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  1. Politics
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13 March 2024

The battle for Keir Starmer’s soul

As Labour prepares for power, two groups on the party’s right are vying to control its future.

By Andrew Marr

Behind closed doors, as Keir Starmer moves nearer to Downing Street, internal tensions are rising in the leader’s office. No surprise there. The scale of the reform Britain needs and the weakness of the resources to achieve it should scare anyone witless. And buzzing round the “next prime minister” are a crowd of some of the brightest and most ambitious thinkers in the country. Of course, they don’t all agree.

In the midst of the constant hubbub, the contradictory advice and frantic lobbying for jobs, balls have been dropped and mistakes made. The Rochdale by-election selection error infuriated Sir Keir. The U-turn over the £28bn green revolution was awkwardly done. There have been poisonous briefings, particularly against Sue Gray, the woman tasked with preparing Labour for government.

Still to come – watch these spaces – are rows over immigration, Europe and the workers’ rights and trade union agenda. It is all happening in private and mostly away from media attention – but what is at stake is nothing less than the shape of the next Labour government.

Some of the friction is inevitable, even good. It is the “Who’s up? Who’s down?” nervy juggling of people who have given their all for the new government and are now beginning to wonder where they’ll fit in. But it covers important choices about the ambition of the state, the danger of putting off private investment in Britain and much else.

Sue Gray has become pivotal. She is working on a plan to radically tighten and strengthen the centre of government, a conscious reversal of everything Boris Johnson’s Downing Street – on whose lockdown parties she reported – stood for. In future it will all be disciplined around the Starmer “five missions”, which even voters are beginning to notice.

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But the previously neat division in Starmer’s office between those tasked with winning the election – led by Morgan McSweeney, Labour’s campaign director – and those thinking principally about life after a victory – led by Gray, Starmer’s chief of staff – is proving increasingly unsustainable. The manifesto must be both a weapon to win votes and a guide to life after the election: “Nothing would be worse at a time of low public faith in politics than winning and then changing direction,” says someone close to Starmer.

“The truth is,” says another aide, “Keir is incredibly close to both Morgan and Sue. He needs both of them.” At the heart of the debate are Gray and McSweeney; the key shadow cabinet politicians; Peter Hyman, the man in charge of the five missions; Stuart Ingham, Starmer’s long-term policy adviser; and Rav Athwal, the former Treasury official and economic adviser who is writing the manifesto.

If you think that’s a crowded room, then add in a growing number of influential outside policy experts. They include “the two Joshes”, Josh Simons and Josh Williams of Labour Together; Torsten Bell of the Resolution Foundation; Ryan Wain of the Tony Blair Institute; Ravi Gurumurthy of Nesta (formerly the National Endowment for Science Technology and the Arts); and Harry Quilter-Pinner and Ashwin Kumar from the Institute for Public Policy Research. And it goes on… there are the City and economic high-flyers being seconded to Rachel Reeves’ team. My colleague George Eaton has recently profiled the University College London (UCL) policy lab run by Marc Stears, arguing persuasively that this might be the outfit which eventually emerges as the most important one.

The truth is, the nearer Labour gets to power, the louder the buzz grows. Shadow cabinet members groan at the bloated list of would-be helpful people who think the time has come for them to be sent to the House of Lords or are angling for a last-minute safe parliamentary seat.

What is unusual is the extent to which the Starmer project has outsourced policy advice, and Labour MPs are becoming fixated on two sources in particular. Labour Together was created during the Corbyn years, first as a haven for moderates and later as the battle-ship for the Starmer leadership campaign. Since then it has morphed into an increasingly powerful think tank, growing its full-time staff from three to around 50. Based at Millbank Tower, where the 1997 Labour campaign was headquartered, “LT” is as near as Starmer’s Labour has to an emotional core.

Then there is, in its swishly discreet offices near the BBC, the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, or “TBI”, which describes itself as providing “expert advice to political leaders worldwide on strategy, policy and delivery”. With a huge budget, it has been described as the ultimate public sector consultancy, a “McKinsey for world leaders”. It boasts around 1,000 staff globally and well over £100m in revenue, and it recruits ambitiously – General Sir Nick Carter, former chief of defence staff, Patrick Vallance, the former chief scientist, and Sanna Marin, the former Finnish prime minister, are recent recruits. Technology-obsessed, it can feel like the whirling government of a country that doesn’t actually exist.

With Starmer and Blair talking regularly, the TBI has been seconding researchers to help the Labour leader and his team. Left MPs see a plot by Blairites to abduct Starmer and put his more pro-state, class-bound politics quietly to sleep. And some of Starmer’s old political and legal friends complain that he is becoming unreachable, protected by a human palisade of smart young globalists. But Blair himself seems knowing about the relationship: he told Tom Baldwin, for his recent biography of Starmer, that the reason they talk, despite Starmer being to his left, is that the civil service doesn’t have the expertise a Labour government will need: “It needs outside help.”

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The two organisations, LT and TBI, overlap in the busy world of London policy wonkery – for instance, Geoff Mulgan, who worked for Tony Blair at No 10, is on Labour Together’s advisory board (as is the academic Helen Thompson). Steve Reed, an LT founder, now shadow environment secretary, was always seen as a Blairite before becoming more interested in the Labour grass-roots. But the two outfits have different cultures, different histories and, up to a point, different views about the future direction of a Labour government.

