Keir Starmer has lessons to learn from Biden’s bold coalition

London Letter: Leader’s handling of Rayner, cabinet reshuffle raise questions on political judgment

Angela Rayner’s experience as a negotiator may have helped her to turn Starmer’s move against her to her advantage and by the beginning of this week, she was enjoying a victory lap. Photograph: Stefan Rousseu/PA Wire

A week after Labour lost the Hartlepool byelection, its leader Keir Starmer is under siege, forced to sack two of his closest aides following a power struggle with deputy leader Angela Rayner.

His attempt to strip Rayner of two of her titles saw her instead emerge with four, while the leader had to scale back a reshuffle of his shadow cabinet.

Rayner, who was shadow education secretary under Jeremy Corbyn, was brought up by a single mother who could not read or write and herself left school at 16 after she became pregnant. She returned to education as an adult and qualified as a social care worker, working in that field before becoming a union representative.

Rayner’s experience as a negotiator may have helped her to turn Starmer’s move against her to her advantage and by the beginning of this week, she was enjoying a victory lap across the broadcast news bulletins.


"What I heard on the doorstep is they didn't know what Keir Starmer stood for. So that's what I think our challenge is actually. It's not, you know, people briefing saying 'we think Keir thinks this, we think Keir thinks that' but actually about what are we doing? What are our policies around that?" she told the BBC's Laura Kuennsberg.

Starmer’s handling of Rayner and his botched cabinet reshuffle have raised questions within the party about his political judgment and even about his future as leader.

“His two big selling points were integrity and competence. Both of those took a hit last weekend,” said one Labour MP who supports the leadership.

Blair essay

Starmer has had plenty of advice since last weekend and the latest figure to play the role of candid friend is Tony Blair, who offers his diagnosis of Labour's ills in a 3,000-word essay in the New Statesman. Warning that no political party has a divine right to exist, Blair describes Starmer as "intelligent, capable, moderate-minded", someone who looks and sounds sensible but is struggling to break through with the public.

“The Labour Party is now scratching its collective head and wondering why the replacement of an extremist with someone more moderate isn’t achieving the miracle renaissance. It is even asking whether Keir is the right leader. But the Labour Party won’t revive simply by a change of leader. It needs total deconstruction and reconstruction. Nothing less will do,” he writes.

“At present, Labour expresses perfectly the progressive dilemma. Corbyn was radical but not sensible. Keir seems sensible but not radical. He lacks a compelling economic message. And the cultural message, because he is not clarifying it, is being defined by the “woke” left, whose every statement gets cut-through courtesy of the right.”

Starmer has avoided being drawn into culture wars over flags, statues, race and gender because he knows that the Conservatives have everything to gain and Labour can only lose from such battles. But Blair argues that keeping your head down is not a strategy and that Starmer must reclaim the progressive standard from radical activists.

“People do not like their country, their flag or their history being disrespected. The left always gets confused by this sentiment and assume this means people support everything their country has done or think all their history is sacrosanct. They don’t. But they query imposing the thinking of today on the practices of yesterday; they’re suspicious that behind the agenda of many of the culture warriors on the left lies an ideology they find alien and extreme and they’re instinctively brilliant at distinguishing between the sentiment and the movement,” he writes.

“They will support strongly campaigns against racism; but they recoil from some of the language and actions of the fringes of the Black Lives Matter movement. You could go through the entire litany of modern causes and find the same – from Extinction Rebellion to trans rights to Reclaim the Streets – in the same way.”

Continental decline

Blair cites the decline of the French Socialists and German Social Democrats as warnings for Labour but he glosses over the Democrats in the United States, who must also assemble a broad coalition to succeed under a first-past-the-post system.

Blair dismisses Joe Biden’s victory last November as a fluke driven by Donald Trump’s eccentricity as a candidate and Biden’s “self-evident reasonableness and moderation”.

Biden's winning coalition included Black Lives Matter, trans rights activists, trade unionists, socially conservative African-Americans, democratic socialist supporters of Bernie Sanders, metropolitan liberals and traditional white working class voters. He worked with Sanders on the political programme that has formed the basis of his bold governing agenda and he has embraced racial justice and trans rights.

If Starmer is looking for a direction in which to take his party, he might be better advised to go bold like Biden rather than going backwards with Blair.