After two years of Tony Blair’s government, Martin Rowson, the cartoonist, identified what he thought was “the fundamental problem with New Labour…” He drew an adviser holding a satchel upside down and saying to the prime minister: “Hey boss! We’ve run out of principles to betray!”
After this week’s latest retreat from the policies on which Keir Starmer was elected Labour leader, Rowson could re-do it, with Starmer as the central figure instead of Blair.
In fact, the U-turn on employment rights took place four weeks ago, at the party’s National Policy Forum in Nottingham. Labour discipline is now so strict that it has taken this long for some of the key text to leak. Instead of promising full employment rights to all workers from the first day in a job, employers will be allowed to put new hires on probation.
This is a switch from the wrong policy to the right one, but it will be seen as yet another betrayal by many party members – not just by Corbynites, but by some of those who see themselves as in the Labour mainstream.
Indeed, Starmer’s hurtle towards the embrace of the Tory-minded swing voter has been so fast, and so little defended and explained, that many Labour right-wingers are suffering from whiplash. So much so that Starmer’s party management problems have nothing to do with the common myth of a Labour government held to ransom by the Socialist Campaign Group, the Corbynite faction of 32 Labour MPs. They have nowhere to go, and will find it hard to make common cause with the Conservative opposition if Labour wins the election.
The real threat to Starmer is noisy resignations by significant members of the shadow cabinet – or, if Labour wins, the cabinet. This is the tension delaying Starmer’s reshuffle. On the one hand, the imminence of the election and the prospect of office exerts a strong restraining force on shadow ministers. On the other, the mix of principle, ambition and pique could explode if pushed too far.
The two main risks are Angela Rayner and Ed Miliband. They both have a standing in the party that is independent of the leader. As Rayner reminded us on Wednesday, she and Starmer were “both elected by the membership differently and independently”.
She is not only the elected deputy leader, but shadow secretary of state for the future of work, and as such she guards Labour’s employment policy jealously. She responded to the leak of the new policy by insisting that, “far from watering it down, we will now set out in detail how we will implement it”. Yet she could not tell Nick Robinson of the BBC that she would be responsible for the policy in government. “The important thing is that I will be the deputy prime minister,” she said.
Miliband’s power is different. As a green champion, he has a status that rests on the urgency of stopping climate change, especially as felt by younger voters. He is not as popular with the youth as is often assumed. Indeed, he is the most unpopular member of the shadow cabinet in YouGov’s likeability ratings, reflecting his high visibility as former leader, but he is less unpopular among young people.
And he has a credibility on green issues as a former leader and a former energy secretary. For different but overlapping groups of admirers, St Edward and St Angela are the guarantors that Labour actually believes in something, and so they have some power to push back against Starmer’s ruthless electoralism.
That said, they are both choosing not to use that power yet. Despite comparing her relationship with Starmer to an arranged marriage, St Angela was strenuously loyal to her political spouse, saying her role was “supporting Keir as the leader”, and “the important job is getting into government”.
St Edward, meanwhile, strongly supported Rachel Reeves, the shadow chancellor, when she postponed plans to borrow £28bn a year for green investment. But it is easy to imagine him resigning, accusing Starmer of willing the ends but not the means in slowing climate change. He is dangerous because he has nothing to lose.
Rayner, on the other hand, is dangerous because she believes she has everything to gain. She thinks that, if Starmer falls, she would win the leadership – and the premiership if that is what followed. I don’t know if she is overreaching herself, but if there were a vacancy, she would stand a good chance in a leadership election among Labour members against Rachel Reeves and Wes Streeting.
These calculations may explain a couple of recent oddities. Rayner’s working-class and trade-union credentials may have something to do with Starmer suddenly adopting the un-Blairite language of class in an article this week. He wrote for The Scotsman on Tuesday that “you cannot seriously take on inequality, or poverty ... without talking about class”. He even said: “My political project is to return Labour to the service of working people and working-class communities.” He wants to head off the charge of betraying the workers.
And the power of St Edward may explain why Starmer was so emphatic about sticking to the 2030 target for decarbonising electricity generation. I suspect this is not going to survive until the election, because it hasn’t been prudently costed yet, but Starmer also wrote: “There has been a lot of noise about this in recent weeks, so let me be crystal clear – we will throw everything at making sure our electricity system is carbon free by 2030.”
Wariness of the power of Rayner and Miliband may be one reason Starmer has not yet reshuffled his shadow cabinet, six months after Rishi Sunak created four new departments. Some of those around the Labour leader say this is because he wants a shadow cabinet that reflects his five “missions” rather than just copying the government’s reorganisation. But what does that mean? The five missions are growth, clean energy, NHS, crime, and opportunity (childcare and education). If anything, that suggests leaving things as they are – and Labour still doesn’t have a shadow science secretary.
Starmer is in a period of maximum power, as election victory edges tantalisingly closer, and yet the absence of a reshuffle is a reminder that even the power of an opposition leader on the threshold of government has its limits.