Keir Starmer has become the new leader of the Labour party.

A quiet psychodrama: The story of how Keir Starmer transformed Labour in 1000 days

Sir Keir Starmer was elected Labour leader on April 4, 2020, with a resounding mandate. He received 275,780 votes, 56.2% of those cast, well ahead of left-wing candidate Rebecca Long-Bailey on 27% and Lisa Nandy on 16.2%.

The Labour leader has now been in office for over 1000 days, in what has been a period of psychodramatic mayhem at the apex of politics. Faced with a pandemic, multiple government crises and three prime ministers, Sir Keir has had a front-row seat as the Conservative party has imploded its reputation for stable, predictable governance. 

Through this period, Starmer’s political methodology has hardly wavered. In lieu of a concrete agenda for government, the Labour leader has worked to self-consciously exude competence while remaining as discreet as possible on the details. He would present only a “small target” to Conservative opponents, a tactic designed to dodge snipping over Labour’s recent socialistic past.

If Labour’s 25-point lead in the polls is anything to go by, then this strategy has been a resounding success. 

But there is another element to the Labour leader’s strategy which operates independently of Conservative machination. For during his tenure as the leader of His Majesty’s Opposition, Starmer has worked quietly, and with ruthless intent, to utterly enervate the Labour left. 

Starmer’s self-contained approach to national politics bears a stark contrast to his activism in-and-around his party. 

You rarely hear the Labour leader saying something overtly factional, but as we gear up for an election in 2024, there can be no doubt that Starmer has pursued a profound political transformation within Labour. It is in some senses a self-instituted psychodrama, pursued deliberately and quietly, to tremendous effect.  

Triumph of the right 

When Sir Keir Starmer became the leader of the Labour party in 2020 he stuffed his party’s junior ranks with MPs closely linked to New Labour and hugely disliked by his party left. The move afforded the new leader a pool of Labour right talent upon which he could call as the shadow cabinet underwent reshuffles through 2020 to 2022. 

It meant that when Long-Bailey was sacked as shadow education secretary within two months for retweeting an article that said US police who killed George Floyd had learned their chokehold techniques from the Israeli secret service, she could easily be succeeded by Corbyn-sceptic Kate Green. As aggrieved activists on the party left pointed out at the time, the balance of power between Labour left and right was shifting. 

The strategy also allowed for the promotions of the Labour right darlings Rachel Reeves and Wes Streeting to be fast-tracked. They now occupy the posts of shadow chancellor and shadow health secretary respectively and are two of the most high-profile, best-performing figures in Starmer’s top team. 

Then came the veterans. Yvette Cooper and Pat Mcfadden, both of whom served in New Labour governments, were invited back into the shadow cabinet. They joined former New Labour colleague David Lammy, who earned a promotion to the post of foreign secretary at the expense of Lisa Nandy. Other notable joiners as part of the November 2021 reshuffle were Peter Kyle, Jonathan Reynolds and Bridget Phillipson — all viewed as up-and-coming figures on the party’s right flank. 

Viewed in full, Starmer’s cabinet picks and rejigs were not simply about reintroducing “big names” or prioritising competent media performers. They had at their heart a desired ideological trajectory. 

It is telling that almost all of the new figures had on their political CVs some form of association with Progress and Policy Network, traditionally the two organisational bases of Blairism that merged in 2021 to form “Progressive Britain”. Under Starmer, Progressive Britain has emerged as a key insider pressure group, consummately patronising new centre-left talent. 

The Labour party right even has its own answer to the Corbynite campaigning vehicle Momentum in the form of “Labour to Win”. Set up in the days following Starmer’s election as Labour leader, the new organisation pitched itself as in favour of winning elections and moving on from Corbynism. It is now a staple of the Labour party’s internal factional politics, mobilising “moderate” members for both internal and external elections. 

In September 2022, Labour to Win increased its presence among the elected elements of the National Executive Committee (NEC) at the expense of Momentum. It was a sign of the times for the heady ascent of the party’s right flank. 

The “soft left”

The existence of the Labour party’s “soft left”, an amorphous group of Labour MPs who set themselves against the New Labour project while eschewing “hard left” politics, has always struggled to gain political salience. It is a faction against factionalism — not necessarily an easy pitch in the ongoing cold war between Labour’s “left” and “right” flanks.

The “soft left” is traditionally associated with leading Labour figures like Neil Kinnock, John Smith and Robin Cook, and was at its peak in recent years under the leadership Ed Miliband from 2010 to 2015. Institutionally, it is represented by “Open Labour”, an organisation set up in the Corbyn years to promote party pluralism and critique infighting. 

Unlike the Labour left, the “soft left” has representation in the shadow cabinet. As the shadow secretary of state for climate change and net zero, Ed Miliband is still a leading figure in the party — as is levelling up spokesperson Lisa Nandy, who won Open Labour’s endorsement in the 2015 leadership election. There is also Louise Haigh, the shadow transport secretary, who was also an outspoken supporter of Open Labour at the organisation’s launch in 2016. 

But there are signals that the faction is facing a downward trajectory in the Labour party’s factional politics. As we have stated, Nandy lost her foreign affairs brief to David Lammy in November 2021 — the same reshuffle which saw Ed Miliband relieved of his business brief in favour of Jonathan Reynolds. Haigh is now among those tipped to lose her post in a new year’s reshuffle. 

While Open Labour and the mode of thought it represents are not nearly as isolated as Momentum and the Labour left, it is clear that the party right is the ascendant in Starmer’s Labour party. 

