner advised him to make sure that he had enough trade union support to be confident of passing the reforms before proceeding. He agreed, and the conversation ended.
The initiative is of deep importance to Rayner, who harbours her own leadership ambitions, as well as to Starmer, who wants to put the party’s structures on a more solid footing. Yet despite their shared interest in the reforms, Labour’s two most powerful politicians have a dynamic defined by mutual suspicion. For those who want Labour to mount a serious challenge to Boris Johnson’s government, the question is whether the official opposition can make any headway while its leader and his deputy remain at odds.
In order to get his rule changes approved by delegates at the party’s conference in Brighton, Starmer needed Rayner’s help. Working together, they succeeded in winning support for the core of the package: measures to make it harder for Labour members to deselect sitting MPs, and to increase the amount of parliamentary support needed for a candidate to make the leadership ballot.
The process was painful and involved a great deal of arm-twisting and private pleading. While Starmer was credited with winning the battle, it was Rayner’s work behind the scenes that secured the support of Unison’s trade union delegation, a vital step in getting the measures passed.
Seen from the viewpoint of Rayner’s allies, this is a story of a Labour leader who is bad at consulting colleagues, and a deputy who is taking political risks to support her boss.
Starmer’s operation is still poor at explaining its actions and bringing allies along with it. Anas Sarwar, the leader of Scottish Labour and a politician firmly on the Labour right, learned of the rule-book plans about five minutes before the media did. While the strict secrecy paid off, the Labour leadership took a gamble in launching the enterprise while still in dispute with Unison over its social care proposals and with the GMB union over energy policy. Without Rayner’s work, the result could have been different.
But despite her role in securing union backing for Starmer’s priorities, the view from the Labour leader’s close allies is that his deputy has her own agenda.
They blame Rayner’s team for the painful row over the shadow cabinet reshuffle of 9 May, which was dominated by a public argument about Rayner’s role. Some feel that her growing profile constitutes a barely concealed pitch for the party leadership. Her refusal to back down despite criticism over her description of Conservatives as “scum” was a further distraction at a party conference that should have been a chance for Labour to show off some new policies.
Who is right? Rayner and Starmer are both politicians drawn from the middle of the party, but they have their own priorities and styles. Rayner is nearly 18 years Starmer’s junior. It is only natural that she should put serious thought into what the post-Starmer future might look like. She has not been shy of using her power base to influence events, such as reportedly asserting herself to save Andy McDonald’s shadow cabinet job and working closely with him on a package of workplace and employment rights. That effort went unrewarded by McDonald, who quit the shadow cabinet on 27 September citing disagreements over policy – an outcome that allies of Rayner saw as a betrayal.
Rayner has also been willing to suffer considerable political damage to deliver Starmer’s agenda, including backing his preferred candidate, David Evans – who is public enemy number one among much of the left – to be Labour’s general secretary, an appointment that was confirmed on 25 September. Those efforts have not gone unnoticed among the party’s left, who distrust Rayner almost as much as they do Starmer. In the service of her leader, Rayner has risked alienating a section of Labour MPs who would be her natural supporters when the next leadership contest comes.
Part of the difficulty in their relationship is personal. While Starmer told the New Statesman recently that relations between him and “Ange” are “very good”, the two rarely appear in public together, and so their levels of communication – and therefore trust – are lower than they could be. Added to that, Rayner’s “elevator pitch” for the next leadership contest is implicitly critical of Starmer’s personality, focusing, as it does, on her warmth, authenticity and natural ability to make deals and win friends. Equally, the arguments in favour of Starmer – his grip on detail, his polish and relative caution – are often viewed as criticisms of Rayner.
The difficulty for both, as one MP pointed out to me, is that between them they hold all the qualities of an unbeatable election-winning politician, and yet they remain stuck in a forced political alliance. The reality is that neither’s ambitions are ultimately served by the other’s failure. If they want the next Labour conference to be more of a success than this year’s, they will have to learn to trust and even like each other again.
[see also: Can Keir Starmer break Labour’s losing streak?]
This article appears in the 29 Sep 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Spirit of the Age