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25 January 2022

Is Wes Streeting the next Labour leader?

Both allies and critics of the fast-rising shadow health secretary agree that he represents more than “rehashed Blairism”.

By Ailbhe Rea

John Cryer remembers when, as a newly elected Labour MP for the East End seat of Hornchurch in the late 1990s, he started to notice letters regularly appearing in the Romford Recorder. They were “superb letters” about trade union politics, the actions of the Labour government, and about Cryer’s own performance as MP. “I just assumed it was some old trade union bloke called Wesley Streeting,” Cryer, now chair of the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) and a veteran Labour MP, says. He invited Wesley Streeting to a Labour constituency party meeting. “He walked in and the average age must have dropped by about 20 years. I remember it really clearly. He had a bright yellow shirt on.” Wesley Streeting was a 16-year-old boy from a local council estate.

The guest speaker at the meeting that evening was Jeremy Corbyn. The young Streeting, a Labour member who had already developed stridently far-left views, was impressed, and signed up that night for Campaign Group News, the monthly magazine for the party’s main left faction. Someone close to Streeting jokes that he was “the original young Corbynista”. 

“You could just tell there was something about him that was pretty special,” Cryer says. “He was a ball of energy, like he is now. Funny, energetic, enthusiastic. I had no idea that he was going to end up an MP, and maybe neither did he. But as soon as you met him, you thought ‘whatever he’s gonna do, he’s gonna make a real impact.’”

Wes Streeting, 39, became shadow health secretary in November 2021. He grew up in poverty in Stepney, east London, in the 1980s. His mother, who was born in prison, was 18 when she had him, while his father was 17, and their relationship didn’t last. Streeting has spoken in recent interviews of his memories of cockroaches and an empty fridge at home, blackouts when money ran out on the electricity meter, his embarrassment at being on free school meals, and how often his mum would go without so that he could have things. His maternal grandfather was in and out of prison for armed robbery when he was a child, and he has spoken about the difficult experience of visiting him there, confused and upset as a young boy at the guards taking away the cream buns he brought him. His grandmother, too, spent a brief period in prison in relation to her husband’s crimes, and, extraordinarily, shared a prison cell with Christine Keeler, the model who was at the centre of the 1963 Profumo affair. 

Streeting’s decision to join Labour at 16 was motivated by his own experiences. “He thought the Labour Party was the best vehicle for addressing the problems faced by him and his mum and his other relatives, and people he was at school with,” Cryer says. 

He was encouraged by a teacher at primary school to apply to Westminster City School, a high-performing state academy, and went on to Cambridge University, where he was involved in student politics, eventually being elected president of the National Union of Students (NUS) in 2008. 

By then, he was firmly on Labour’s right (“it was a gradual thing,” Cryer says of Streeting’s political journey). But he was different to the cohort of “soulless Blairites, grotesque careerists with nothing behind the eyes,” says the prominent left-wing journalist Owen Jones, who has known Streeting since his NUS days. “Wes isn’t like that. He has a vision of politics which I fundamentally and utterly reject, but it has a grounding in his experience. It is a Labour right interpretation of working-class politics.” Streeting has spoken of being strongly influenced by his paternal grandfather, a former member of the merchant navy and a working-class Tory, in some of his political values, such as his patriotism and his tough law and order stance, as well as his Christian faith.

Streeting didn’t treat left-wingers such as Jones with contempt, unlike some of his contemporaries. But “he loves winding up the left,” Jones says and enjoys banter “in that slightly bitchy way” – he used to jokingly refer to Jones as the “tiny Trot”. Jones remembers attending a dinner party where Streeting and his friends, who were David Miliband supporters, were reminded of another friend who had voted for Ed Miliband. “They all got out their knives and started stabbing the table, chanting ‘traitor, traitor, traitor’.” 

