Keir Starmer Has Bought Himself The Summer To Steady His Leadership After Batley By-Election Victory
Travelling to Batley in West Yorkshire from his home in North London on Friday morning, Keir Starmer must have breathed a huge sigh of relief. For weeks rumours have swirled that his days as leader would be numbered if Labour allowed another seat to fall into Tory hands.
But instead Starmer was able to accompany winning candidate Kim Leadbeater on a victory lap and has been granted a fresh chance to successfully lead the party.
“Labour is back,” he declared in a jubilant speech.
Leadbeater, sister of the former Labour MP for Batley and Spen Jo Cox, who was murdered by a far-right terrorist in 2016, held the seat with a majority of just 323 after a Conservative win was widely predicted.
Starmer’s supporters say that this “is just the start”, claiming the unexpected win as a “turning point” after a difficult first year as the party’s leader – in the teeth of the coronavirus crisis – where he has faced near-constant questions over whether he was up to the job.
“The fightback starts here,” one shadow minister told PoliticsHome on Friday morning.
“Sometimes the significance of by-election results gets exaggerated but I genuinely believe historians will look back at this as the turning point. This is the moment.”
MPs and Labour officials who spoke to PoliticsHome believe Leadbeater’s emotional win in West Yorkshire, coupled with a raft of recent staff changes in Starmer’s office, mean the former director of public prosecutions now has time to turn the tide on Labour’s dismal polling... but not much.
Starmer may have been spared an ousting this weekend, but sources in the party predict he has a turbulent summer ahead, culminating in a make or break moment at Labour party conference this autumn.
“There’ll be an incredibly high bar for his conference speech. He’ll be under pressure to turn it around,” said one senior Labour MP.
Starmer has already won praise, even from sceptical MPs, for responding to the disastrous defeat in the Hartlepool by-election and disappointing local election results in May with a shake up of his top team.
His shadow cabinet reshuffle in the immediate aftermath of the May defeats was shambolic, with deputy leader Angela Rayner walking away with more jobs and power than she started with, but significant changes have since happened in the leader of the opposition’s office – known as LOTO – that have generally been welcomed.
Out is longtime advisor and director of communications Ben Nunn. Former MP Jenny Chapman, who ran Starmer’s leadership campaign, and was criticised for helping select Labour’s unpopular Hartlepool candidate Dr Paul Williams, has taken up a position shadowing David Frost in the House of Lords.
Tony Blair’s highly experienced former advisor Matthew Doyle is now in place as interim comms director, popular Whips’ office veteran Luke Sullivan is the new political director, and pollster Deborah Mattinson is now director of strategy.
“I think certainly with some of the changes that we've seen in LOTO over the last couple of weeks, there's a seriousness there that's maybe been lacking over the course of the last year,” said one MP, who did not back Starmer for leader.
“One of the lessons that he took longer than I'd like to learn from Corbyn was that it's no good having people who aren't really good enough, just because they're loyal to you.”
They believed Sullivan was “much better suited” to the role of political director than Chapman, “not least because obviously coming from the whip's office he knows the MPs very well”.
Understanding and connecting with the Parliamentary Labour Party appears high on MPs’ list of LOTO improvements, with complaints that Starmer’s office has not had much of an open door.
“He’s not as accessible as you think he would be,” one MP, who stressed they wanted him to succeed, said. They described him as “aloof” and “at arms length”.
Another said the people he took with him into LOTO were hard-working and well-meaning, but lacked experience and savviness.
“There has not really been anyone in LOTO who has been in power and has that experience,” they said.
One member of the 2019 intake likened Starmer’s previous leadership team to what happens when a new MP enters Parliament, and they “hire lots of people from their campaign team and then realise that they’re really shit because it's a totally different job”.
They added: “Some of the tension over the course of the past year, whether it's loyalty, naivety or growing with experience, we didn't have the best people in LOTO. That seems like we’re now heading in the right direction.”
Much of the praise for the win against the odds in Batley has gone to Shabana Mahmood, Labour’s new national campaign coordinator, and MPs Holly Lynch and Naz Shah who helped run the race locally.
Mahmood was hired in the wake of the Hartlepool debacle, and while her promotion went under the radar, she is credited with bringing discipline to operations and crafting a message that ultimately staved off George Galloway’s attempts to divide Labour’s core vote.
"Obviously the reshuffle was messy but it left us with Shabana as campaign manager and she is absolutely brilliant,” one Labour adviser said.
"It's time now for the people who've spent this crucial by-election campaign plotting against the leader to get over themselves and get on with their actual jobs.”
But even supporters of Starmer acknowledge the party still has a long way to go to regain even a fraction of Labour’s losses to the Tories in 2019.
Elections expert Michael Thrasher pointed out Labour's vote share has fallen in the last 12 by-elections in a row, and the party “remains in crisis management mode”.
Labour’s ability to scrape through in Batley and Spen also has much to do with deep emotional ties Labour supporters have to Leadbeater, not just because of her sister’s murder by a far right terrorist while serving as its MP in 2016, but because she was born, raised and still lives in the area.
She campaigned mainly on local issues, such as opposing the planned Amazon warehouse in Cleckheaton district of the constituency. Candidates from fringe right-wing groups who stood received a combined total of 538 votes, just 1.4% of the total ballots cast, and all lost their deposits.
Leadbeater’s victory unsurprisingly sparked an outpouring of emotion within Labour. One MP PoliticsHome spoke to on Friday teared up on the phone discussing the result, and Shah cried when Mirror reporter Rachel Wearmouth called her to say Leadbeater had won.
With rumours that Boris Johnson could call an early election in 2023, before some of the toughest post-pandemic decisions are in play, Labour MPs still want much more from Starmer, and they want it quickly.
“He has to show that he’s really serious about getting us in good shape for 2023,” one MP said. “We all expected we’d be doing better than this.”
A shadow minister calling for change stressed the party still has an “absolute mountain to climb” ahead of the next election.
“We need every day, every week, to show how we're changing to the public,” they continued.
"In light of everything that has been happening that message, I think, comes across loud and clear.”
Starmer recycled an old Blair line in Batley on Friday when he told supporters "Labour is coming home”. It seems he’s just about bought himself time to try and prove it.
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