'Policymaking Is Not Their Top Priority': How Keir Starmer Has Changed the Labour Machine
Keir Starmer has a firm hand on the levers of Labour party machinery, but what does the new management style mean for member democracy?
Labour members gave Keir Starmer a resounding victory and a clear mandate when they elected him as leader of the party earlier this year. Winning on the first round with more than 56% of first preference votes, the key messages of his campaign – unity, justice, competence – had resonated with a majority of members.
Starmer promised more than half a million battle-weary Labour supporters that he would stop the infighting and professionalise the outfit without straying too far from the left-wing foundations of Jeremy Corbyn’s era. But his internal party management style has surprised those expecting a more consensus-based approach, and the new leader has not been afraid to clash with Labour’s activist base.
On matters bound to attract factional warfare, Starmer has been bold in a way that has surprised some, as he is more often praised as “forensic”. The best example of this confidence was when the leader agreed a swift departure for Labour’s Corbynite general secretary Jennie Formby and expressed a clear preference for David Evans becoming her successor. The candidate was regarded with huge suspicion by the party’s left, having been a senior Labour official under Tony Blair and written a 1999 report advocating an “overhaul” that would “empower modernising forces within the party”.
Since this gutsy move, Starmer has sacked his leadership rival Rebecca Long-Bailey from the shadow cabinet, apologised to ex-staffers in the BBC Panorama libel case in a move criticised by Corbyn himself, and announced at Prime Minister’s Questions that “the Labour party is under new management”.
Predictably, David Evans has not proved a hit with those members of Labour’s ruling body who were elected on the Momentum slate in 2018. They were frustrated when he rejected a proposal in June to allow local party meetings to take place virtually during the pandemic, and the National Executive Committee (NEC) – on which Starmer has had a narrow but consistent majority – was accused of waging “war on member democracy”.
There was more outrage from left NEC members when Evans told chairs and secretaries that they should not allow certain topics, mostly related to antisemitism and to legal action against Labour, to be debated at a local level.
On policy, there has been some disappointment over the absence of any policymaking functions in Labour’s online ‘Connected’ event. Annual conference usually sees party and trade union delegates vote on motions, but this year’s replacement will feature no proposals being passed or rejected, unlike the equally virtual TUC Congress this month. This led activist group Labour for a Green New Deal to describe Labour’s conference replacement as “top-down”, “anti-democratic” and “toothless”.
Is this a sign of things to come under Starmer? Shadow cabinet members have been clear that policymaking is not their top priority. Kate Green has reported that, when she was appointed to replace Long-Bailey as education leader, fellow frontbencher Steve Reed advised her: “Kate, your job is not to generate policy, it’s to get out there and attack the Tories.”
It would be easy to overstate the extent to which members were given free rein over policy under Corbyn. Anti-Brexit activists, including those on the Labour left, would certainly take issue with such a claim: their efforts to force a change in the party’s position on a fresh EU referendum were strongly resisted, and the leadership was dragged kicking and screaming to shifting its stance.
There was a big fight, too, over Labour’s decarbonisation target at its 2019 conference, as the frontbench was urged by activists to back a straightforward zero carbon target of 2030 but compelled by unions such as GMB to be more cautious. The members did not always win such policy conflicts, having to compromise more often than not.
But where there can definitely be drawn a stark contrast is in the transformed rhetoric of Labour’s frontbench. When Starmer’s shadow cabinet was appointed, I described the reshuffle as a purge of the most vocal in the Parliamentary party in favour of the quietly competent.
That has proved an accurate description, as the top team has been careful, considered and Fabian-like – a reflection of the Labour leader’s own style. Labour members who have grown accustomed to big policy ideas being discussed openly by shadow ministers now can only rely on the few remaining Corbynites to provide such freewheeling spirit, as Andy McDonald did on the four-day working week earlier this month.
Corbyn’s team and Momentum used to talk about reaching one million Labour members. No such target is being discussed now. The view of the new leadership has been summarised neatly by Bridget Phillipson, shadow chief secretary to the Treasury, who said: “Making our own echo chamber larger is no substitute for knocking its walls down.” The party needs to spend its time “reaching people who don’t already vote for us”, she argued, rather than “discussing our politics with people who do”.
If members want to make headway with their policy priorities, they will need to convince the leadership that those issues constitute an essential part of Labour’s electoral strategy – and even, if they can manage it, that they are key to the ‘detoxification’ exercise.
Starmer’s leadership bid was pitch perfect in tone, and the backroom figure often credited with this profound understanding of members is Morgan McSweeney. Before becoming a campaign manager and then the leader’s chief of staff, he ran Labour Together, which undertook a review of Labour’s 2019 general election operation and made dozens of recommendations for party reform as a result.
This offers hope to members: most of these proposals, which are being studied by the general secretary, aim to improve party culture and empower members through practical changes. Upskilling the movement, overhauling Labour’s digital tools, improving the quality of materials and setting up Labour Community Centres all feature. Policymaking may no longer be Labour’s top priority, but a radical change in the party’s operations could prove rewarding for its grassroots.
Sienna Rodgers is LabourList editor
Get the inside track on what MPs and Peers are talking about. Sign up to The House's morning email for the latest insight and reaction from Parliamentarians, policy-makers and organisations.