Streeting continued to move in Labour circles after his NUS days, working for the Blairite group Progress and Stonewall, as well as serving as a Labour councillor, before his selection as the Labour candidate for Ilford North, a marginal seat, in 2015. He ran a “military operation” and managed to gain the seat from the Tories on a night of Labour losses. He has since entrenched himself, establishing a reputation as a hard-working MP and turning a majority of just 589 votes into one of 5,198. (Other Labour MPs of all stripes say that Streeting is generous with his advice on campaigning in and retaining marginal seats.)  

During the Corbyn years, it was Streeting, colleagues say, who made life most difficult for the Labour leader during PLP meetings, listening quietly, without notes, then reacting to what had been said, often posing questions over the handling of anti-Semitism complaints. Colleagues praise him as a gifted orator, comparing him to Tony Benn, Barbara Castle and Tony Blair. “How many people, really, can walk into the chamber and think on their feet?” one Labour MP says. “We all think we can, but we can’t. Wes can.” 

Opponents and friends all describe him as talented, ambitious, fun and funny. When Streeting returned to parliament last year after time off to recover from kidney cancer, he threw a huge party in September 2021 for his fellow MPs and journalists. He told people he had more determination than ever, and no more patience for “mediocrity”.

After Keir Starmer’s election as Labour leader in 2020, Streeting joined the shadow Treasury team and swiftly became a firm favourite of the Labour press office, making regular broadcast appearances and being promoted to ever-more senior front-bench roles: shadow schools minister, shadow child poverty secretary and, finally, shadow health secretary, one of the most crucial roles in the Covid-19 era. The buzz around him as a potential future Labour leader, who could succeed Starmer, has reached fever pitch.

Jones describes it as a “commentariat love-in”. “He’s the sort of person the commentariat would fall in love with, because he shares their politics.” But he sees Streeting as “a dangerous opponent, because he’s effective. He’s clever, he’s charismatic, he’s personable, he has a backstory and can do a genuine, passionate speech. Keir Starmer doesn’t have a clear vision for the country. Wes does. It is what you might call post-Blairism: Blairism but trying to accommodate a different context in which, economically, things have shifted to the left.” 

There is a surprising consensus among allies and critics that Streeting doesn’t simply represent “rehashed Blairism”. 

“He’s certainly got many of the communications skills and appeal of Blair, but I wouldn’t describe him as a pure Blairite,” a former New Labour cabinet minister says. “He’s a more original thinker than that and realises that we’re not going to own the future by reheating the past.”

They add: “He also has the self-confidence to be a genuine radical. He knows that a small turn of the policy dial is insufficient for Labour. But he [also] realises that you have to be well-attuned to those who have been very sceptical of Labour over the last ten years, especially under Corbyn.”

One party grandee concludes: “The very simple point about Wes is that he has great political instincts, excellent communication skills and is a good all-round team player. These seem in short supply at the moment, frankly, and that’s why he stands out.”

With reluctant admiration from the left, adoration from the Labour right, and a commentariat “love-in”, how does Keir Starmer feel about Wes Streeting’s rise? The Labour leader recently told someone privately that he doesn’t care what Streeting’s ambitions are: everyone is entitled to want to be party leader if they have the ability and, in the meantime, he regards him as a completely loyal figure. 

As a result, says someone close to Starmer’s team, “when he [Streeting] has something to say to them, including occasionally criticism or bad news, they take him at face value and respect what he has to say.”

Streeting is, for now, treated and talked about by colleagues and the commentariat as the next Labour leader and a future prime minister. But his allies and admirers are only too aware that this can be a poisoned chalice, and are increasingly jittery about referring to him as a “future leader” to journalists. Has Streeting’s moment come far too soon? The answer will become clear in the years ahead. In the meantime, he will remain a politician for ideological opponents and allies to watch, while Keir Starmer decides whether not only to trust him but to listen to him.

[See also: Events have conspired to give Labour another chance. Will Keir Starmer seize it?]

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