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Can Keir Starmer save Labour from mortal decline?

·9 min read

Leaving his house in north London yesterday, Sir Keir Starmer’s usual composure seemed to have deserted him. He looked like a man under fire. The Conservatives winning Hartlepool, which Labour has held since 1974, means the knives are out. For once, factions on the Left and the Right of the party are in agreement as WhatsApp groups buzz with damning messages questioning Starmer’s leadership and asking if the party needs to radically reassess what it stands for if it is to survive. On a visit to a construction skills centre in King’s Cross yesterday, Starmer and his deputy Angela Rayner put a brave face on the crisis, amid jokes about how learning to fix buildings was a starting point for mending their party.

“If Keir is not careful, Labour is on the path to mortal decline,” says a party insider. “People can be nostalgic about their attachment to the party but you can’t take votes for granted, especially when the Tories are spending so much in a traditionally Labour way. Left/Right politics is evolving and I can’t see how the party is staying relevant, especially with the success of the vaccine roll-out and if there is an economic bounce as we come out of lockdown. Starmer’s selling point was party unity but he hasn’t delivered on that.”

There isn’t a moment for Starmer to catch his breath — there’s a by-election in Batley and Spen approaching, probably in the next two months. The West Yorkshire constituency is less likely to go blue than Hartlepool (it did vote Leave, but by a smaller margin than Hartlepool) and its former MP Jo Cox’s sister is considering running (they should still be braced for an influx of London journalists, treating it like it is a foreign country). But it will be another test for Starmer at a time when he is, says an insider, “very worried — everything is structured around him wanting to win and this is not the performance of an opposition party heading for government”. Starmer is at minus 48 in the opinion polls. Just 17 per cent of voters think he is doing well and the majority say that they trust Boris Johnson more than him, despite the storm over how the PM financed the purging of John Lewis from his Downing Street flat. But before Starmer can think about winning the support of the country, he needs to gain control of his own party.

“Starmer was the answer to the question, ‘how do we get rid of the last guy’ but not the answer to ‘how do we get Labour in government after 16 years of the Tories?’,” says one former adviser to a Labour minister. “He sold himself as the grown-up who could unite the party but he has not changed the party culture.” His immediate response to electoral defeat has been criticised as focussing on the wrong people.

“It feels as if Keir Starmer is blaming senior women for his shortcomings,” says commentator and author Owen Jones. “He’s thrown Anneliese Dodds under a bus and tried to do the same with Angela Rayner, when they were not the ones directly responsible for the election results.”

Starmer’s choice to seek unofficial advice from New Labour’s Prince of Darkness Peter Mandelson, who made an unsuccessful plea for patience on Labour’s WhatsApp group on Saturday, “speaks of desperation”, says Jones. “It is an attempt to get some magic dust from when Labour were in power — but that was another time. It would be like Tony Blair hiring Harold Wilson’s spin doctor”.

It feels as if Keir Starmer is blaming senior women for his shortcomings, throwing them under a bus

Many in the party are unconvinced by Starmer’s inner circle. “His team all watched The West Wing but they don’t know what they want for the country,” is one view. “There was a vacuum of vision and the Right piled in.”

Meanwhile, Boris Johnson is watching with glee. He capitalised on tensions between Starmer and his deputy, Rayner, after the Labour leader botched his attempt to demote her from chair of the party and instead gave her three new jobs. As well as being deputy leader, an elected title which gives her power as she can’t be sacked from it, she is shadow first secretary of state, shadow chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and shadow secretary for future of work. The Prime Minister tried to score political points from the tension between Rayner and Starmer in Parliament on Tuesdsay, listing her four new jobs and calling her a lioness, “the most dangerous beast, the prize hunter of the pack… the more titles she is given the hungrier she is likelier to become”.

There is speculation as to whether the resignation of his parliamentary private secretary was linked to tensions with Rayner. Carolyn Harris, who has worked with Starmer since he was elected leader, said she was stepping aside this week because of her ever-increasing workload as both PPS and deputy leader of Welsh Labour, but Labour sources say she has been accused of stoking animosity and gossiping about Rayner.

