A year of Keir: Starmer’s choices as leader ahead of his first electoral test

© Ian Vogler

Keir Starmer was elected as Labour leader one year ago today, after party members reeling from a crushing defeat decided he would be their best bet as a candidate for 10 Downing Street. From 262 seats won in 2017, Labour had dropped to 202, losing almost a quarter of its strength in the House of Commons and its fourth successive general election. “We’re failing in our historic purpose,” Starmer said in his acceptance speech. “We’ve got a mountain to climb.”

He was picked for this mission during a pandemic, however, which has made outward-facing work difficult: speak to someone in his team, and they will make the point that Starmer has only so far been able to deliver a speech to a near-empty room. They have been holding ‘Call Keir’ events, where he talks to voters from across the country over Zoom, but this is no substitute for connecting with people face-to-face.

The dominance of coronavirus news has made it especially difficult for the opposition to cut through. Starmer’s aides accept the criticism that Labour’s messages have not been reaching voters, though the team has decided to accept this as a reality rather than “panic about what it means for us”, as one put it.

“People are not interested in policies now. Nobody wants to know what our manifesto is going to look like,” remarks Carolyn Harris, whose job is to be the leader’s eyes and ears among MPs as his parliamentary private secretary (PPS). “We’ve got a long time to come forward with our policies, and those policies will be borne out of a post-pandemic environment.”

Much of the Labour left disagrees. Momentum co-chair Andrew Scattergood says he had originally expected “an Ed Miliband-style policy platform” from Starmer, albeit “a bit more polished” and “articulated better”, but: “I never thought we’d go down the route that we did.” Many would argue that the bulk of Labour’s 2019 policy offer has not been abandoned, and some leadership allies believe it should be whittled down quicker. Yet the Labour left’s chief concerns have been over Starmer’s reluctance to oppose the government on new battlegrounds.

Labour applied a whip to abstain on the second reading of the overseas operations bill, on the ‘spycops’ bill throughout its parliamentary passage, and was planning to do so initially on the policing bill before the mishandling of the Sarah Everard vigil changed things. The leadership sees these moves as Tory traps to be avoided; rebel Labour MPs think it is shameful not to vote against such dangerous legislation.

There is broad agreement that Starmer has used Labour’s opposition days well, however. Motions on free school meals, Covid-19 support and the planned cut to Universal Credit have skilfully pressed on bruises and exposed Tory divisions. Starmer’s PPS also points to Prime Minister’s Questions as a parliamentary tool being put to good use. Harris enthuses: “Some PMQs I could literally cry at how professional Keir is, how he gets the tone right and how he gets Boris Johnson in a knot.”

PMQs are a “treat to behold these days”, she tells me. “It’s really given the Tories something to worry about, which they didn’t have before. PMQs was a bit of a joke to them over the last five years, but since Keir has taken over, they are really fearful of Keir’s ability.” Supporters described the former barrister’s PMQs turns as “forensic” so often that it is now used by some to poke fun at him on Labour Twitter.

Partly as a result of Covid’s limitations, Starmer’s focus has been on internal party changes. Those close to the leader claim Labour’s culture is much improved, with one insider noting that there are “no loyalty tests or purity tests” for staff in party headquarters, where many who started under the last leadership still work. Local parties are considered “a work in progress”, but those who make it their business to wrest control of executive committees from Corbynites are surprised by how quickly the landscape has turned around, accelerated by members leaving the party of their own accord.

“If you’d asked me a year ago, I’d have been a lot more downbeat about what Keir could achieve, given the scale of the wreckage that he inherited after five years of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership,” says Luke Akehurst, secretary of ‘old right’ group Labour First. “He has made significant progress in steering Labour back to being a party that is serious about its politics, its policies and its campaigning, with a new frontbench team, a new general secretary, a new [national executive committee] and [Constituency Labour Parties] being reshaped by an influx of new members and the re-engagement of more experienced campaigners.”

The new leader made quick work of many former bastions of Corbynism: within two months, general secretary Jennie Formby was replaced by David Evans, a friend of leader’s office chief of staff Morgan McSweeney; within three months, the most high-profile Corbynite frontbencher was sacked; within seven months, the leadership initiated a change in the voting system for electing Labour’s ruling body, Starmer won a reliable majority on the NEC and control of its key sub-committees soon afterwards. Backers of the leadership will say these moves were necessary to facilitate one of Starmer’s central aims: tackling Labour antisemitism.

“Antisemitism has been a stain on our party,” Starmer said in his victory speech. He promised to “tear out this poison by its roots”. The Jewish Labour Movement, Labour’s only Jewish affiliate organisation, had only a year before been mulling over the proposal of cutting 100-year-old ties with the party. Now, one Equality and Human Rights Commission report later, JLM is working closely with Labour to implement legally-mandated reforms, including an independent complaints process.

