That advice was perhaps foremost in Keir Starmer’s mind at Labour’s recent National Policy Forum in Nottingham, where activists, trade union leaders and shadow cabinet ministers agreed a blueprint for the party’s general election manifesto. It was the moment that the shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves’s fiscal conservatism, which Starmer believes will help Labour win, clashed with the party’s left-wing ideals. But after three days of closed-door negotiations, and some minor amendments, delegates largely accepted that the answer was “no”: Labour was not prepared to back big spending.
When I meet Shabana Mahmood, Labour’s national campaign co-ordinator, she is fresh from the marathon forum and looks jubilant. This is not just because party unity has been maintained at a critical juncture but because, a few days earlier (on 20 July), Labour overturned a 20,137 Tory majority to win the Selby and Ainsty by-election.
“I was in Selby and talked to a lot of Tory voters – basically, all I do these days is talk to Tory voters – and this was a positive endorsement of the Labour Party and a willingness to give us a chance,” Mahmood, 42, the MP for Birmingham Ladywood, says.
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She describes Conservative criticism of the new 25-year-old Labour MP Keir Mather’s age as “graceless”. “I said to [Mather], when they’re coming for you personally like that, it means you’ve really hit them where it hurts.
“I think parliament needs a mixture of people in it, and that includes age as well as, class background, ethnic background, professional background. There’s a lot of young people in our country who are locked out of opportunities and they deserve just as much chance of representation.” (Mahmood herself became one of the UK’s first female Muslim MPs during Ed Miliband’s leadership.)
But it was not all good news for Labour. The Conservatives narrowly held Boris Johnson’s former seat of Uxbridge and South Ruislip by turning the contest into a referendum on Sadiq Khan’s expansion as Mayor of London of the Ultra Low Emissions Zone (Ulez), which will force drivers of the most polluting cars to pay £12.50 a day. Labour’s defeat has started a major internal row, with several high-profile figures calling for Khan to delay his plans, which are due to take effect next month.
“We were focused relentlessly on the cost of living,” Mahmood says, “but there’s no denying that the Ulez expansion was a problem on the doorstep. The Tories had nothing else to run on other than Ulez, and in the end they were able to persuade more voters that was the key priority.” She does not call for Khan to scrap or delay the Ulez expansion but makes clear “it’s important to reflect” on the result.
Since Labour has already delayed its commitment to spend £28bn a year on green investment, there is concern over the party’s commitment to tackling climate change. “No Labour Party person wants to put voters in a position where you have to choose between having clean air to breathe and being able to pay your bills and put food on the table. It shouldn’t be an either or,” Mahmood says. “Clean air is much more about public health, I would say, than green policy specifically.
“But everything that we’re pursuing on the green agenda, particularly on clean energy, is about jobs, creating good jobs in the green industries of the future and making sure that people’s bills are reduced and that the national economy is much more resilient.”
Nottingham was an intriguing choice of location for the party’s National Policy Forum. The city is peppered with a few spots of Labour red but is nestled in the Tory-dominated East Midlands, in contrast to the stronghold of Liverpool, where Jeremy Corbyn’s operation tied the party into holding its annual conference for years to come.
Party chiefs would be satisfied if the location did something to focus minds on the task ahead: reversing Labour’s disastrous 2019 general election defeat in just one parliamentary term. As far as the leadership is concerned, this means abandoning some of the party’s more radical policies and maintaining iron discipline on public spending. Or, as Starmer put it in his rather forbidding opening remarks at the forum: “We’re doing something very wrong if policies put forward by the Labour Party end up on each and every Tory leaflet.”
Figures on the party’s right had earlier joked that they may turn up in army camouflage, such was the imperative of defeating left-wing challenges to Starmer’s agenda.
Some of the policy decisions had already been trailed. Starmer’s allies were not prepared, in the current economic environment, to fund the cost of scrapping the two-child benefit limit or to introduce universal free school meals. This led to delegates agreeing Labour would adopt a cross-departmental approach to tackling child poverty.
A compromise was agreed with the party’s Remainers on Brexit – the party would work to ease “travel disruption” and cut “unnecessary red tape” for the chemical industry, science and automotive sector. And the leadership defeated a challenge over proportional representation.
One of the leadership’s greatest allies in this regard proved to be Rishi Sunak. The Prime Minister’s decision to back moderate public sector pay rises helped to prevent more fractious clashes with trade unions, while the Tories’ confrontational approach to trans rights helped Labour to agree a more consensual position on gender recognition reform.
Labour’s Uxbridge defeat also proved politically useful for Starmer: it demonstrated that despite the party’s 20-percentage point lead in national polls, victory is not assured. In the days that followed the National Policy Forum, Labour saw a three-point rise in its economic competence rating to 47 per cent, giving it an 18-point lead over the Tories (according to a Deltapoll survey).
Morgan McSweeney, Labour’s campaign director, is said to have told Labour staff: “The NPF could have gone the Uxbridge way but instead it went the Selby way. And the approach was backed overwhelmingly.”
