BBefore the chaos of the past five days, there were already growing doubts among Labor MPs about Keir Starmer’s leadership, but until now, these concerns were largely muted by relief that someone other than Jeremy Corbyn was running the party. That has changed now.
For MPs, the belief that Labor can run for government imposes eager discipline: A leader who has the prospect of political power is like someone carrying a priceless vase that the slightest misstep could break. What calms the warring factions of the party, if only for a time, is the fear of knocking down the vase.
Starmer has now lost this protection. There is now a consensus among the parliamentary party that he will not be prime minister, which has fatally undermined his authority, as seen in this weekend’s mismanaged shakeup. What has brought you to this point? After a year as a leader, Starmer has displayed a lack of political vision, a superficial aversion to criticism and an over-reliance on a small circle of inexperienced advisers, all of which have been on display for the past few days.
Angela Rayner’s treatment is a good example. Given that Labor set out to regain the northern seats that fell to the Conservatives in 2019, and the preponderance of middle-class Southerners in the Starmer operation, the role of northern working-class women more Labor’s important role would seem to be obvious. But Rayner’s allies say the leader’s team had excluded her from decision-making early on, making it even more puzzling that she was chosen as the scapegoat for an election campaign she did not lead. Saturday night’s broken knee, which shocked many of Starmer’s soft-left supporters at the game, looked ugly and incompetent.
The conflict between Rayner and Starmer had been simmering for some time, reflecting the tension between Rayner loyalists, who fear Starmer lacks political vision and skills, and Starmer’s team, who fear him as a leadership rival. When Rayner advocated campaigning for a living wage for care workers, she was blocked by the shadow minister of social care, Liz Kendall, whose failed campaign for leadership in 2015 was organized by Morgan McSweeney, now the chief of staff of Starmer, and endorsed by many. Deputies who are now in his shadow cabinet.
When Rayner tweeted in early March that the Conservatives’ budget did not contain a pay increase for NHS workers, senior staff in Starmer’s office expressed concern that the vice president “did not understand politics and politics.” A few days later, the NHS’s failure to raise pay suddenly became a centerpiece of the local election campaign, suggesting a panicked political operation, aware that it was failing but not knowing how to fix it.
When Starmer’s team tried to fire Rayner from her position as party chair, accompanied by some malicious reports about her purchase of first-class train tickets and, unbelievably, her attire at the door, she rejected the proposed alternatives, stopping the reorganization for a day. which reiterated Starmer’s loss of authority. His team had reportedly planned to demote Brownite’s shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth as well as shadow foreign secretary Lisa Nandy, whom they distrust and accuse of leaking. Instead, surprised by the backlash of his move against Rayner, they were forced to offer Rayner a reinforced role by following Michael Gove. Similarly, plans to appoint Steve Reed, another figure on the party’s right wing, as party chairman, had to be dropped to cede that role to soft-left shadow former Chancellor Anneliese Dodds.
As past Labor leaders know very well, moments like this bring new grievances to the surface. More than one MP told me over the weekend that Starmer hadn’t even bothered to publicly congratulate Labor politicians who defied the unfortunate national trend across England – the worst declaration of local elections of any new opposition leader in four decades, such as Andy Burnham of Manchester, mayoral candidates from Bristol to Liverpool, and councilors for local authorities in Salford and Preston, where bold politics provides enthusiastic voters.
There may be those who hope this debacle will lead to a punished Starmer returning to the term in which he was elected: preserving the radical core policies of the Corbyn era, mixed with party unity, competition and eligibility. This is a desperate hope that will continue to collide with reality. It is certainly true that Rachel Reeves’ elevation to shadow chancellor is not as alarming as many on the left fear. While Dodds was politically reassuring, she was beset by excessive caution and was responsible for Labor’s dismal response to conservative plans to increase corporate taxes and alter tax thresholds. Reeves is associated with profiting from the Miliband era, something that she has since he regretted.
Privately, allies and critics alike emphasize that her time as chair of the business selection committee during the investigation into outsourcing giant Carillion has taken her on a political journey. Her analysis is that she acknowledges that big-spending Conservatives require a different political response than Austerians, that Labor must take a distinctive economic approach with flashy political ideas now, rather than on the eve of an election. That remains to be seen, but the left should be open-minded, and since Starmer has little interest in economic issues, he can set her free.
But the role of Peter Mandelson should make it very clear where this is all headed. Starmer’s team has repeatedly denied that Mandelson played a key role. However, Mandelson was closing lines on Labor’s doomed Hartlepool campaign, according to those involved, and last week when shadow ministers complained about “shit” lines to take to the media, the office of the Leader informed them that the former New Labor spinner had signed them. Mandelson makes no secret that he believes Starmer should abandon his leadership election policy commitments wholesale and bleed left. “Starmer is a willing hostage,” as one high-level union figure puts it, “probably because he’s politically empty, but he’s been a winner all his life and he can’t understand why he isn’t now. He has no feeling for the party and he is not very good at politics. Mandelson is a chancer who sees the opportunity to inhabit a body. “
The backlash over Rayner has sent Starmer’s team on a humiliating retreat for now. But as Maya Angelou said: “When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.” Starmer’s Labor political direction is very clear: as a key fixer on the left told me, the course has been set for a Blairite political offer, accompanied by an institutional crackdown on remnants of Corbynism and the “soft left,” that the right accuses of pleasing members of the left. Telling voters that the Labor Party is offline and deserves to lose plays well with the press, but it doesn’t seem like a strategy to win votes.
The demotion of the whip boss, Nick Brown, heralds Corbyn’s upcoming ouster from the Labor Party. Rayner has been identified as a permanent threat, and they will seek to clip his wings when it is politically feasible to do so. The left needs to ask probing questions if it is to avoid political oblivion for both itself and the Labor Party. A leadership contest may take place in the next few weeks; indeed, if Labor loses the upcoming Batley and Spen elections, some believe it is inevitable.
Some on the party’s left have even proposed John McDonnell as a challenger, arguing that his impressive political work as shadow chancellor would attract members disillusioned with Starmer’s electoral and ideological failure. (A shadow minister who voted for David Miliband in 2010 even asked me why Starmer hadn’t put him in the shadow cabinet.) The problem here is that McDonnell is adamantly opposed to standing up. The alternative is for the left to find an accommodation with Rayner: but again, even if that were possible, she shows no signs of wanting to challenge the leader. And so Starmer and his team will continue on their chosen course – more flags and focus groups, fewer transformative policies – with dire results for the Labor Party and the UK.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism