The appointment of a chief of staff to an opposition party 20 points ahead in the polls only 18 months before an expected general election was always going to be newsworthy. But no one was expecting an appointment quite so newsworthy as this.
In selecting Sue Gray, Keir Starmer detonated a bomb. Perhaps intentionally. Because surely he and his team must have calculated the uproarious backlash that would follow bringing Gray, the partygate “inquisitor”, into the opposition?
There are two issues here for Starmer. Firstly, as we saw during “beergate”, the Labour leader is keen to polish his credentials as an honest, rules-based operator. With Rishi Sunak developing some claim to competent government – though who knows if it will survive next week’s Budget – Starmer’s own competence may seem less unique to voters at the next election. His message might have to resort to “they may indeed be competent, but they aren’t good – I am”. If the Gray appointment blows up further, or if he is viewed to be playing low politics then this muddies the water of who the “good guy” really is. The Conservatives may be able to paint Starmer as a corrupt Westminster insider.
But there is a second, deeper issue the Gray appointment raises. Starmer is attempting a New Labour redux. New Labour had five pledges so Starmer has five missions; New Labour promised to spend in the same tight envelope as the Tories, so Starmer will promise the same; New Labour had a career civil servant, Jonathan Powell, as chief of staff, so Starmer will have a career civil servant, in Gray. But 2023 is not 1997. Then, a bunch of youngish but highly talented Labour leaders, with a strong sense of their political project, got the country excited about regime change. In 1997 the economic weather was cloudless and it was possible to spend real sums of money on the nation’s priorities. Good governmental process always matters, but back then it was almost all that mattered.
This time, a thin political programme, with ministerial exceptions such as Ed Miliband, Lisa Nandy and the shadow justice secretary Steve Reed, might achieve office but largely because of Tory failure – and in the most malign economic, climate and democratic circumstances imaginable. There is no money for the next government – at least in the places Starmer’s Labour is prepared to look. In this context, appointing a chief of staff who knows about running Whitehall departments but little else is necessary but far from sufficient.
If politics was only ever simply a technocratic exercise in passing legislation, then fair enough. But it’s not. And it certainly isn’t now. A political project in our age of perma-crisis demands so much more than Whitehall know-how. It demands vision, narrative, agency, alliances, as well as theories and practices of change. The chief of staff post-holder should know how to knit together a transformative new political economy and a new democracy, all in service to the transition to a green and socially just new society.
People like Gray know how the existing, faulty machine works. But do they know how it should be transformed away from Victorian-inspired, centralised and siloed departments? The old state will not deliver the new society.
What Graygate reveals is the orthodoxy of our political leaders and parties in the 21st century. We persist in prioritising Westminster and parliament above all. But power has long slipped from the grip of Pugin gilt. Today power resides in the private sector, nationally and globally, in the tech platforms, and in civil society. Surely political leadership must also be rooted in these places as well if it is to be effective?
Any incoming government has to get its legislation through. The machinery of government matters. But Gray’s appointment elevates narrow process to a ridiculous level and speaks to the shallow nature of Labour’s offer. Starmer is billing himself as the CEO of a political project in a moment when we need not just a new government, but a new political paradigm – one that should be capable of so much more.
In some quarters, Gray would have been seen as a coup for Labour. A name. A top-notch civil servant. Proof of concept that the establishment is flocking towards Starmer and his party. It might work. But at best it’s a sticking plaster.