A Year Of Keir: Will Starmer Pass His First Real Voter Test?

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Keir Starmer visits the Leeds United Foundation at Elland Road

When Keir Starmer launched his campaign to be leader of the Labour Party at the start of 2020, his slogan was “Reform and Unite”. Along with a 10-point mini-manifesto of pledges that included Jeremy Corbyn’s tax hikes, his pitch proved so successful that he won the contest by a landslide.

But both allies and critics felt at the time there was an inherent tension in that leadership slogan. Reform would inevitably mean junking key parts of the Corbyn era, and that could lead to less unity, not more. Many felt the order of the two words was crucial too: moving the party on had to be the first priority and only then could everyone come together.

Others felt that his soundbite “Don’t trash the last Labour government and don’t trash the last four years” was always both contradictory and naive. For all the emphasis on joint working, it seemed implicit there would be friction on the way. Or, as he put it in that leadership launch: “Reconciliation does not mean shying away from the real political differences that exist.”

Almost exactly 12 months since his April 4 victory, he still commands the support of the overwhelming majority of his MPs and activists. Yet jitters are growing among some, including those who support him, over the current Tory vaccine “bounce” in the polls. Amid briefings against his shadow chancellor Anneliese Dodds and a rising discontent on the Left, many insiders are wondering just what their leader really means by party unity.

For the first half of Starmer’s first year, the plan seemed to work smoothly. Internal party reform was a key task he set himself, reshaping Labour so that it reflected his huge mandate from that leadership election. Within weeks he had a brand new general secretary of his choice, and through the year he built a solid, unshakeable majority on the ruling National Executive Committee (NEC).

While big name Corbynites were fired from the shadow cabinet, several were kept on in mid-ranking or junior frontbench posts. But having vowed to “tear out the poison” of anti-Semitism from his party, Starmer sacked Rebecca Long-Bailey from her education job after she failed to fully comply with his demands over a tweet that endorsed an anti-Jewish trope.

Yet for some the incident over Long-Bailey, whom he had soundly beaten by a margin of two to one last year, laid bare not the smack of firm leadership but the panicky overreactions of his top team. She was advised by the leader’s office to issue a clarification alongside her original retweet, and did so, only to be then told that solution was unacceptable to Starmer himself. Ultimately, however, she was fired for refusing to comply with his wishes.

In fact, discontent among MPs and insiders often doesn’t involve direct criticism of the leader himself, but of his office. Current chief of staff Morgan McSweeney and political director Jenny Chapman have big admirers among Starmer supporters, but they have attracted increasing concerns over recent months.

One shadow minister says of the leader’s office: “I think we’ve got good people, they broadly know what their jobs are. It’s not perfect, it needs to settle down, but I can tell you from personal experience it’s miles better than anything under Ed M and Jeremy. One was chaotic, the other was toxic.” One shadow adviser adds: “Having genuinely been ashamed to work for the party in the last parliament, it’s hard to overstate this is a world away from that. It’s professional, collegiate and functional.”

Chief of staff McSweeney, who ran Liz Kendall’s leadership campaign in 2015 and who is seen as the main driver for the appointment of his former boss David Evans as the new general secretary, has few enemies. One criticism is that he is seen as “distant”, a problem not helped by the fact that he is often literally distant in Scotland, where he has bought a new home in recent months.

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Teesside engineering workers during the 2019 election

Others say a more serious problem is his constant emphasis on addressing the “values” of former Labour voters in Red Wall seats, and his use of focus groups to guide the party. “Miliband became a total prisoner of his focus groups, but Keir uses them more than any other leader I’ve known,” one insider says.

“Yes, Tony used them, so did Gordon, although it was like a guilty secret getting Deborah Mattinson in, Ed Balls used them. But now there’s this sense that focus group results will dictate everything else. They will literally have someone stand in front of the shadow cabinet and say out loud ‘well, the latest focus groups are saying this’.