Mahmood’s job is to keep Labour’s parliamentary candidates motivated, organised and on-message. She praises Starmer as “very resilient”, and says he is leading a movement with its “eyes on the prize”. “So he might have an end goal, but he knows he’s got to take all of these other steps to get there,” she said, perhaps referencing internal party reforms that have marginalised allies of Corbyn. “I’ve not met anyone quite so methodical in politics. He’s very systematic and he’s a problem solver.”
Mahmood marshals Labour’s campaign forces from the party’s new headquarters in Southwark, south London, where the team is growing in size and increasingly focused on digital output. “It’s completely transformed,” she says of the party operation. “Honestly, two years ago we were, in large parts of the country, a party machine in name only. We’ve recruited scores of new trainee organisers, we’ve got digital trainees in every region, we’ve rebuilt our comms function. It had fallen over for a period, but it’s back with a vengeance.”
But Labour’s more aggressive campaigning approach has not been without controversy. It was Mahmood who approved much-criticised attack ads that suggested that Sunak does not believe in sending sex offenders to prison. But she is unrepentant. “I’m not going to stand back and watch the Tories pull off this trick of changing their leader and acting as if everything they did in the years up to that point just didn’t happen,” she said. “That’s just not gonna happen on my watch.
“He [Sunak] has got a 13-year track record to defend and the fact that he’s now thinking of a divide and conquer, wedge-issue type strategy is because he hasn’t got much of a record to defend. I thought it was so telling in the local elections that they [the Tories] didn’t spend a single day talking about the cost of living. It wasn’t on their grid at all.
“Anybody that knows me knows that it’s not so much a case of taking the gloves off. I’ve never had any gloves on frankly. It’s not in my nature to stand back and wait for them to throw the first punch.”
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Mahmood replaced Angela Rayner as Labour’s campaign co-ordinator in 2021 in the aftermath of the party’s defeat in the Hartlepool by-election and is tipped for a wider portfolio when Starmer carries out his long-anticipated reshuffle. The Oxford-educated barrister admits she is a hard taskmaster. (Mahmood introduced daily 8am strategy calls – 8:30am on Saturdays, 10am on Sundays.)
“Mostly people fall into line,” she says with a smile. “I find that a little bit of charm and toughness goes a long way and most people want to do the right thing.”
Command and control is increasingly viewed internally as central to Starmer’s leadership. Mahmood refuses to discuss Jamie Driscoll, the North of Tyne mayor, being excluded from running for the new North East mayoralty – he has now left the party and will stand as an independent – or the party’s threat to expel Neal Lawson, director of the centre-left pressure group Compass, for praising co-operation between the Greens and the Liberal Democrats.
Labour’s strict candidate selection process, which many argue has locked out the left, is something Mahmood largely shrugs off. “Everyone gets very fixated on which slate people are from,” she says. “People often end up in different places to where they started off and I tend to think what you really want from [candidates] is people who understand what the job is, who are going to be good representatives, and who have got something to say.
“They’re my candidates, they’re on my watch, they do what they need to do to win, but you want them to be people who are passionate, you want them to be people who have something to say and obviously want them to behave themselves in government and support a Labour government, but all of that comes later.”
While other shadow cabinet ministers seek the advice of former Labour big beasts, such as Blair, Gordon Brown and David Blunkett, Mahmood does not. Her closest working relationship is with the powerful and much-respected McSweeney. “I don’t think I’ve done that by design,” Mahmood says. “I work on instinct. I make decisions quite fast. I know what I think and like to get on with it pretty quickly.”
Starmer, who she says is on the verge of emulating “Kinnock, Smith and Blair” in one term, has something of a hands-off approach. “He trusts the team he’s appointed,” Mahmood says. “As far as he’s concerned, he’s shown faith in you. He’s given you a job and he wants you to get on with it. He expects to receive regular reports and we’ll have meetings with him to chat through difficult issues or things that are coming up, but once he’s given you the responsibility, he expects you to show up, bring your ‘A-game’ and get your job done.”
Mahmood is aware that the pre-election period will be “very intense” but says the main message from voters is that Sunak is “not showing up” over the cost-of-living crisis. “People often bring me their latest bill or show me their mortgage statement: ‘This is what’s happening to us.’ ”
Despite Labour’s sustained double-digit poll lead, Mahmood is keenly aware that a Tory victory is still possible and wants to “double the improvements” made by the party since it won the Batley and Spen by-election in 2021 (her first major test as national campaign co-ordinator).
Mahmood looks ahead with optimism to Labour setting out more of its agenda at its annual conference this autumn but, as with all Starmer loyalists, she ends by warning Labour against complacency. “I’m not built that way: to think that it can’t possibly happen [a Tory victory] or that their path is very narrow,” she says. “I tend to assume they’ve got a path and it’s the Tory party: they’re well-funded and, for most of their history, they’ve won elections.”