In a remarkably frank interview, Angela Rayner admits voters don’t know what Keir Starmer “stands for”. Honesty and creative tension that could be productive and help rebuild Labour’s appeal, not least in the red wall? Or a glimpse of the destructive real tensions between Labour’s leader and his deputy? The latter seems more likely.
Senior Labour figures wonder whether the Starmer-Rayner relationship can work after their spectacular stand-off over the shadow cabinet reshuffle following the party’s bruising election defeats. Some Starmer allies hope Rayner has “shot her bolt” and will be weakened rather than strengthened. But the leader’s internal critics believe it is Starmer who has been weakened, with Rayner’s authority enhanced.
As Labour tried to calm troubled waters, some insiders portrayed Rayner as today’s “John Prescott figure”. Prescott, also a former trade union activist, negotiated a long list of job titles. When Labour came to power in 1997, he was styled deputy prime minister, first secretary of state and secretary of state for the environment, transport and the regions. (Phew.) After her tussle with Starmer, Rayner is deputy leader, shadow first secretary of state, shadow chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and shadow secretary of state for the future of work. (Gasp.)
With his impeccable working-class credentials, Prescott could reach Labour members and voters that the middle-class north London lawyer who led the party could not. For Tony Blair, read Starmer. Prescott was also “a bit fiery” and had “insecurities” because of his background, just as Rayner describes herself.
Unfortunately for Labour, the parallel doesn’t quite work. Prescott knew he would not succeed Blair because Gordon Brown was a towering presence waiting impatiently in the wings. Underneath the simmering tensions between Starmer and Rayner which exploded last weekend were Rayner’s own leadership ambitions.
Crucially, unlike Prescott, Rayner didn’t stand against the leader when he was elected and lose. (She backed her friend Rebecca Long-Bailey, the left-wing candidate.) Rayner can’t be the peacemaker between the current and next leader, as Prescott was, because she is a potential next.
Some Rayner critics now view her as a block against reform rather than a useful bridge to the Corbynistas, cuddling up to the left and the trade unions to build a bridge to becoming leader one day herself (though she insists her ambition is to be deputy prime minister).
One of the reshuffle’s most significant moves was the appointment of Shabana Mahmood to Rayner’s old job as campaigns coordinator. Mahmood was an architect of the Labour Together group’s candid inquest into the 2019 election, which attributed the party’s drubbing to a long-term decline in the red wall, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, Brexit, and policies voters saw as “unrealistic, risky and unlikely to be delivered”.
Starmer’s shake-up has been dubbed “the Labour Together reshuffle”. Another of the report’s authors, Lucy Powell, was also promoted to the shadow cabinet. Ed Miliband was already in it, and Morgan McSweeney, Starmer’s chief of staff, was Labour Together’s director. It seems that Starmer is doubling down on the group’s approach – a “big change economic agenda” coupled with “community and national pride”. Stand by for him to unfurl even more union flags.
Starmer is now at a fork in the road. Everyone in Labour accepts the need for “change”, but the question is: “Change to what?” Even Starmer loyalists can’t agree. Today on BBC Radio 4, Miliband praised Corbyn’s 2017 manifesto for its “greater boldness”. Others want a big shift away from that. Tony Blair has reprised his “change or die” message. Writing in theNew Statesman, he warned: “the Labour Party won’t revive simply by a change of leader. It needs total deconstruction and reconstruction.” Similarly, Peter Mandelson, who is informally advising Starmer, is warning that a “spray paint job” will not be enough. He said the same when Neil Kinnock was reviewing Labour’s policies in the 1980s, paving the way for Blair’s eventual victory. Today, the big internal battle, as Starmer launches his policy review, is how far Labour should move away from the Corbyn agenda.
Despite Blair's warning, reports of Labour's death are exaggerated. Starmer allies can take some comfort from YouGov polling which shows that the dip in his own and Labour’s ratings are directly related to Boris Johnson’s standing and perceptions of the Tory leader’s handling of coronavirus. Anthony Wells, YouGov’s director of political and social research, told the Mile End Institute at Queen Mary University of London: “Within his first six months, [Starmer] took a party which was 20 points behind in the polls, to a party that was neck and neck. We should not forget that his initial period was very strong. [The gap] only opened up again when we got to the third lockdown, and more importantly, the rollout of the vaccine.”
Labour MPs admit privately that last week’s results show the party underestimates Johnson at its peril. But Labour has now done that twice. The party cannot rely on the maxim that “oppositions don’t win elections; governments lose them”. Starmer needs to make his big offer to the country before it is too late.
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