Those who have paid attention to British politics at all since 2020 will know that Keir Starmer and Angela Rayner are different politicians, both in style and in substance.
Indeed, Rayner and Starmer’s relationship, the standard telling goes, is a marriage of inconvenience. That they have been forced together is regretted as an unhappy accident of Labour’s internal election system — which provides the leader and deputy leader with parallel mandates. The definitional opposite of “star-crossed lovers”, they are destined to disagree, probably, all the way into government — and especially as Starmer undertakes to enervate his “soft left” through reshuffles and policy u-turns.
This telling — popular among those in Conservative circles who like to stir Labour infighting — received something akin to an endorsement from Rayner last month as she compared her relationship with Starmer to an “arranged marriage”. She revealed to the BBC that their kinship had “evolved” over the years, but went on: “We were both elected by the membership differently and independently. We work constructively together”.
While Rayner and Starmer’s political differences are somewhat less unbridgeable than those of former leadership duo Jeremy Corbyn and Tom Watson, Starmer’s mission to firmly stamp his mark on the party has often found in “Ange” a conspicuous roadblock.
Indeed, it has been one of Starmer’s perennial problems as Labour leader that he has not worked out whether to seize on his differences with his deputy, or to avoid any questions of political divergence by isolating her. After the May 2021 Hartlepool by-election, which saw Labour once more routed in its former heartlands, Starmer appeared to be leaning towards the latter as he removed Rayner from the roles of party chair and national campaign coordinator.
But in a move that has assumed folklorish prominence in Starmer’s Labour, Rayner successfully orchestrated a revolt from her allies, forcing Starmer to placate her with a series of roles. The result was an elaborate, twenty-four-word job title as Rayner emerged as shadow first secretary of state, shadow chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and shadow secretary of state for the future of work. (“The more titles he feeds her, the hungrier she is likely to become”, a buoyant Boris Johnson quipped at the following Prime Minister’s Questions).
Since that inglorious day in May 2021, rumours that the Labour leader will actually follow through on his prior threat to freeze out Rayner have appeared almost as frequently as briefings about Ed Miliband’s future. They are driven in part by an improved polling performance, which has allowed Starmer to consolidate his control over his party. Another pertinent trend is that Rayner’s importance in Labour has appeared to devalue in inverse proportion to the rising currency of Rachel Reeves. (The shadow chancellor has emerged as Starmer’s seriously adept sidekick; and it is one of the cruel rules of opposition politics — with time in the spotlight so coveted — that the rise of one spokesperson almost always results in the equal and opposite decline in another).
But with Starmer’s recent shadow cabinet reshuffle, and Angela Rayner’s speech at the TUC conference yesterday, it may be that the Labour leader and his deputy have settled their differences by embracing them.
In Starmer’s early September reshuffle, Rayner became shadow deputy prime minister and shadow secretary of state for levelling up, while retaining her role as “strategic lead” for Labour’s New Deal for Working People.
Rayner’s speech yesterday at the Trades Union Congress (TUC) conference in Liverpool was her first major public appearance since Starmer’s reshuffle. And empowered by her new policy brief, the shadow deputy PM’s job was twofold: (1) to announce and sell Labour’s workers rights package to sceptical unions and, (2), to convince Starmer’s left-wing critics more broadly that the Labour Party can, in fact, be trusted.
On this latter point, some argue Rayner is swimmingly against the tide. Indeed, after the party’s National Policy Forum in July, a report appeared in the Financial Times suggesting that Labour was diluting a pledge to boost the protection of gig economy workers among other proposals. It came with the suggestion that Labour was shirking its responsibility as party of the workers in order to woo big business.
Well aware of such criticisms, Rayner began by paying tribute to the TUC’s general secretary Paul Nowak for taking on the Conservatives over workers’ rights during waves of industrial action, before pronouncing on her policy pitch:
Day one basic rights, a ban on zero-hour contracts, an end to fire and rehire, family-friendly working, strengthened sick pay, making it available to all workers, including the lowest earners.
And from day one, we will go faster and quicker to end the gender pay gap, address unequal pay, tackle sexual harassment at work and put mental health on a par with physical health, and we will bring in a proper living wage, which people can actually live on.
It received rapturous applause.
She outlined moreover that Labour’s plan to curate a New Deal for Working People blueprint within 100 days is a “cast-iron commitment”. She also committed to repealing the Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Act 2023 within the first 100 days of a Starmer-fronted administration. (Labour rarely commits to immediately repealing Conservative legislation, even if they have opposed it; such as the Illegal Migration Act and Public Order Act. This, therefore, seems significant).
Cue further applause.
In sum, the speech amounted to a clarion call for the unions to “come together, stand together and campaign side by side”. This all begs the question: could Keir Starmer, who consciously exudes Blair-like moderation and thus occasional antipathy to union leaders, have made this speech?
For what it’s worth, Rayner’s speech came after Starmer addressed the TUC general council dinner at Liverpool’s Hilton Hotel. “Bland!” was how one senior union general secretary, described to Starmer’s speech to Sky News.
This may be further evidence that while Starmer is the leader of the capital “L” Labour party, Rayner is the nominal convenor — or at least the leading parliamentary light — of the small “l” labour movement.
In the end, only time will tell whether Starmer will double down on his pitch on worker’s rights, composed of the “New Deal”, and allow Rayner to use her clout among the unions to sell it. (After she called Conservatives “scum” Labour’s conference in 2021, Starmer has not always embraced Rayner’s freelancing).
On this, one imagines that the Labour leadership is watching the retorts of Conservative MPs closely; indeed, based on the statements and string of tweets from party representatives yesterday, they still think Starmer is exposed when it comes to his deputy. (Tory tweeter-in-chief and chairman Greg Hands accused Rayner of “committing to Labour’s union paymasters” after the firebrand politician vowed to repeal anti-strike legislation).
This gets to the very root of Labour’s strategic dilemma: how to balance neutralising Conservative attack lines while offering a distinct alternative, placating voices to the leadership’s left.
Starmer may have decided that it his role to prosecute the former, while Rayner can be utilised on the latter imperative.
Josh Self is Editor of Politics.co.uk, follow him on Twitter here.
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