“The problem with that is who are you focusing on? You’re taking a very, very narrow group of constituencies in the grand scheme of things, probably 40, 50 constituencies and within that group, you’re taking 40% of people, the former Labour voters in Red Wall seats, and guiding everything around it. But any really successful party leader speaks for the whole of the nation.”

Another staffer says Starmer’s targeting of those who “lent” votes to the Tories in 2019 overstates their numbers, pointing out that many former Labour voters in Red Wall seats in fact switched to the Brexit party or stayed at home. But a senior ally of Starmer is unabashed about the focus group work: “Are we ashamed that we’ve been listening to the public? No.”

One aide says that McSweeney’s talents are more cerebral than managerial. “He would be better used in a sort of strategy role than a chief of staff role. That for me is getting your sleeves rolled up and you’re there, day in, day out.”

And a growing gripe among some is that the top team are just too “nice”. “They’re a cohesive group, but there’s no clear leader. It’s operating like a kind of quasi-Innocent Smoothies, a modern office where everyone gets along with each other and we come and have table tennis tea breaks and that kind of thing and we all get on and we’ve hit our targets for this year.

“But if you look at a lot of effective opposition operations of the past, with the likes of Alastair Campbell for us and Coulson in the Cameron days, you need a hard-edged opposition mentality. Where’s the [Michael] Dugher? The person who all he thinks about is ‘which Tory are we gonna eat today?’ They’re short of vociferous anti-Tory attack machine people, that permeates every level that it can make this sort of whole thing feel a bit, well, too nice.

“The whole business about being a constructive opposition is dangerous because it becomes a bit self reinforcing, and you sort of find things to agree with rather than sort of thinking, ‘right, how do we get our teeth into this’. We want to replace these people after all, we want us to be the government, not them. It’s far too easy to do the consensual thing. And apart from Angie Rayner, who in the shadow cabinet is taking the fight to them?”

Another staffer adds: “I think we’ve just got a real shortage of bastards in there. People who are just ruthless but also quite honest and candid with shadow cabinet members or with staff, with the press teams, a relentlessness that you need to show you hate being in opposition every single day. People don’t mind someone being a bastard if they think there’s a strategy behind it and a very clear rationale and consistency with it.”

Yet another criticism is that there is no clear command structure, no one figure “in charge” in the leader’s office. “There’s always this feeling that Morgan can agree something but then others can go straight to Keir and then it could be unraveled. It’s like a very informal sofa government style of decision making, based on whoever’s in the room, with everyone’s treading on each other’s toes. Morgan’s not like a chief exec, he’s like the most senior advisor.”

Chapman, who worked closely with Starmer in his shadow Brexit team before losing her Darlington seat in 2019, is seen as a forceful figure in her role as political director. Yet while she is highly valued and trusted by the leader, her uncompromising stances on some issues have led to friction.

Stefan Rousseau – PA

Keir Starmer and Jenny Chapman during the 2017 election

With Starmer himself ungrounded in the party’s internal machine politics, some critics say Chapman is filling the vacuum but claim that she herself lacks experience of the nuances of NEC meetings and power structures. Her friends say that as an MP of 10 years’ standing she is much more politically experienced in that role than anyone in Corbyn or Miliband’s teams.

One NEC member says: “She’s a really decent person. But I think there’s an assumption that all Labour MPs know a lot about how the Labour Party works, but they don’t. Yes, they know a lot about their constituency, they probably knew a lot about how to get selected in their constituency, they might know a lot about parliament. That’s not the same as understanding how power works in the Labour Party.

“They’ve never had to get their head around the detail, particularly the relationship with the unions, the institutional power and the different cultures of the different unions, and how you persuade them to do things, or how the NEC really works.”

A party insider says that Chapman’s handling of internal matters, from the shortlist of one for the Hartlepool by-election to the recent suggestion of former home secretary Jacqui Smith to head a review team to oversee Labour in Liverpool, has caused needless problems. “Jenny often tries to bounce people into things, through the year she just burned a lot of Keir’s goodwill with a lot of people, particularly on the Left. Not the irreconcilable Left but the Left that wants him to do well.

