Kim Leadbeater’s surprise win in Batley and Spen has delighted Labour MPs and bought Keir Starmer precious political breathing space. But his new team know they may only have a few months to convince anxious backbenchers that he has what it takes to lead the party to a general election victory.
Speculation was rife at Westminster this week about a potential leadership bid. Angela Rayner’s aides dismissed as “cobblers” the idea that the deputy leader was preparing an imminent challenge. But the sense that Labour was going backwards electorally had left many MPs yearning for a change at the top and casting around for someone bold – or reckless – enough to act.
Without the fuel of another humiliating byelection defeat, all the fevered gossip about “stalking horse” challengers and “kamikaze” MPs will come to an end – for now at least.
But for Starmer’s team, fresh from their (narrow) triumph in Batley, there is a hard task ahead. As Andrew Scattergood, the co-chair of the leftwing Labour campaign group Momentum, put it: “We’ve held on to Batley and Spen: good. Now we need to start talking about transformative policies that will change people’s lives and not just relying on soundbites and patience in order to try and win people over.”
Starmer’s allies readily accept he has struggled to cut through the blizzard of Covid news over the past 12 months with a clear message about how Labour would improve voters’ lives. The departure of a string of key aides from his inner circle, including the longtime communications chief Ben Nunn and the political director Jenny Chapman, marked a recognition that a new approach was needed.
Starmer’s team are now drawing up a summer schedule of meetings and visits in constituencies across the UK. “Keir in natural mode,” as one aide described it.
They are emphatic it will not just be a listening exercise, after his former aide Simon Fletcher asked in a highly critical piece in the New Statesman this week: “What if the issue is in fact that what people want to hear is that Labour stands for something with conviction?”
A party source said: “It’s very much not a listening tour. It’s Keir taking his ideas and his beliefs and his values out to people.”
There were several special factors at work in Batley and Spen, not least the presence of George Galloway. But the result, in which the Conservatives’ vote share fell back from its 2019 level, has given Labour a chink of hope that Boris Johnson’s party is not electorally impregnable.
Labour has long awaited the return of something more like politics-as-usual after the pandemic-dominated national debate of the past few months. After the Batley result, Starmer’s supporters on the backbenches are urging restive colleagues to give him more time to make his case to the public.
The Exeter MP, Ben Bradshaw, said: “In May’s elections, the only national test of public opinion since the 2019 election, Keir cut the Tories’ lead to 7%, less than half the deficit he inherited from the previous leadership, and despite the vaccine and end of lockdown bounce enjoyed by the government.
“As we come out of Covid and the normal rules of politics return, so will more opportunities for Keir to cut through. People need to keep calm, Keir needs to continue strengthening his team and deal firmly and resolutely with disloyalty, particularly if it is coming from the shadow cabinet.”
Another loyalist said: “The appointments he’s made look to be good, and are going some way to restoring some confidence.”
The experienced pollster Deborah Mattinson arrives in the role of head of party strategy on Monday, and the new political director, Luke Sullivan, a longtime party official, knows the parliamentary party well. The post of communications director, which is expected be advertised in the coming days, is being filled temporarily by the Blairite veteran Matthew Doyle.
Meanwhile the new campaign coordinator, Shabana Mahmood, who replaced Rayner in the role after Starmer moved his deputy aside, has instituted a daily 8am call with shadow cabinet aides, aimed at sharpening up Labour’s response to day-to-day news and giving the Tories a tougher ride.
Labour under Starmer previously recoiled from calling for cabinet resignations, but they were quick to demand Matt Hancock be sacked after he was filmed kissing a colleague, and they have also called for the sacking of the health minister Lord Bethell over his use of a private email address for government business.
As well as continuing to highlight cronyism and conflicts of interest, Labour plans to emphasise two policy areas where Starmer believes the party has a distinctive pitch to make: crime, and the world of work.
On crime, Starmer has already used prime minister’s questions to press Johnson about pitifully low rates of conviction for rape. He believes tackling crime resonates with former Labour voters and allows him to highlight his experience as director of public prosecutions. The party has also announced it would aim to scrap government plans for a £200m “vanity yacht” and spend the money saved on tackling antisocial behaviour.
The second area Labour wants to talk more about is work – underlining the damage done by insecure, casual contracts, and the need for good-quality jobs. Starmer’s team hope this will show Labour as forward-looking and give it an easily understandable offer to voters. It may also set him up for a turf war with Rayner, however, who negotiated “shadow secretary of state for the future of work” as one of her several job titles during the kerfuffle that followed the Hartlepool byelection in May. (There is no secretary of state for the future of work.)
Rayner has since made several headline-grabbing policy announcements, including backing a legal right for employees to be allowed to switch off from work emails during evenings and weekends. She is unlikely to want to cede that territory to Starmer, though the Labour leader is in a stronger position after the Batley result.
Some MPs suggested Rayner’s outriders had overreached themselves – and embarrassed her – by touting her as a potential challenger to Starmer, something she insists was not done in her name. Despite leftwingers being the most disgruntled about Starmer’s leadership, she might anyway have struggled to win the support of the leftwing Campaign group of MPs, whose secretary, Richard Burgon, ran against her for deputy leader last year.
Their great fear now is that Starmer will use his enhanced authority to change the Labour leadership rules that give grassroots members a firm grip on the party – particularly if the race to succeed Len McCluskey as Unite general secretary is won by the moderate Gerard Coyne. “I think the right want the machine,” said one leftwing Labour MP.
Yet even before Friday’s result, few MPs on either wing of the party could see any candidate who would clearly be able to gather the 40 necessary signatures to kick off a race.
And with Kim Leadbeater on her way to Westminster, Starmer now has a clear run to Labour’s autumn conference in which to win over the waverers inside his party and out.