In very crude terms, the TBI people are fascinated by the possibilities of using tech, particularly AI, to reform public services, and are much closer to big business, particularly US technology firms. Some of them look to Wes Streeting as the natural standard-bearer; Liz Kendall and Peter Kyle are also more associated with modern Blairism.

The LT people are – and again I am crudely generalising – more old Labour-right, more statist, less impressed by the private sector, and more focused on reviving the core Labour vote. This is not a major ideological split; there is nobody in either group associated with the left. This is about instinct, nuance and style; the TBI radiates techno-optimistic chic, while one adherent of LT described it as “more homespun, more traditional Labour-right, to their corporate boardroom aesthetic”.

Style, or the aesthetics of politics, really matters. The tone of voice, the perception of who is funding what, the words that are chosen – all those reach mainstream voters. Starmer has a bias against grandiosity and metropolitan swagger. Stears told Eaton that in the Labour leader’s applause for “ordinary hope” he found something for working-class voters to cling on to – “a realism, a tangibility, an earthiness and grittiness”. The struggle to maintain that grit and earth in the abstracted policy world of London is an important one.

So where might the policy tensions arise? In the biggest areas of difficult social policy, health and education, there are arguments about the extent to which AI-driven reform can get a Labour government out of a spending hole. No one thinks technology doesn’t matter; it’s more about the extent and price of what’s ahead – who you deal with, how eager you seem.

Illustration by Carl Godfrey

In education, companies selling allegedly AI-enhanced learning programmes promise a dramatic uplift in grades across the country, and the TBI is enthusiastic. More traditional Labour people are sceptical about the claims and high-pressure marketing, and more focused on using AI to reduce teacher workloads and crack the data on pupil absenteeism.

In health, the US tech giant Palantir looms over the debate. The NHS’s patient database is a North Sea-scale resource for the digital age, unique in size in the Western world. Mining its data could produce massive and lucrative breakthroughs that help patients around the world – and earn the NHS money it desperately needs. Five years ago, the accountants Ernst & Young described the 55 million primary care records in the UK along with a “treasure trove of information” held by the NHS as being worth nearly £10bn a year.

It’s much more by now. In theory, trading the data of NHS patients could be a coup for the UK, modernising the service, raising salaries and allowing pharmaceutical and other advances. But it would also be a gold mine for whoever got the contract. Palantir, founded by Peter Thiel, the right-wing tech entrepreneur, has been accused of serious human rights failings after its tech was used to track migrants and asylum seekers in the US. Thiel has previously said that the NHS makes people sick and should be privatised; nevertheless, Palantir won a new data platform contract worth £330m from the NHS in November. It had been courting the health service by buying up smaller companies which do business with it – and it used Peter Mandelson’s Global Counsel as its advocate.

The security of the data platform, and the details of Palantir’s contract with it, have worried both politicians and the British Medical Association. The former Tory cabinet minister David Davis has told the Commons that “bluntly, it is the wrong company to be put in charge of our precious data resource”. Angela Rayner, Labour’s deputy leader, and Philip Hunt, the former Labour health minister, have both expressed doubts as well.

Elsewhere, there is tension over the ambitious trade union reforms and workers’ rights agenda championed and owned by Rayner. One of her allies said recently that the TBI “will be going through this, line by line, with a fine-tooth comb” and pointed out that bolstering workers’ rights doesn’t go down well with the corporate world generally. So far, Team Rayner believe they are safe because her agenda is so popular with Labour voters, and she has her own authority as an independently elected figure. But the Tories are trying very hard to rip into her over questions about tax returns on her homes – there is a vicious social media campaign against her being planned right now – and Rayner may find herself under pressure from two sides.

Another pressure point may be immigration policy. Any residual Tory hopes of seeing off Reform UK depend upon the quick passage of the Rwanda Bill and flights taking off soon, perhaps by the end of this month. There is still parliamentary “ping-pong” to come after a string of big government defeats in the Lords, but at the end of the process Labour peers have been instructed to let the legislation through. Some who regard it as a fundamental constitutional and moral issue are outraged. Not all of their plans are being currently shared with Starmer’s office.

These issues, and the complexities of rebuilding a relationship with the EU, are problems ahead of the election and, more significantly, if Labour is elected, after it. Any party aspiring to government would be grateful about the range of expertise being made freely available to it beforehand. But in the end, Labour needs not the discord of endless competing versions, but a single song to sing. As its candidates on the doorstep can confirm, it hasn’t found it yet.

[See also: The Conservatives still look doomed]


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This article appears in the 13 Mar 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The battle for Keir Starmer’s soul

Select and enter your email address Your weekly guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture every Saturday. The best way to sign up for The Saturday Read is via saturdayread.substack.com The New Statesman's quick and essential guide to the news and politics of the day. The best way to sign up for Morning Call is via morningcall.substack.com Our Thursday ideas newsletter, delving into philosophy, criticism, and intellectual history. The best way to sign up for The Salvo is via thesalvo.substack.com Stay up to date with NS events, subscription offers & updates. Weekly analysis of the shift to a new economy from the New Statesman's Spotlight on Policy team. The best way to sign up for The Green Transition is via spotlightonpolicy.substack.com
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