Can Keir Starmer save Labour from mortal decline?


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eaving 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. 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.

“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”.



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