Keir Starmer’s ruthless remaking of the Labour party

In January 2020, Sir Keir Starmer was asked by ITV News what he thought of Jeremy Corbyn, who was then the Labour party’s outgoing leader: “He’s a colleague and a friend,” he replied.

The message Starmer offered in the leadership contest to replace Corbyn was clear: that he would offer a continuation of leftwing economic policies without some of the foreign policy baggage brought by Corbyn, a longstanding opponent of American imperialism, Nato and Trident.

“He basically said he would be Jeremy Corbyn in a suit without the IRA stuff or Palestine obsession,” says one former party aide.

A former director of public prosecutions before entering politics in 2015, Starmer was not entirely trusted by some on the left of the party, despite having served as Corbyn’s shadow Brexit secretary. But after winning the leadership in 2020, Starmer insisted he would bring together Labour’s disparate factions after it had suffered four election defeats in a row, two of them under Corbyn.

Instead, three years on, Starmer, 60, has carried out a radical realignment of the Labour party. He has sidelined the left, taken over the machinery of the party and driven it on to the political ground he thinks can win an election. While some focus groups have described him as “boring”, “bland” and “weak”, he has been ruthless in his efforts to remould the party in his own image.

“In no time at all, Labour has gone from electoral arsenic to well-oiled machine,” says Josh Simons, director of the influential think-tank Labour Together. “At the heart of that is Keir’s capacity to improve outcomes by reforming institutions.”

Rachel Reeves, the shadow chancellor, tells the Financial Times: “The party is completely unrecognisable compared to how it was a few years ago.”

The party’s transformation has horrified leftwingers who believe Starmer dishonestly posed as part of the group of radicals that ran Britain’s main opposition party from 2015. Many believe they have been betrayed, with one MP warning of an imminent “reckoning”.

Owen Jones, a leftwing activist and Guardian columnist, says Starmer has trashed a promise not to lurch to the right as leader. “What Keir Starmer offered was Corbynism with competence, that was the basis of his leadership bid,” he says. “What he delivered was Blairism without charisma.”

But Starmer’s supporters point out it seems to be working. Labour appears to be on the brink of its first general election victory since 2005, if polls are accurate.

Examining how he made the party bow to his will sheds light on what kind of national leader he might someday be.

The pivotal moment

The path to taking control has not been without obstacles. Just two years ago, Starmer was circling the wagons, his leadership deeply imperilled.

Little more than a year after becoming party leader, Starmer’s Labour had lost the northern seat of Hartlepool for the first time since 1974 and shed hundred of seats in the local elections. The ruling Conservative party under Boris Johnson, then prime minister, had opened up a 10-point lead in the polls. 

In July 2021, there was a by-election in the Labour-held Yorkshire seat of Batley & Spen, which could have triggered the end of Starmer’s tenure. “We had no doubt that if we’d lost in Batley, there would be a leadership challenge, maybe by [deputy leader] Angela Rayner,” says one loyalist. 

But the Labour candidate ended up retaining the seat with a majority of just 323. The party — and Starmer — had clung on by the skin of their teeth. 

That by-election was a turning point for Starmer — and could yet be a pivotal moment in modern British politics.

Had it gone the other way, the Labour party could have ditched Starmer and — along with him — his project to wrest control of the party. Instead, victory prompted Starmer to double his efforts moving to the political centre.

Soon afterwards, he told the FT that Labour should stop trashing Tony Blair — a hate figure for many on the Labour left, especially after pushing the UK into the Iraq war. “We have to be proud of that record in government and not be arm’s length or distant about it,” he said. He would “turn the Labour party inside out,” he added.

The Starmer team included Morgan McSweeney, a low-key backroom operator who ran the leadership campaign — and who is close to senior centrists including Lord Peter Mandelson, co-architect of New Labour.

In the autumn of 2021, McSweeney and another fixer, Matt Pound, engineered the moment that cemented Starmer’s control over the party and sent shockwaves through the left.