“From the very start, he apologised in his acceptance speech when he won the leadership. He set a very clear signal and political tone that he’d have zero tolerance for antisemitism and he’s carried that through,” JLM chair Mike Katz says of Starmer. “He has ensured that the party is responding thoughtfully to the EHRC report. His own response on the day of publication was spot on, in that it identified that denialism is as much an issue as the problem itself.”

Starmer proved himself in the eyes of many supporters when the party took swift and firm action against Jeremy Corbyn, who was suspended after responding to the EHRC with a statement that claimed “the scale of the problem was dramatically overstated”. And when Starmer withdrew the whip from his predecessor after he was readmitted to the party by an NEC panel, they cheered harder. Privately, however, some have concerns over how events unfolded.

“There was a bold initial reaction, followed by watering it down,” describes one Labour source. “The Jeremy stuff was a huge fuck-up,” another puts it. David Evans – intended to be a campaigning general secretary, rather than one mostly fighting internal battles – oversaw both Corbyn’s suspension and his reinstatement within three weeks. One Starmer backer points out that the suspensions of chairs and secretaries over motions debated at a local party level follows the same pattern, as those Corbynites are now being readmitted with warning letters. “It pisses off everyone.”

While recognising that there is plenty more to do, the leadership is pleased with its progress on tackling antisemitism. Concerns over anti-Black racism within the party have grown, however. Just weeks into Starmer’s tenure, an internal report exposing the inner workings of Labour headquarters – originally intended for submission to the EHRC – was leaked to journalists and distributed online. Containing extracts of private messages and emails between Corbynsceptic party staffers, it alleged a vicious hostility towards Black Labour MPs in particular.

When the Forde Inquiry, a probe into the report commissioned by Labour, announced that its conclusion would be delayed indefinitely, nine Black MPs including a shadow cabinet member urged the leadership to “reconsider”. Party sources stressed that Forde is independent and its timing cannot be determined by the leadership. But to address concerns, Starmer held a meeting with Black Labour MPs, where he was warned about “taking the Black vote for granted”.

The MPs put forward three specific demands: a senior race adviser in the leader’s office; a Labour advisory committee on anti-Black racism; and a major intervention from Starmer, a speech, on the subject. He agreed to all three, sources have told LabourList. “He said yes, yes and yes. I think he just wanted to get out of the room,” one MP remarked.

The report made another major challenge for Starmer yet more urgent: the party’s finances. The leak has led to legal action from ex-staffers and could result in a hefty fine from the Information Commissioner’s Office. 20% of Labour’s money is being put aside for court cases, according to one well-placed source. Talk of legal fees on a recent Labour donor call did not go down well. The pressure is on: Unite the Union has cut its funding, and smaller left unions don’t intend to give generously as they did under Corbyn.

Those close to the leadership are worried about fighting the May elections on a “shoestring budget” – yet confident that individual donations will soon start to go up. Momentum’s Andrew Scattergood is not convinced. “There’s a looming financial crisis within the Labour Party,” he says. “People’s morale and desire to campaign are waning by the day.” The Labour left sees a deflated activist base as the link between a lack of policies and a lack of money. While a mass membership helped feed the coffers of Corbyn’s Labour, boosting those numbers is no longer a key objective for the party.

“Does he understand that the left are not the enemy?” Scattergood replies when asked what he would say to Starmer in a hypothetical one-to-one. “Or does he want to be king of the ashes of the Labour Party?” Momentum plans to have “one foot firmly in the Labour Party, but one foot out”. It once directed campaigners to marginal seats via the ‘My Campaign Map’ tool; this is now being used for its evictions resistance campaign.

Keir Starmer faces the first electoral test of his leadership on May 6th. They happen to be the largest set of elections outside of a general, and will come after a year of the government “making celebrities out of ministers nobody had ever heard of” (in the words of one aide) and during a successful vaccine roll-out. Although early results and easy-to-read outcomes in places like Hartlepool will dominate coverage, it is the trends in May that will be most crucial: are they being reversed or entrenched? Can Labour’s broad coalition be rebuilt?

As restrictions lift, the Labour leader will be freely able to engage with voters. Some are already highly impressed by Starmer. “He’s a bit like Moses, isn’t he?” suggests Carolyn Harris. “He’s taking us out of one place, taking us to another, and we all have to go with him.” But other MPs – and voters, according to polling – want to know more about what the opposition leader truly stands for. I’m told he is working on the assumption that the next general election will be in 2023, not 2024. Starmer has introduced himself as distinct from his predecessor – now he must show what his Labour is for, rather than against.

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