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“Soft left but not soft”: the rise of Louise Haigh

How the shadow transport secretary and prolific networker transcended Labour’s factional divides.

By Rachel Wearmouth

Keir Starmer’s shadow cabinet reshuffle last month was portrayed as the triumphant return of Blairites as the dominant force in the Labour Party. This overlooked the delicate balance struck by the party leader. Starmer naturally chose to reward loyalists and, crucially, given the prospect of entering power next year, promote colleagues with experience of government. But the remade team was notable not only for what changed but what remained the same.

Louise Haigh, the shadow transport secretary, a standard bearer of the soft left, survived the cull. This came as a surprise to some: she ran the leadership campaign of Lisa Nandy, whose relationship with Starmer has deteriorated (she was demoted from shadow levelling up secretary to shadow international development). But Haigh’s position in Starmer’s top team is described by friends as “no accident”.

Haigh, 36, has skilfully navigated the turbulence of British politics since entering Westminster as the MP for Sheffield Heeley in 2015. During that year’s Labour leadership election she nominated Jeremy Corbyn to widen the debate – an act she has since said she regrets – but campaigned for Andy Burnham, now the combative mayor of Greater Manchester.

She was appointed shadow minister for the civil service and digital reform in 2015, working under the then deputy leader Tom Watson, regarded as one of the savviest operators of the Corbyn years. The following year Haigh was named the hardest-working new MP due to her volume of speeches and questions. John Bercow, the Speaker, praised Haigh’s “terrier-like intensity” as she pursued campaigns against the closure of tax offices, Michael Gove’s curbing of the Freedom of Information Act, and widening gaps in life expectancy between rich and poor.

When frontbenchers began resigning en masse in the wake of the Brexit vote in 2016, the shadow cabinet minister Owen Smith challenged Corbyn for the leadership and Haigh worked for his doomed campaign. “Not exactly a great career move but Lou sees jobs that need doing and rolls her sleeves up,” one friend observed.

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Despite her dissent, Haigh retained her shadow ministerial role under Corbyn and went on to become shadow policing minister in July 2017 following the general election. Leading Labour’s opposition to police cuts was an ideal brief for Haigh given her previous experience as a special constable for the Metropolitan Police. The force had lost 9,300 officers since 2010 owing to austerity and Haigh had seen first-hand during patrols in Brixton, south London, how services had been hollowed out.

Her government counterpart, Nick Hurd, described her as “far and away the best shadow minister I have dealt with in eight years” when he was replaced by Boris Johnson’s ally Kit Malthouse. Johnson, as prime minister, later bowed to political pressure and included a pledge to recruit 20,000 new police officers in the Conservatives’ 2019 manifesto.

In the aftermath of Labour’s defeat in the 2019 general election, Haigh chaired Nandy’s leadership campaign. She had first met the Wigan MP while working as a parliamentary researcher after graduating from Nottingham University. But while Nandy’s star waned under Starmer’s leadership, Haigh’s ascended.

[See also: Does Labour’s soft left have a future?]

Crucial to this was her contribution as shadow Northern Ireland secretary. The province is close to Starmer’s heart: he served as a human rights adviser to the Northern Irish Policing Board in the years following the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. That Haigh was trusted with this brief during the fraught divisions over Johnson’s Northern Ireland Protocol – which Rishi Sunak has since replaced with the Windsor Framework – was significant.

Carefully consulting both nationalist and unionist groups was central to her role and became even more crucial after the breakdown of the power-sharing devolved government at Stormont. Haigh also won plaudits from community leaders for visiting Shankill and Sandy Row in Belfast after rioting broke out in April 2021; she challenged Johnson to follow in her footsteps and listen to people’s fears.

This reflects perhaps Haigh’s greatest strength as a politician: she is a networker. Her birthday party is a Westminster staple, attended by trade unionists and MPs of all Labour factions with whom she has built alliances.

Haigh keeps her personal life in Sheffield separate from her political role in Westminster. She lives with her lurcher, Milo, and seeks solace from Westminster with old university friends who help her concoct her trademark hair dyes (currently pink). “She likes to get her personality across in her campaigning on social media because she is still quite a young MP, but she likes to keep her own life separate,” said one source.

Trains, buses and infrastructure would not traditionally be regarded as an electrifying brief for an ambitious politician. But Labour’s intention to renationalise the railways, bring bus networks back into public control via devolution deals – as with the Bee Network in Manchester – and pursue HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail makes transport a different prospect.

“People will want to know that under a Labour government they’re going to have a quality of life again, they’re going to have security, they’re going to have dignity and they’re going to have pride being instilled after what’s been a pretty grinding decade – and for a lot of people transport is a barometer of that,” said Jim McMahon, the Oldham MP and former shadow environment secretary. Potholes, bus routes and well-paid jobs in the transport industry may not attract front-page headlines but they will be at the heart of Labour’s election campaign.

Haigh’s media performances have also won her fans. One insider said: “She panics about the detail but that never shows. She is like Blair in that way.”

“I think there’s a bit of a dichotomy in a lot of politicians where there has to be a sense of confidence but one that is also combined with crippling self-doubt,” said a friend. “And I think that can be quite a toxic brew for some people but Louise is just very comfortable in her own skin.”

Haigh’s current job could have been a poisoned chalice. The P&O Ferries scandal in March 2022 was quickly followed by the first national rail strikes since the 1980s. This led to widespread disruption for the public and arguments within Labour as frontbenchers were barred from joining picket lines – a decision Haigh is said to have been uncomfortable with after the strain that Covid-19 placed on key workers.

The strikes required deft political management from Haigh, who could not condemn the unions as inflation eroded workers’ pay, but also needed to avoid being portrayed as being in their pocket. She pursued a middle way by focusing on the Tories’ handling of the negotiations. “She held the line, she doesn’t brief and I think Keir really appreciated that,” said an insider. “Her response became the template for how Labour dealt with all the strikes.”

In shadow cabinet meetings Haigh is said to keep her own counsel but is unafraid to challenge Starmer when invited to give an opinion. “She is soft left, but not soft,” said one ally.

The conflicts she has avoided in opposition may be inescapable in government. Labour’s position on HS2 following the Prime Minister’s cancellation of its northern portion remains unclear and many of Haigh’s champions in the north, such as Burnham, may want her to rally to their cause if the leadership relinquishes its spending commitments.

But for now, Haigh’s admirers are enjoying her moment in the sun and hope there is more to come.

[See also: Among the believers]

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