It’s often said that a bad general blames his troops, and recent events in the Leader of the Opposition’s office would appear to confirm the wisdom of the adage. Ahead of the make-or-break, must-win by-election in Batley and Spen, Keir Starmer took the opportunity to reshuffle his kitchen cabinet, shipping out some of his most senior staff. He will be hoping, no doubt, that the move will help to shore up his faltering authority, amid speculation that he could face a leadership challenge should Labour lose the by-election on Thursday.
So, out goes Starmer’s erstwhile chief of staff, Morgan McSweeney—widely considered to have been instrumental in his boss’s successful leadership campaign—along with communications director Ben Nunn and his deputy, Paul Ovenden. Also on the way out is Jenny Chapman, dropped as Starmer’s political secretary and instead taking up a shadow cabinet brief on Brexit and trade. Chapman, who lost her own House of Commons seat in Darlington in 2019, had come in for heavy criticism after Labour’s heavy defeat in Hartlepool.
None of the departees are left-wingers of any stripe. Chapman is a former vice-chair of Progress, while McSweeney is viewed as something of a protégé of Peter Mandelson; it was reportedly McSweeney who brought back New Labour’s eminence grise as an informal advisor back in February. Nevertheless, the new appointments to Starmer’s inner circle suggest that the influence of the Labour right—and that of Mandelson in particular—has been strengthened further, and that the factional war against the left is set to escalate.
Starmer’s new appointments appear to be indicative of the direction of travel. Deborah Mattinson, a former advisor to Neil Kinnock, John Smith, and Tony Blair, as well as having been Gordon Brown’s top polling guru, is set to take up her role as Starmer’s director of strategy next month. Mattinson was disdainful about Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership and frequently popped up to attack it, sniping that on his watch Labour had gone from ‘the party of cloth caps, bingo and pie and a pint’ to ‘the party of hippy students whose idea of fun is going on a demo and who drink expensive designer beer and eat quinoa’.
Also joining Starmer’s team is Matthew Doyle, interim director of communications. Stephanie Driver was strongly linked with the job earlier in the week, and it was soon pointed out on social media that she’d been named in the Labour Leaks document. This revealed that she was aware of the clandestine ‘Ergon House’ project during the 2017 general election, which involved the Labour Party bureaucracy secretly channelling funds to favoured (i.e. right-wing) parliamentary candidates, without the knowledge of Corbyn’s office.
For now, it seems that Doyle is the person in possession of the interim position – although Driver’s social media accounts still list her as communications director. A quick glance at Doyle’s own track record reveals him to be a Blairite to his bone marrow. Indeed, his CV could scarcely be any more Blairite: he was Labour’s head of press and broadcasting from 1998 to 2005, subsequently serving as a special adviser to both David Blunkett and Tony Blair himself. He then worked as Blair’s political director and spokesperson from 2007 to 2012, and most recently had a two-year stint as European director of communications for International Rescue, which is headed by David Miliband.
No doubt Starmer’s palace purge is intended to signal toughness and ruthlessness, but instead it merely underlines the general impression which the electorate already appears to have of him: uninspiring and flailing, desperately thrashing about in the hope of stumbling upon something that’ll lift his fortunes. Floundering around from reshuffle to relaunch to rebrand, Starmer’s Labour looks clapped out after only a year or so of his stewardship, once more devoid of substantial ideas, political principle, or simple backbone.
Opinion polling indicates that Labour might be on course to lose Batley and Spen to the Tories. As Ben Walker has noted in the New Statesman, this would mark the first time since 1929 that a governing party has made two by-election gains within the space of a single parliamentary term – this time in the space of less than two months. The 3,525 majority Labour is defending in Batley and Spen is almost identical to that which they had in Hartlepool prior to the by-election there in May. In the end, the Tories won that seat by nearly 7,000 votes.
When Starmer won the Labour leadership last year, few doubted that he’d be in post until at least 2024. The scale of the party’s defeat in 2019, the margin of Starmer’s victory, and the generally unenviable nature of the job—as well as the Parliamentary Labour Party’s relief at being rid of Corbyn—meant, it appeared, that he would face no serious challenge to his authority. But unimpressive polling, a poor performance in the recent local elections, and the general appearance of rudderlessness have all called this into question.
This is inconvenient for the Labour right, which hasn’t yet had the chance to rewrite the party’s rule book so as to prevent another left-wing candidate from winning the leadership again in future. There are various ways in which they might do this, as James Schneider has discussed. They may, for instance, raise the parliamentary nominations threshold to stop socialists from getting on to future leadership ballots. There would be an opportunity to do that at this year’s party conference – particularly if Gerard Coyne won the Unite election. Alternatively, they may try to bring back the old electoral college system, giving the PLP a disproportionate share of the vote.
It’s not that the right has any real enthusiasm for Starmer, or that it believes in his ability to turn the situation around. It supports him, as Lenin might have said, as the rope supports the hanged man. For the right, Starmer is to be kept in his job until it’s safe for them to drop him, and at present, it isn’t just yet. First the rules have to be rigged so that the socialist left is successfully shut out of contention. Only then can they be sure that Starmer’s replacement wouldn’t stand on a left-leaning platform similar to the one Starmer himself put forward last year. Until such an assurance, it appears that the Labour right feels it has to prop Starmer up and ride him into battle with the left like the corpse of El Cid.
Events might intervene to derail this plan. Labour’s woes are such that Starmer’s position risks becoming untenable, and a disgruntled Angela Rayner could be among those tempted to challenge him. Defeat in Batley and Spen isn’t assured, but if it came to pass it would suggest that more Labour MPs are on course to lose their seats. It remains to be seen whether their fear of this outcome would outweigh that of another left-wing insurgency. But as Starmer retreats into the bunker with the factional monomaniacs of the Labour right, they may feel obliged to act, if only to save themselves.