The moment of reckoning came in a concrete conference centre near the windswept Brighton seafront during Labour’s autumn conference.

Starmer’s plan — first cooked up seven months earlier — was to shake up party rules in ways that would sharply cut the influence of the membership, which tends to be more radical than its MPs.

Just days before the vote, he endured a “rough” meeting with some leftwing union leaders furious at the manoeuvre. Some colleagues urged him to drop it.

“It went down to the wire, we only won because Unison [a major trade union] backed us at the last minute,” says one senior party insider. “If we’d lost, then Morgan would have been sacked, Matt would have been, Keir probably would have faced a coup.”

Although he won by a margin of just 54-46 per cent of the delegate vote at conference, Starmer emerged triumphant with a tighter grip on the party. The rule change doubled the threshold of MP nominations needed for future leadership candidates, and made it harder for members to deselect MPs.

When the leftwing pressure group Momentum called it a “needless self-inflicted blow to democracy in our party”, Starmer took that as proof he was doing the right thing.

He later brushed away a heckler on the conference floor with a pre-prepared put down: “Shouting slogans or changing lives, conference?”

One of his aides says: “There’s a tradition of Labour leaders trying to maintain unity by tolerating every strand of opinion in the party but that approach is crippling . . . sometimes you have to take difficult decisions.”

Since then Starmer has gone further. In the run-up to the next general election, his allies have produced a list of unideological or centrist candidates to run for parliament, purging those suspected of holding radical left views, as they seek to confine the hard left to what Mandelson once called a “sealed tomb”.

The Labour leader has also consolidated power over the party’s ruling national executive committee. That has made possible the final defenestration of Corbyn, the figurehead of the left.

In March, the NEC voted to prevent Corbyn — suspended from the parliamentary Labour party since 2020 for saying antisemitism in the party had been “dramatically overstated” — from standing as a Labour MP at the next general election.

Soon after, Starmer told the radio station LBC that he had never considered Corbyn a friend. “I worked with him as a colleague,” he said. “I haven’t spoken to him now for two-and-a-half years.”

Corbyn is nowadays a wraithlike figure in Westminster. The Momentum grassroots movement used to rule the roost at party conferences as his praetorian guard; now it is confined to dingy meeting rooms on the fringes.

“Starmer has acted horrifically over Jeremy,” says one former Corbyn aide. “The idea that all those pricks who were happy for him to be prime minister are now kicking him out of the party is really embarrassing.”

Sealing the tomb

Perhaps the most visible evidence of Starmer’s iron grip on the party is how it goes about choosing election candidates.

Jamie Driscoll, leftwing mayor for North of Tyne, was last week blocked for standing for re-election — ostensibly because he had taken part in an event with the film director Ken Loach, who was expelled from the party in 2021.

Andy Burnham, the moderate mayor for Greater Manchester, questioned whether that decision was “democratic, transparent and fair”.

Across the country, leftwingers have been cut from longlists for selection as parliamentary candidates.

Sharon Graham, general secretary of Unite the Union, says: “I don’t think they should be going in heavy-handed, trying to take out candidates because they believe that they are too leftwing . . . That is a ridiculous thing to do, obviously.”

Jones, the Labour activist, says the leadership is on a mission to “extinguish the left” from British politics. “It is the most obviously factional attempt to purge the left as a political force.”

In Milton Keynes, Lauren Townsend, an activist who had the backing of six trade unions, was left off a longlist for — among other things — liking a tweet from Nicola Sturgeon, then the SNP leader, saying she had tested negative for Covid-19. 

In Broxtowe in the East Midlands, a leftwing councillor called Greg Marshall who was Labour candidate in 2017 and 2019 did not make the seat’s shortlist despite being backed by eight unions.

He was shown an official dossier, which claimed he had “liked” eight supposedly problematic tweets, some opposing “unfair suspensions” in the party.