“Karie Murphy (executive director of the leader’s office under Corbyn) would run around claiming every mad thing she was doing was endorsed by Jeremy, even if it wasn’t. But it took her three or four years to do that, Jenny’s done it in just 12 months.”

The Liverpool review, which ended up with former minister David Hanson being chosen rather than Smith, was a rare example where the NEC refused to follow the leader’s office, largely because chair Margaret Beckett reacted badly to being effectively ordered what to do. “You just don’t cross Margaret or treat her with a lack of respect,” one NEC member said.

Others strongly defend Chapman. “Hartlepool is a good example of, where we just made a fucking decision and got on with it. And we’ve put ourselves in a much much better position because of that.”

And on Liverpool, one senior figure said there were lots of balancing considerations. “A lot of people were trying to say to us you have to have somebody ‘on the Left’ or ‘someone to be acceptable to Liverpool’. And we were like ‘well, you can just do one, because that is exactly what got us to where we are’. We want somebody to go in there and break people’s legs and deal with it. We want a report that means that we can make the decisions that need to be taken to really clean things up.”

Andrew Milligan – PA

Unite’s assistant general secretary Howard Beckett

In NEC meetings themselves, Starmer has also faced implacable opposition from the hard Left members, notably from Unite assistant general secretary Howard Beckett, who has fought against everything from changes to the voting structure to Corbyn’s treatment by the party. Starmer has so far resisted the temptation to gently point out that he won a majority of Unite members in the leadership election, and so can possibly better speak for them than Beckett.

”Keir is very professional and doesn’t rise to the bait, even though they come at him the whole time,” one NEC member says. “He says he wants the NEC to be a showcase not a showdown. I mean, there’s a long way off getting that, but he’s just incredibly polite. They will run some attack line and he will just calmly explain the facts.” There is however frustration that Starmer has made little effort to build personal links with those on the NEC who have battled hard for him.

What’s often missed in assessments of Starmer’s first year is just how crucial were the by-elections to the NEC that took place at the same time as the leadership election. At a stroke, he had freedom to maneouvre thanks to a working majority. That was embedded further by a switch to single transferable votes for the constituency section, ensuring neither left nor right could win a “clean sweep” of all nine seats.

“What has been incredibly important in terms of Keir’s grip on the Labour Party, and his ability to move the party to face the voters rather than to face in on itself, is getting the STV for electing some members of National Executive Committee. That was a stroke of genius, that meant that no one faction will ever be able to dominate the party ever again. And when it comes to selecting the next PLP and dealing with issues like Liverpool, it is his party.”

Yet even on this, some say the leader’s office nearly overreached itself. At one point, some believed that a “moderate” clean sweep of the constituency section was the best outcome and that the STV option would needlessly keep the Corbyn Left alive. One insider says: “The very day beforehand, some in the leader’s office decided they were going to give up on it. And then basically Howard Beckett gave them no choice by threatening a legal action against it. Yet another of his shrewd revolutionary tactics that ended in defeat.”

Another key party decision of the past year has been on Scotland too. When Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard stepped aside in January, triggering a super-fast replacement election, Starmer praised him for doing “the honourable thing, the right thing”. Yet while Starmer said “the decision to step down was his decision”, it was clear they had had a conversation beforehand.

With Anas Sarwar rejuvenating the party north of the border, there’s a feeling that the rot may finally be stopped in an area that has hamstrung Labour leaders since Ed Miliband. One senior ally says that the significance of the move has yet to be appreciated, or what it says about Starmer’s growing confidence to be more “political”. “I think the most important thing is the change of leader in Scotland that Keir brought about,” they say. “Because of the way that was handled, it’s not well understood that Keir was active in bringing that about.

“And it’s incredibly significant for the future of the entire country. Keeping the UK together may come down to that one decision, to not just let nature take its course under Richard Leonard but to intervene, and prevent hopefully an SNP majority or majority for an indyref. I think when we all look back, if Keir never achieves anything else in his entire life, that will be the one thing he can be proud of.”

