Rebuilding Labour: Behind the Scenes in Keir Starmer's Office
Keir Starmer preparing for his Labour party virtual conference speech earlier this year
He’s outperformed the Prime Minister at PMQs – but with his party at war over an explosive report into Labour antisemitism, and with sparse detail on policy, Labour’s new leader has work to do, writes Kate Proctor
When Keir Starmer’s junior staff walked into the leader of the opposition’s offices for the first time to set up for him, they reported back to party officials that it resembled a bomb site.
Reams of printed correspondence from the Jeremy Corbyn era lay scattered around the suite of offices the previous leader and his staff had occupied for the last five years. Documents were shoved in cupboards and rammed into drawers.
Among this wreckage were various attempts at the “Salisbury speech”, for which Corbyn was heavily criticised for not immediately condemning Russia for the Novichok attack on Sergei and Yulia Skripal. The Tories would go on to use that very speech to brand Corbyn weak on national security at the 2019 election.
Another discovery that left the new staff open-mouthed was a printed email chain, with an agenda to deal with Tom Watson, then deputy leader. Staff couldn’t quite believe they were reading about the effective “defenestrating of Tom Watson after the 2017 election” – a document that was “just knocking around in someone’s desk”, as one staffer put it.
Paperwork left behind by former communications director Seumas Milne filled three crates.
Working on the assumption the previous occupants had taken what they truly needed when they moved out, the final destination of this archive of Corbyn’s paperwork was chosen – the shredder.
Starmer’s leadership has spent much of the last seven months trying to draw a veil on his predecessor. On Thursday, just as this magazine was going to press, a more decisive move altogether was made: Jeremy Corbyn was suspended from the Labour party in the wake of a damning EHRC report into antisemitism.
It is now not only likely to be the defining moment of Starmer’s first year as leader, but dealing with the fallout of this report will occupy him for months at the very least.
In April, Starmer won the Labour leadership on the first round with 275,780 votes. At 56.2%, that was just three percentage points below Corbyn’s victory in 2015.
Coronavirus forced the 2020 election into a muted finale, with Starmer giving his acceptance speech from home over video link.
A few weeks later he moved into the same modest office that Corbyn had used – eschewing the enormous County Hall-facing office preferred by Ed Miliband. That is now the boardroom, and the location of hundreds of Zoom-based discussions that have characterised the first seven months of Starmer’s leadership of the Labour party.
Next to his office is a large room for his private staff. Key figures in his team, the director of communications Ben Nunn and director of policy Claire Ainsley and other policy staffers, occupy a room across the hall. It is partially painted in an intense shade of mustard and, right now, utterly spartan – except for a countdown clock to the 2021 local elections.
Deputy leader Angela Rayner’s office is also along the L-shaped hallway, which is hung with colourful Labour-inspired artwork and graphic posters put up long before Starmer’s arrival.
With staff coming in typically on a Tuesday and Wednesday because of the health threats posed by coronavirus, the leader of the opposition’s office, or Loto as it’s known, can be quiet. London’s recent Tier 2 restrictions mean work is shifting back to Zoom.
It’s not been an ideal way to build a team. An away-day in August to the basement of a north London hotel was one of the only times Starmer’s entire senior staff have been able to get together in person.
Yet the vision, four years out from a general election, is clear in the minds of staff: get people to trust the party with their money, and show voters that Labour thinks and feels just like the public. This second aim is to counteract a consensus revealed by polling that people believe Labour is only for students and political obsessives.
Prime Minister’s Questions at least punctuates the week and brings political energy. The media and party members across the ideological spectrum have praised Starmer for a level of analysis and questioning that deftly exposes Boris Johnson’s broad-brush response to the pandemic. He doesn’t beat Johnson every time, but he’s landed some blows.
The man behind what is arguably Starmerism right now – this exacting PMQs style – is loyal political adviser Chris Ward, who has been working for Starmer for five years. Joining him is Sadiq Khan-briefer Uma Kumaran, who helped Khan prepare for City Hall questions. They do the pre-planning then bring in Nunn, Ainsley and usually Luke Sullivan – long-time adviser to Labour’s chief whip Nick Brown – and a host of others, depending on the topic.
“On Wednesday we have a run-through with Keir. He has the draft questions in front of him and he works through them and makes his amendments. He’s usually got a good idea for a line. It’s a bit frustrating if he comes up with one before you do,” said a staffer working on the wider PMQs team.
“No one ‘plays’ Boris Johnson, as has been done in the past. There’s back and forth, but there isn’t someone standing there in a blond wig doing impressions. Keir tends to work from quite short notes. Corbyn used to read it word for word. Keir just takes a few words, like crib notes. l guess lawyers do that.”
Starmer’s PMQs line from July when he told Johnson the party is “under new management” after the Prime Minister questioned why Corbyn had gone on RT (the TV network formerly known as Russia Today), drew a headline-grabbing line in the sand with the past five years. It was considered by the team to be one of his best performances.
“There were about 15 to 20 people in the office that day and everyone was chuffed with that. That was one with a bit of energy afterwards,” the staffer said.
Then it’s on to the next: “Keir is not someone who comes back to the office wanting a standing ovation and pep talk afterwards. He’s a bit like a football manager who, after the victory, wants to talk about the next game. And that’s something he’s tried to instil in us, this idea of not dwelling on the parliamentary theatrics and focusing much more – you’ll have heard him in his speeches – on 2024.”