Instead, the local constituency party was presented with three candidates with little political experience in the region: the winner had most recently been a councillor in Lewisham, south London.

One NEC member said the interviews were more about the panel judging how a candidate responded to difficult questions. “In Broxtowe, a black woman candidate is picked and instead of celebrating that, the middle-aged white male Corbynite who thinks he was entitled to be candidate makes himself the centre of the story.”

Starmer’s team is phlegmatic about the backlash and sees it as evidence of a party that is serious about winning power — and deploying it effectively if it is successful.

“It’s not that we want candidates who are ideologically identical, but we do want candidates who are competent and professional,” says one. “Boohoo that some people feel aggrieved about this, but frankly, tough shit.”

Isolating the hard left is a risky strategy though. If Starmer fails to win a sizeable majority at the coming general election — a plausible scenario — the rump of the Corbynite left will be out for revenge.

The 35 or so members of the Socialist Campaign Group of MPs — several have been suspended from the party — would be certain to demand policy concessions as the price for their support.

Centre stage

As Starmer has tightened control on the workings of the party and drummed out elements of the hard left, so has he shifted its platform on to the centre ground.

That has required a public volte-face. While running for leader, Starmer issued a list of radical policy pledges: higher income tax for the top 5 per cent of earners, nationalisation of mail, energy and water, an end to NHS outsourcing, the scrapping of university tuition fees and a continuation of “free movement” after Brexit.

Most of these promises have since been jettisoned, to the fury of the left. 

The manifesto taking shape is instead a mixture of priorities designed to appeal to a broad coalition of voters. It will contain some left-of-centre policies, including a £28bn-a-year green prosperity plan, the rollback of anti-strike legislation and the abolition of the House of Lords along with some targeted strikes on the rich: non-doms and private equity bosses in particular.

But on a host of other issues — immigration, strict public spending rules, law and order and a pro-Nato foreign policy — the manifesto will mark a major shift to the right, in tune with the “small c” conservative instincts of the party’s working-class supporters.

Starmer has described his agenda as one of “security and hope”. “The British people need a politics which gets the value of respect and service, and uses it to deliver stability and change,” he said in May. “If that sounds conservative, then let me tell you: I don’t care.”

His allies deny he tricked the membership. “He’s not a Trojan horse for the Blairites,” says one longstanding associate. “I always think that is a horrendously simplistic and naive way to put it.”

For their part, Blairites believe Starmer’s instincts are more on the “soft left” wing of the party, personified by former leaders such as Neil Kinnock, John Smith and Ed Miliband.

But they believe Starmer is a ruthless pragmatist who — with Labour out of government for 13 years — is more hungry for power than some predecessors. That explains his willingness to move to the right on issues such as immigration and Brexit to reflect public opinion.

“We need to get beyond the idea that delivering what voters want makes you Blairite,” says Simons, of Labour Together.

“Blair surveyed the world around him and delivered the change he could. Today the world is different, it’s not 1997 or 1992, and Keir is better placed than anyone to understand the world as it is now.”

Yet some believe Starmer has become too dependent on counsel from Blairites: “Harold Wilson, who won four elections, often said that like a bird, in order to fly Labour needed both a right wing and a left wing,” says Jon Trickett, a leftwing MP.

John Spellar, a veteran MP and connoisseur of Labour’s internal workings, says Starmer’s takeover of the party has successfully cleared the way for him to reconnect with the general public through more moderate policies.

But he says that even if Labour wins the next election, the power dynamic within the party will continue to ebb and flow. “No Labour faction ever holds power permanently,” he says. “It shifts from one foot to the other over time.”

Inside Starmer’s circle

Starmer’s makeover of the party has been accomplished with the help of close allies in parliament, in the leader’s office and within the wider Labour party (the drop-down on the list below offers detail on these groups). This network of confederates, advisers, supporters and thinkers has been crucial in support of the leader’s goals, and many of them are set to form the backbone of the next government if Labour wins the election expected in 2024.

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