Joe Biden’s victory in the US has also offered a glimpse of how to defeat a populist opponent. While the differences between the two countries don’t make for an easy read-across, when Starmer spoke on the phone to Barack Obama last summer his main lesson was “you need to know your coalition” of voters.

Some former Corbyn staffers believe that’s sound advice as Labour tries to keep all the middle class metropolitan liberal supporters while reconnecting with working classes it lost to either the Tories, the Brexit party or abstention. Recent drops in the polls stem from a bleeding of support to Lib Dems and Greens that Starmer attracted when he first took over, some claim.

“There’s a sense that if you’ve not got your own base securely tied down, then when you’re hit by changing and more unfavourable circumstances, you’ve potentially got quite a lot of problems on your hands. That dovetails into the fact that insufficient energy has gone into the kind of unity message that we had in the leadership election,” one says.

Dan Kitwood via Getty Images

Jeremy Corbyn and Keir Starmer

“The leadership does have to take the initiative in terms of uniting the party. It’s about reaching out to people on the Left who supported Keir in that leadership election, yes. But also to those who didn’t and who are never going to go away. You’ve got to give people a sense that they’ve got enough of a stake in this, that it is their party too. Right now, they are not close to thinking about that.” Another staffer adds: “They need to realise ‘Under New Leadership’, that’s a slogan not a strategy.”

But Luke Akehurst, member of the NEC and secretary of the centrist Labour First group, says there has been a grassroots shift that Starmer has to reflect. “This Labour Party is not the same Labour Party that it was in December 2019 because approximately 100,000 new members have joined or returned, enthused by Keir and approximately 100,000 of the people most dogmatically supportive of Corbyn have left.

“The net result is a Labour Party with a membership it can be prouder of, who are more representative of the voters we need to win, and will be better ambassadors to those voters.” If that sounds provocative, it’s meant to be. Across the country, Akehurst’s grassroots organisers are slowly taking back control of local constituency Labour parties (CLPs), with a view to dominating the delegates who will be sent to the annual conference for crunch votes.

The conference, the first in two years, could see further disunity play out. Some activists are so unhappy with the way general secretary David Evans has cracked down on support for Corbyn that they are quietly plotting to protest at his formal appointment by conference on its first day. The vote will be defeated but even the act of calling for one would underline Left discontent.

Still, some close to the leader are more than happy to ignore leftwing Twitter, and its demand for Starmer to prove he’s sticking to that radical, 10-pledge manifesto that got him elected. That manifesto included tax hikes on the richest, corporation tax rises that have since been paused as policy, and renationalisations.

“They’re saying ‘oh, but what about the pledges you made to us in your leadership campaign’,” a key insider says. “And I would say, yeah but what about the people that we promised we would try and form a Labour government, the people who really need it, not you? My one wish is that every MP just gives their Twitter account to Ben [Nunn, Starmer’s communications chief]. Honest to God, the energy we waste on all of that is untrue.

“The first job that he has to do and it’s not done yet, is to rebuild trust. We’re a million miles from that. And so the idea that he can sort of parade around through these 10 pledges and say ‘listen, Britain, this is how it’s going to be’, and get a fair hearing, you know, forget it. You’ve got to take it slowly when you’ve been massively dumped by the country.”

Starmer allies do accept that there is a legitimate frustration in the party over a lack of policy to sell, but point to his plans to go out and meet the public regularly in coming months once lockdown is relaxed. “The next manifesto has got to be grown from the conversations that we have this summer,” one aide says. “The last manifesto just fell out of the sky as far as most people are concerned. ‘Why are you offering us free broadband? We never asked for that’. This will be different.”

“It’s got to be like, we’ve done the work, we’ve talked to you, we’ve listened to you. This is what you’ve told us, this is what we believe, this is what we’re going to do about it and this is the manifesto that’s got your fingerprints on it. We’ve got to give the Labour Party back to the people of Britain, and stop wittering on among ourselves. Or Twittering on.”