His virtual party conference speech delivered in front of a red brick wall in Doncaster’s Danum Gallery – apparently not a symbolic gesture by events planners Harj Sahota and Sofia Patel, but just a fortuitous backdrop – was another high point in the seven months since he took over, according to his team.
A handful of Loto staff watched it on TV in the boardroom. “There was a buzz about the whole office and it was great, really nice,” said one staffer. Obviously some members, primarily those who had crafted the words themselves, were also pacing with nerves.
Getting a government to U-turn on the immigration health surcharge in May was another stand-out moment of Starmer’s first months as leader, and the first indication of chinks in the armour of Johnson’s 80-seat majority.
“It was fairly early on in his leadership, so to have a moment like that was really great,” a Loto staffer said.
Engagement with the chief rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, was a priority for Starmer and those relations continue to grow. No doubt the explosive events of Thursday afternoon, which saw Starmer issue an apology on behalf of his party for the “pain and grief” suffered by the Jewish community, before suspending Corbyn, will improve them further.
The call for a Covid circuit break was original policy and something the party will no doubt be remembered for.
Those around Starmer are keen to stress that, while the party is “under new management,” there hasn’t been a clean break with Corbyn when it comes to staffing, or political influence, and there are strong Left voices.
Alongside Nunn and Ainsley, Simon Fletcher – who is responsible for campaigns and election planning – is pivotal. Staff describe him as popular and a “great thinker” who spans the arch of recent Left history, working for Ken Livingstone, Ed Miliband and Jeremy Corbyn.
Former Corbyn aide Anneliese Midgley recently organised the virtual conference ‘Connected’, and with her background in Unite, is key to liaison with the unions.
Helene Reardon Bond is deputy chief of staff, and managed Corbyn’s office when Karie Murphy moved to Southside to oversee the 2019 election. Mark Simpson, who is head of international, also worked under Corbyn.
Other significant figures – head of the press office Sophie Nazemi, and Jack McKenna, who worked for Corbyn, and is now head of communications for Angela Rayner – provide further continuity.
In June, Starmer sensationally sacked shadow education secretary Rebecca Long-Bailey, the socialist Corbyn ally who challenged Starmer for the leadership and was Unite’s choice. She had shared an article by Labour supporter and actor Maxine Peake containing an antisemitic conspiracy theory. Left-wing commentators claimed it had been a ludicrously savage reaction; the true intent being any excuse to clear out people with links to Corbyn. Long Bailey has said she had been instructed to discuss a press statement with Starmer but that his decision had already been made – while Starmer’s office say the issue was that she failed to delete her Tweet and apologise in a timely enough fashion, leaving him with “no option”.
The issue of party discipline was raised again in another low point in the Starmer operation, when 34 Labour MPs plus the suspended MP Claudia Webbe broke the whip to abstain, choosing instead to vote down the government’s Covert Human Intelligence Sources (Criminal Conduct Bill), nicknamed the “spy-cops bill”.
Starmer got personally involved in an attempt to limit the backlash, addressing the Parliamentary Labour Party on the Tuesday ahead of the vote in a bid to win over rebels – including Corbyn – but in the end they had to say goodbye to two shadow ministers, Dan Carden and Margaret Greenwood.
“Ultimately one of the things we need to re-establish is that if you break the whip, there will be consequences. That fell away in recent years,” a source said.
So what do figures on the Left make of the first seven months? They want far, far more policy.
Richard Burgon, former shadow justice secretary who ran for deputy leader and is secretary of the Socialist Campaign Group, said: “He’s done well in exposing and amplifying the government’s incompetence and the fact that Boris Johnson and his cabinet are just not up to the task of dealing with this crisis – either the public health crisis or the economic crisis. What he needs to do now is lay out certain details of the Labour way forward, in policy terms.”
They recently published their pamphlet Socialist Responses to the Coronavirus Crisis which they hope Starmer will take notice of. Members of the group – including Corbyn again – also voted against the Overseas Operations Bill, despite a whip to abstain.
Burgon said they’re not trying to pick a fight with Starmer but some of those recent votes have been clear matters of conscience. What’s more, the spy-cops bill appeared to break the spirit of Starmer’s own 10 pledges from his leadership campaign – notably commitments on human rights, trade unions and effectively opposing the Tories.
Former Corbyn spokesperson Matt Zarb-Cousin, who went on to run Long-Bailey’s leadership campaign, said the current policy to abstain on votes could damage Starmer long-term. From his time around the party, Zarb-Cousin thinks the clear policy platform that saw Labour win seats in 2017 had evaporated by 2019. Trying to be all things to all people ultimately does not work, he suggests.
“I find the abstention strategy very puzzling, and eventually people will say you don’t believe in anything and you’re just like any other politician; that you are just trying to do anything you can to get elected.
“There are drawbacks to vacating the battlefield and trying to play both sides,” he said.
But for now at least, Starmer and his team are continuing with a political strategy that deliberately tries to limit the politics. Had it not been for coronavirus, this year would have essentially been a “getting to know you” exercise. Lobby drinks for journalists at Loto would have been back on (they happened only once under Corbyn) and meetings between shadow ministers and journalists would have been a regular feature.
Coronavirus has perhaps enabled Starmer to play to his strengths: namely filleting Johnson’s bluster with facts at the despatch box. Just like Corbyn’s office itself, he’s attempting to clean up Labour’s act, seen most vividly with the suspension of the party’s former leader. But at what point does he begin putting meat on the bones and the policies he wants to shape Labour’s future? The revelation, it seems, will be gradual.