Rayner says her relationship with Starmer is “constructive” but he will be mindful of how popular she is.

Some wonder why Jenny Chapman, who lost her Red Wall seat in 2019, has such influence over Starmer?

As well as having cross party appeal, Rayner is from Stockport, one of the areas the party is worried about losing support in. When news that Rayner was no longer party chair came out, Andy Burnham tweeted: “I can’t support this.”

Only a few weeks ago, Labour’s deputy leader was talking about how her wings had been “clipped”. She said that she hadn’t been speaking up as much because it was right to focus on responding to the pandemic rather than individuals, although the party was giving Starmer the space to become better known to the public.

Rayner discussed how to make sure the reshuffle represented all wings of the party but was only partially successful. The new shadow chancellor, Rachel Reeves, for example, is further to the Right than Rayner. Reeves is also vice chair of Labour Friends of Israel, which has riled the Left.

Crucially, it wasn’t Rayner who oversaw the disastrous Hartlepool campaign and the tone-deaf choice of a Remainer candidate. Fingers are being pointed at Jenny Chapman for that. She is a former Labour MP who lost her Darlington seat in 2019 and Starmer’s reliance on her is unpopular. Some say she sees the world through an anti-Left prism, doing the opposite of what they want. They also wonder why an MP who lost her seat has such power over the leader. Meanwhile, Starmer’s chief of staff, Morgan McSweeney, has moved to Scotland and there is speculation that he may be eyeing a job working for the head of Scottish Labour.

The flipside of the Hartlepool result is that the southeast is now more Labour-supporting. People are asking if this is where the party needs to focus, rather than trying to win back seats in the north

Starmer is hoping to answer some of the question of what he stands for with the appointment of Deborah Mattinson. A former colleague of Gordon Brown, she has written a book aiming to answer the issue Starmer needs to solve — Beyond the Red Wall: Why Labour Lost, How the Conservatives Won and What Will Happen Next? Her approach has been described as too apologetic. One Labour supporter says: “Why should people vote for us if we go around saying we suck and don’t inspire confidence that we can do better?”

The more charitable members of the party say that Starmer has a tough gig: “You can’t compete with a national vaccination programme. Boris Johnson is not seen a normal Tory — Keir is running against a Teflon politician, which is an extraordinary position to be in.”

Even Starmer expected the Tories to rise in the polls after the vaccine roll-out. Some say his team needs to be harsher with him, “to be more like Alastair Campbell was with Tony Blair, asking him how many Tories he was going to eat for breakfast every day”.

The taboo topic that is being raised tentatively inside Labour is, to what extent is it realistic to win back the voters who used to vote Labour? The flipside of Hartlepool’s loss is that London and the South-East are now more solidly Labour — does this mean that the natural supporters of the party have changed? Are the areas to focus on now places like Watford and Bedford, Tory towns with an increasingly young population who can’t afford to live in London?

In Manchester, Labour Mayor Andy Burnham is trying to focus on issues rather than people, while shaking off claims that he has his eye on the leadership. “This is a moment to move on and critique the Queen’s Speech, not look inwards,” he says. “How do we win back Hartlepool? By being bolder on things that really matter to people. Make a clear call on the Health and Care Bill that’s coming forward for a real living wage for everyone who works in social care in the country as a minimum. Labour needs to get back on bread-and-butter issues, core priorities that have the backing of the British public. We need proper plans to level up rather than more sloganising that we see from government.”

One advantage for Starmer is that there isn’t an obvious successor. The consensus is that he faces an impossible job. As well as keeping the Left happy and trying to appeal to a broad swath of the electorate, there’s still a lot of hurt among Jewish party members. “People were stung by anti-Semitism and they will not come back to supporting Labour unwaveringly immediately,” says a former member.

For now, Starmer’s position is safe because there is no clear alternative. In the long term, Sadiq Khan, Jess Philips, Andy Burnham and David Lammy are all ones to watch. But in the meantime Starmer will be acutely aware of Diane Abbott’s words last year: “Divided parties don’t win elections.”

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