The party left 

The most “hard left” aspects of the Labour party are represented in parliamentary terms by the Socialist Campaign Group (SCG). Formed in the aftermath of Tony Benn’s controversial decision to run for the deputy leadership in 1981, prominent members of past and present include: Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell, Zarah Sultana, Dennis Skinner and Ken Livingstone. 

A quick health check of the Labour left shows that the faction’s fortunes have fallen dramatically under Starmer’s leadership.

Jeremy Corbyn, who led an SCG-led cabinet from 2015-2020, currently sits as an independent MP having had the Labour whip withdrawn over his comments following the Equality and Human Rights Commission report into antisemitism in the Labour Party. And Sam Tarry, another SCG member, was sacked as a shadow minister for buses and local transport after attending a rail strike picket in July 2022. Tarry, Angela Rayner’s partner, has since been de-selected from his Ilford South seat. 

There are also currently no members of the Socialist Campaign Group, past or present, in the shadow cabinet.

But perhaps the biggest challenge faced by the Labour left comes in the form of the party’s parliamentary candidate selection process for the next general election.

It is no secret that Starmer’s team is managing the candidate selection process in minute detail, with the battle being overseen by Labour’s campaign director Morgan McSweeney. Under the new structure, the party’s HQ has retained a tight grip on the crucial longlisting stage, screening candidates before a final decision is made on their suitability. 

The differing perspectives on the central Labour party’s role in the selection process are summed up in two diametrically opposed articles for LabourList.

In one article, Labour to Win-backed NEC member Luke Akehurst defends the process, saying that the blockings are about ensuring “all candidates reach a minimum level we are happy to have in front of the public”. Akehurst argues that a more rigorous selection process will stop the selection of candidates with “skeletons in their cupboards”; he names Jared O’Mara, Mike Hill, Claudia Webbe, Fiona Onasanya and Lisa Forbes as MPs who have caused reputational damage to the party in the past.

Conversely, councillor Martin Abrams, a Momentum activist, rubbished the amped-up selection process. He highlighted the plight of left-wing candidates “including council leaders and deputy leaders like Doina Cornell and Maya Evans, ex-MPs like Emma Dent Coad and anti-racist activists like Maurice Mcleod”, who have been blocked from standing in an “unjust purge”.

In any case, an assessment of the 77 candidates so far selected by the Labour party gives some sense of the Labour right’s influence on affairs. 

There is only one candidate, the former director of the think tank CLASS Faiza Shaheen, who is identifiably aligned with the Labour left. But Shaheen’s selection offered little relief for the sidelined, deeply embittered Momentum: “The Labour leadership has pulled every trick in the book to block socialists from standing for Labour”, a spokesperson for the organisation said in the aftermath.

It is also striking that several ex-MPs of the Labour right have been reselected to battle the Conservatives at the next election. Nic Dakin, James Frith, John Grogan, Jo Platt and Gareth Snell have all been chosen to fight the seats they lost in 2019 — losses they blame to varying extents, on Jeremy Corbyn’s influence. 

Former frontbencher Emma Reynolds, who is now contesting the seat of Wycombe, was once a member of the Labour “Breakfast Club”, an informal grouping of MPs from Labour’s right wing, which included Chukka Ummuna, Tristam Hunt and Liz Kendall. Reynolds also happened to resign as shadow secretary of state for communities and local government following the election of Jeremy Corbyn.

Heidi Alexander is another former frontbencher who is standing in 2024. She resigned in 2016 as shadow secretary of state for health in protest of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. 

Some of the other confirmed candidates include Michael Payne who stood for election to the NEC on the Labour to Win slate in 2020; Jack Abbott (Ipswich) and Emily Darlington (Milton Keynes South) who were endorsed by David Lammy; Jo White (Bassetlaw) who was endorsed by Wes Streeting, Lisa Nandy and Rachel Reeves; Alex Aitken (Birmingham Northfield), endorsed by Open Labour; Andrew Pakes (Peterborough) a former senior political adviser to the Labour Party; David Pinto-Duschinsky (Hendon), a former adviser to Alistair Darling under the last Labour government; Gareth Derrick (Plymouth Moor View), endorsed by shadow international trade secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds; and Rachel Blake (Cities of London and Westminster) who backed Labour to Win candidates in the NEC elections. Among the other selected candidates, there are a number of former MP staffers and union officials, as well as several barristers and think tank employees.

The future of the Labour Party…

If Labour is to form a government after the next election, a prime minister Starmer would need to appoint almost 100 Labour MPs as ministers or whips. 

But, as things stand, the Labour Party has just 195 MPs, of whom 14 have announced they are standing down in 2024 or are facing deselection. On top of this, 33 Labour MPs (not including those currently sitting as independents) are members of the pro-Corbyn Socialist Campaign Group and are hence potentially hostile to the leadership.

The attention the leadership is applying to the candidate section process is therefore, in some senses, borne of political necessity. Starmer does not want a repeat of the scenario faced by Peter Mandelson on election night in 1997, where the Labour party had scores of new MPs “who we’d frankly not heard of and knew nothing about”.

Nonetheless, the tussle over selections is intimately linked to a wider struggle over the ideological direction of the Labour party. 

Starmer wants a fresh intake of moderate Labour MPs to help determine the ideological texture of the Labour party post-2024. It is a strategy that falls in line with the steady but sure progress figureheads of the Labour right have made through the parliamentary party under Starmer’s premiership. 

This all suggests that if there is to be a Labour government in the near future as the polls suggest, it will be formed in Starmer’s image — one defined by the traditions of the party’s right flank. 

It is little wonder that former Conservative MPs Anna Soubry and Nick Boles have announced they will be voting for Keir Starmer’s Labour at the next election.