Yet the frustrations are growing among some. And for the first time, some MPs who have been supportive of Starmer now believe he just can’t win the next election. “This is a numbers game now, what you need to do is get back within striking distance so we can win the election after the next one,” says one former minister. “It’s depressing, but I don’t think he can do it, the best is he can narrow the gap, that he’ll be our Kinnock,” says another senior backbencher.

One loyal shadow cabinet minister admits that perception will be the biggest problem this summer. “The big issue is do the people at the top of the Labour Party, and in the PLP, begin to think the key thing for them is not the current leader but who might be the next leader. Because the moment that starts to be perceived wisdom, then Keir will find it very difficult to command the PLP.

“Jeremy could tell the PLP to go away because he had the complete support of the membership. Keir doesn’t have that, and his membership will be much more influenced by the PLP and the shadow cabinet. He’s got to inspire the parliamentarians.”

WPA Pool via Getty Images

Keir Starmer in Seaton Carew, Hartlepool

That’s why the looming May 6 elections matter so much to many in the party. A massive test of real public opinion, there are elections in shires, in cities, for mayoralties and in Scotland and Wales. There’s the added grit in the oyster of the first parliamentary by-election since the election, in Hartlepool.

One senior MP, not from the Left, says: “The local elections are going to provide the external pressure which might make Keir up his game, make him acknowledge that he’s got some fundamentals that he now needs to spend his personal time on. There’ll be more criticism come May, because maybe they’ll get a short sharp shock.”

MPs to the left and right of Starmer are already making ominous noises about life after the May elections. One former cabinet minister says that a disciplinary crackdown will be needed to tackle MPs like Nadia Whittome, who refused on TV to condemn protestors’ attacks on police in Bristol. “There will be a moment to deal with the Nadia Whittomes. That’s not now, not in an election period.”

“Soft left” MPs are seen as burnishing future leadership credentials, and the risk is the party looks over Starmer’s shoulder and eyes up his replacement after 2024. There’s no shortage of post-election leadership names being discussed by MPs, from Angela Rayner to Lisa Nandy, from Andy Burnham to Sadiq Khan, from Yvette Cooper (again) to Rachel Reeves. Allies think such chatter is ridiculously overblown and he can only get stronger in the year ahead.

One former Corbyn aide says: “I’ve got to say I really like Keir and I think that he could be an absolutely brilliant leader. He’s got to have confidence in himself, and he’s got to have confidence in his instincts, and what he thinks is right. And he’s got to set out a clear direction, and call the shots, not have other people call them for him. I don’t think it’s too late for him to turn that around.”

Another adds: “Being leader of the Opposition is truly the worst job in the world. It’s like being the England manager, where everyone with a passing interest in football thinks ‘I could do a better job’, when actually the reason we might not be winning the World Cup is that the other teams are just playing better. So I have a lot of sympathy for him. But we definitely need to rediscover a bit of the ‘why’ and the ‘who’ of Keir, rather than just what he’s not: Jeremy Corbyn.”

However, one backbencher sums up perhaps a more unnerving worry about the May elections: “Actually, I think one of the worst things that could happen to us is if the results aren’t so bad, as everyone’s talked them down so much. There might be enough positivity that these really quite deep-seated problems just become something not to worry about in the short term. You know, like Ed M’s locals, you did just well enough to survive, to fight another day, but you’re inexorably going towards bigger defeat next time.”

And a shadow cabinet ally echoes the “Kinnock” concern. “I fear the biggest danger for Keir is a sense that he’s not going to make it. If people start thinking that, then he’s in very big trouble. There’s already quite a few people ‘on maneouvres’.

“That’s why these elections are incredibly important. Because if they’re a total disaster then the thought will come aboad that he is not going to make it. If he does incredibly well, then you will find most of the problems go away. The overwhelming likelihood is it’s going to be something in between.”

Year of Keir, Part 1: Can Starmer Inject More Passionate Politics Into His Leadership?

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