Before the chaos of the past five days, there were already growing doubts among Labour MPs about Keir Starmer’s leadership – but until now, these worries were largely muffled by relief that anyone other than Jeremy Corbyn was running the party. That has now changed.
For MPs, the belief that Labour may be headed for government imposes an anxious discipline: a leader holding the prospect of political power is like someone carrying a priceless vase that the smallest misstep could shatter. What quiets the party’s warring factions, if only for a time, is the fear of toppling 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 could be seen from this weekend’s mismanaged reshuffle. What has brought him to this point? After a year as leader, Starmer has shown a lack of political vision, a thin-skinned aversion to criticism, and an over-dependence on a small circle of inexperienced advisers, all of which have been on display over the past few days.
The treatment of Angela Rayner is a case in point. Given that Labour set itself the quest of winning back northern seats that fell to the Tories in 2019 – and the preponderance of middle-class southerners in Starmer’s operation – the role of Labour’s most senior northern working-class woman would seem to be obvious. But allies of Rayner say that the leader’s team had cut her out from decision-making from the start, making it all the more perplexing that she was chosen as the scapegoat for an election campaign she did not run. Saturday night’s botched kneecapping, which shocked many of Starmer’s soft-left supporters in the party, looked nasty as well as incompetent.
The conflict between Rayner and Starmer had been simmering for some time, reflecting the tension between Rayner loyalists, who fear Starmer lacks vision and political skills, and Starmer’s team, who fear her as a leadership rival. When Rayner advocated campaigning for a living wage for care workers, she was blocked by the shadow minister for social care, Liz Kendall – whose failed campaign for the leadership in 2015 was organised by Morgan McSweeney, now Starmer’s chief of staff, and backed by many MPs who are now in his shadow cabinet.
When Rayner tweeted at the beginning of March that the Conservatives’ budget did not contain a pay rise for NHS workers, senior staff in Starmer’s office raised concerns that the deputy leader “did not understand policy and politics”. A few days later, the failure to increase NHS pay was suddenly made a centrepiece of the local election campaign – suggesting a political operation in panic, aware it was faltering but not sure how to fix it.
When Starmer’s team sought to sack Rayner from her post as party chair – accompanied by some malicious briefings about her purchase of first class train tickets and, unbelievably, her attire on the doorstep – she rejected their proposed alternatives, halting the reshuffle for a day, which reiterated Starmer’s loss of authority. His team had reportedly planned to demote the Brownite shadow health secretary, Jonathan Ashworth, as well as the shadow foreign secretary, Lisa Nandy, whom they distrust and accuse of leaking. Instead, shocked by the backlash to their move against Rayner, they were forced to offer Rayner a beefed-up role shadowing Michael Gove. Similarly, plans to appoint Steve Reed, another figure from the party’s right, as party chair, had to be ditched to give that role to the soft-left ex-shadow chancellor Anneliese Dodds.
As previous Labour leaders know all too well, moments like this bring endless new complaints to the surface. More than one MP told me over the weekend that Starmer hadn’t even bothered to publicly congratulate those Labour politicians who defied the woeful national trend across England – the worst local election return of any new opposition leader in four decades – such as Manchester’s Andy Burnham, mayoral candidates from Bristol to Liverpool, and councillors in local authorities in Salford and Preston, where bold policy offers enthused voters.
There may be those hoping that this debacle will lead a chastened Starmer to return to the mandate he was elected on – to preserve core radical policies from the Corbyn era, blended with party unity, competence and electability. This is a forlorn hope which will continue to collide with reality. It is certainly true that the elevation of Rachel Reeves to shadow chancellor is not quite so alarming as many on the left fear. While Dodds was politically reassuring, she was bedevilled by excessive caution, and was responsible for Labour’s dismal response to Tory plans to hike corporation tax and alter tax thresholds. Reeves is associated with benefit-bashing in the Miliband era, something she has since regretted.
Privately, both allies and critics emphasise that her time as chair of the business select committee during the inquiry over outsourcing giant Carillion has taken her on a political journey. Their analysis is that she recognises that big-spending Tories require a different policy response to austerians, that Labour must take a distinctive economic approach with eye-catching policy ideas now, rather than on the eve of an election. That remains to be seen, but the left should have an open mind – and given Starmer has little interest in economic questions, may leave her with free rein.
But the role of Peter Mandelson should make it abundantly clear where this is all heading. Starmer’s team have repeatedly denied Mandelson has played any key role. Yet Mandelson was signing off lines in Labour’s doomed Hartlepool campaign, according to those involved, and last week when shadow ministers complained of “shit” lines to take to the media, they were informed by the leader’s office that the former New Labour spinner had personally signed them off. Mandelson makes no secret that he believes Starmer must abandon his leadership election policy commitments wholesale and purge the left. “Starmer is a willing hostage,” as one senior union figure puts it, “probably because he’s politically empty but has been a winner all his life and can’t understand why he isn’t now. He has zero feel for the party and is just not very good at politics. Mandelson is a chancer who sees an opportunity to inhabit a body.”
The backlash over Rayner has sent Starmer’s team into a humiliating retreat for now. But as Maya Angelou famously said: “When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.” The political direction of Starmer’s Labour is very clear: as one key fixer on the left told me, the course has been set for a Blairite policy offer, accompanied by an institutional clampdown on remnants of Corbynism as well as the “soft left”, whom the right accuse of indulging leftwing members. Telling voters that Labour is out of touch and deserves to lose plays well with the press, but it doesn’t look like a strategy for winning any votes.
The demotion of the chief whip, Nick Brown, foreshadows the coming expulsion of Corbyn from the Labour party. Rayner has been identified as a permanent threat, and they will seek to clip her wings when it is politically viable to do so. The left needs to ask itself searching questions if it wishes to avoid political oblivion both for itself and the Labour party. A leadership contest may beckon in the coming weeks – indeed, if Labour lose the upcoming Batley and Spen byelection, some believe it is inevitable.
Some on the party’s left have even proposed John McDonnell as a challenger – arguing that his impressive policy work as shadow chancellor would appeal to members disillusioned with Starmer’s electoral and ideological failure. (One shadow minister who voted for David Miliband in 2010 even asked me why Starmer had not put him in the shadow cabinet.) The hiccup here is that McDonnell is resolutely opposed to standing. The alternative is for the left to seek an accommodation with Rayner: but again, even if that were possible, she shows no sign of wanting to challenge for 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 Labour and the UK.
Owen Jones is a Guardian columnist