The question I am asked by Labour MPs more than any other is this: what is Keir Starmer’s plan? Starmer is the candidate of the middle of the party, and so one would expect him to be criticised by both left and right. What is most alarming for him, however, is that I am as likely to hear the question from his allies, who feel isolated and ignored by him and his inner circle, as from his enemies. The confusion about his strategy and approach extends across his shadow cabinet and front bench.
Since the Hartlepool by-election defeat on 6 May and the local elections in England, in which Labour was defeated across much of the country, the question has taken on a new and despairing tone. Starmer’s reaction to the rout was a panicked reshuffle in which he tried and failed to demote the deputy leader, Angela Rayner, from the symbolic posts of party chair (a bauble with little official standing) and national campaign coordinator (a role whose main function is to put a brave face on bad results on television and to launch attacks on the other side that are considered to be too crude or too cruel to risk sullying the leader’s brand with).
The party’s labyrinthine rulebook means that the leader cannot dispense with the elected deputy leader’s service altogether. After a prolonged stand-off between the two politicians, Rayner was given the new role of shadowing Michael Gove, Boris Johnson’s most important minister, who has a wide-ranging and vague brief that allows him to pick up the slack created by the Prime Minister’s lack of appetite for the fine details of policy. Shadowing Gove means that Rayner, too, will have the freedom to roam across essentially every aspect of government and opposition policy. After a bitter row, all Starmer has done is made Rayner more difficult to contain.
The dispute was especially bizarre because Rayner and Starmer are largely politically aligned. Their supporters in the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) are largely drawn from the middle of the party rather than the right or the left, and their expressed diagnosis of the party’s problems has, so far, been the same: that Labour needs to marry the economic radicalism of 2017 with the ability to win over socially conservative, largely Brexit-supporting voters in small towns.
Starmer’s inexplicable and damaging decisions mean that even members of the shadow cabinet and the PLP who did well from the reshuffle now take a dim view of him. Even some of those he has promoted privately admit that they are not sure what his political direction actually is.
The implausible case for Starmer’s defence is that he had planned, even before the Hartlepool defeat, to move Rayner to a bigger role rather than to sack her. But her new position grants no functional powers to Rayner that could not have been achieved by simply giving her greater autonomy in her old position. The only change of significance is the demotion of Anneliese Dodds, who has been moved to the role of party chair in order to install Rachel Reeves in Dodds’s old job as shadow chancellor.
Dodds is well liked in the PLP and, more importantly, her public actions and decisions have been at the express instruction of the leader, from Labour’s muddled message on corporation tax rises in the recent Budget to her comparatively low media profile. “The message,” one shadow cabinet minister told me, “is that if you’re loyal like Anneliese, Starmer won’t lift a finger to stop his team briefing against you, but if you try to fight and humiliate him, he’ll fold.” It would also mean that Starmer failed to understand the importance of not concluding his meeting with Rayner until they had reached terms, rather than letting the row happen in public.
It is not only Dodds whom MPs believe has been badly treated. Nick Brown, the longstanding chief whip, was replaced by his deputy, Alan Campbell. Brown had a distinguished career as chief whip under four Labour leaders, and Labour MPs are unclear why his dismissal was treated as a sacking related to the local elections rather than simply the natural end of a long tenure.
Adding to their irritation is that while Starmer has shown little consideration for the treatment of his allies in parliament, he has leapt to the defence of his closest aides. He has reacted with anger to criticisms of Jenny Chapman, a former MP and his senior adviser, and Ben Nunn, his communications chief. He has been quick to tell shadow cabinet ministers that he would never have tolerated criticism of his staff in his former role as director of public prosecutions.
That perplexes and worries opposition frontbenchers and MPs, who note that Starmer himself had no compunction about criticising Seumas Milne when he was Jeremy Corbyn’s chief strategist, and fear that it shows that a bunker mentality has already set in at the leader’s office. Much hope among his supporters in the PLP now rests with his new director of strategy, Deborah Mattinson, who ran focus groups for Gordon Brown throughout the 1990s and 2000s, and is the author of a recent book Beyond the Red Wall, which outlines the challenges facing Labour in its heartlands. They hope Mattinson will provide the leader’s office with direction, discipline and self-awareness – all of which shadow ministers feel Starmer’s team lacks.
If Starmer is to succeed as Labour leader – and many shadow cabinet ministers hope he will – he should look to Andy Burnham, the mayor of Greater Manchester, whose rise in popularity during his tenure has led his reputation to soar in Westminster. Burnham’s stock at the end of his mystifyingly poor leadership campaign in 2015 was at a record low. He responded by distinguishing himself as a first-class mayor. Burnham simply got better at the day job, and Starmer would be well-advised to do the same.
This article appears in the 12 May 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Without total change Labour will die