Senior Labour MPs want Keir Starmer to bring in a “big figure” to provide greater direction to his leadership, amid concerns within the party that caution and a lack of ambition are holding back his performance.
Shadow cabinet ministers are understood to be among those who have concerns that Starmer is losing crucial momentum at the end of his first year in office, with several MPs calling for more experience to be injected into his team to spell out “what Keir is for”. It comes as the Conservatives are still enjoying a lead in the polls, with several pollsters suggesting that a “vaccine bounce” has also helped Boris Johnson repair some of his personal approval rating in the wake of major mistakes in his handling of Covid last year.
Short-term annoyances in the run-up to the budget, during which Labour contrived to have a row over its own position on corporation tax, and shadow business secretary Ed Miliband backed electric cars while conceding he did not own one, have fed into frustrations that have been building over recent months. The emergence of wider unease follows Peter Mandelson’s call for Starmer to begin a review of the party’s policies, in order to adopt measures that are “radical, credible, affordable”.
There has also been concern that the party’s main message for the local elections so far has focused on NHS workers’ pay, with some worrying that it may soon be undermined by a higher government pay offer, or that it fails to appeal to other public and private sector workers hit hard by the pandemic. “People do underestimate the mountain of shit Keir inherited,” said one senior MP. “It is a monumental task. But there is a complaint of a lack of grip.”
Another said: “There is deep frustration in the shadow cabinet over a lack of direction.”
While there is widespread acknowledgement in the party that Starmer faced a major challenge after taking power following years of party infighting, concerns have begun to focus on former MP Jenny Chapman, his director of politics, and Morgan McSweeney, his chief of staff. MPs complain of being ignored and that there is no sense of a “shared political project”.
Some called for more experience to be brought into Starmer’s team. A shadow minister said: “The problem is that Keir’s team is very inexperienced. We are in a bit of a state. They have spent too much time over the last year trying to appease the hard left on one hand and being too cautious trying to look like a government in waiting. There is lots of concern in the PLP about Keir’s office in general.”
Another MP said the impetus should come from the leader himself. “Keir is the leader of the Labour party, he doesn’t need a crutch to lean on, he just needs to get out there and lead. He is the big figure.”
Allies of Chapman and McSweeney say critics have seriously underestimated the work they had done to “save the Labour party” since Starmer took office. They have spearheaded an overhaul of the party’s structures in the wake of the factional fighting that took place under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership.
Sources said they had been flat out during Starmer’s first year, securing a new general secretary, shoring up Starmer’s support on the party’s ruling national executive committee and trying to improve Labour’s organisation in Scotland, where it now has a new leader. “It might be subtle what they do, but they are ruthlessly effective,” said a party source. “An incredibly important part of our strategy has had to be fixing the party.”
Ultimately, figures close to Starmer said, the public was understandably focused on the vaccine drive, making it a bad time to make judgments about Labour’s performance. The details of Labour’s local election campaign are being overseen by deputy leader Angela Rayner and two experienced Labour campaigners, Simon Fletcher and Anneliese Midgley.
With Starmer’s first anniversary as leader just a week away, however, some are concerned that early impressions matter – and are difficult to change. “Politics is all about momentum,” said a Labour frontbencher. “If you’re too cautious then the wind leaves your sails, and it can sometimes be very difficult to get it to blow again.”