When Keir Starmer ran for the Labour leadership, he sent a leaflet to party members promising “integrity, authority, unity.” Now even some of his natural allies are starting to fear he is not delivering any of his three pledges.
Starmer tried to bring some order to Labour’s chaos since last Thursday’s bruising election results by reshuffling his shadow cabinet. It was an obvious lever to pull, as is his plan to review Labour’s policies. But, as even electorally successful leaders like Tony Blair will testify, reshuffles are a messy business. Rule one: get your ducks lined up before appointments leak out.
Starmer didn’t. His decision to sack Angela Rayner, Labour’s elected deputy leader, as party chair and campaigns coordinator, leaked on Saturday night, after she was told. Remarkably, some 27 hours later, Starmer and his closest aides were still holed up in his Commons office overlooking the River Thames, struggling to finalise his promised reshuffle.
Much of that marathon session was spent trying to agree a new role with Rayner, who enjoyed more clout after a Labour backlash over her removal. The Westminster rumour mill suggested some shadow cabinet members were resisting the leader’s attempts to move them.
It was hardly the “authority” Starmer hoped to project after his electoral setback. When it finally emerged just before 10pm on Sunday, the reshuffle looked unlikely to ensure party “unity” either. Anneliese Dodds, criticised for not landing enough blows on the government, was replaced as shadow chancellor by Rachel Reeves, who has impressed in her role shadowing Michael Gove, a job now handed to Rayner.
Left-wingers will view that as a shift to the right, and be suspicious about Wes Streeting’s promotion to a new child poverty brief. Dodds was demoted to Rayner’s old job as party chair but will head the policy rethink. Nick Brown, a veteran of the Blair-Brown era, lost his job as chief whip amid recriminations over the timing of the Hartlepool by-election.
Surprisingly, Lisa Nandy remains shadow foreign secretary. She has done well but is in the wrong job: in a domestic brief, the Wigan MP would have been an articulate champion for Labour’s drive to regain the red wall.
The reshuffle will deepen Starmer’s rift with the left. A breach was probably inevitable. Left-wingers have been waiting for their moment to strike and were always suspicious about suggestions he would offer “Corbynism without Corbyn.” Now the proposed policy review will confirm their fears that Starmer will junk many of Corbyn’s policies, using the cover of a new post-covid world.
For the growing ranks of Starmer’s internal critics – who extend beyond the left – his response since “Super Thursday” is just as worrying as the results. There is bemusement he sacked Rayner on Saturday, eclipsing that day’s better results for Labour than the previous day. Starmer had promised he would take personal responsibility for last Thursday’s results. Instead, he invoked a rule that many will recognise from the world of work: “Deputy heads will roll.”
The timing looked odd when the party obviously needs Rayner’s appeal as a northern MP with a working class background and great backstory. Starmer allies insist his goal was to promote her to a more visible role. The popular Rayner is seen as a bridge-builder between Starmer and the left. Those bridges are now pretty burnt.
Friends say Rayner played little part in Labour’s Hartlepool by-election disaster because key decisions were made by Starmer’s closed inner circle – a frequent complaint by his critics. However, Starmer allies claim Rayner had “no answers” when asked at a meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party to outline the party’s strategy ahead of last week’s elections.
Deborah Mattinson, Gordon Brown’s former pollster, is a good appointment as Labour’s director of strategy. It shows, rightly, that Starmer wants to redouble Labour’s efforts to rebuild its red wall rather than try to form a new election-winning coalition based on younger voters, graduates, social liberals and Remainers in cities and university towns.
Mattison’s excellent book Beyond the Red Wall spells out how Labour lost its traditional heartlands at the 2019 election. It is regarded as a blueprint by Starmer allies but he has not yet implemented it. Mattinson concluded that Starmer must do five things to win back its lost voters: “Set out clearly what he believes in” (a definite No so far); “prove that Labour can be trusted with the economy”(not yet); “get back in touch with ordinary working people” (another No); “address the north-south divide” (not yet, due to the policy vacuum) and that “Labour must set out its positive vision for Britain” (admittedly difficult in the pandemic, but a task which can be delayed no longer).
In her focus groups, Mattinson asked voters which animal Starmer reminded them of. He was an eagle (a legal one, presumably) floating above the world as he surveyed the scene below. It’s now time for Starmer to become a lion down on planet earth.
And even though his goal of party unity will be more difficult after the reshuffle, he now needs to display the “integrity and authority” he promised before more people in his party conclude he is not capable of doing so.
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