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Sensemaker audio

Keir Starmer mis-fires

Keir Starmer mis-fires

The Labour leader tried to sack his deputy. It could hardly have gone worse for him.


Transcript

Claudia Williams: Hi, I’m Claudia – and this is Sensemaker – from tortoisemedia.com

One story every day to make sense of the world.

Today: a scapegoat and a chaotic reshuffle which ended in disaster.

***

I’m going to tell you a story about today’s Labour Party but I want to start with the way things were a few years ago.

“Alright, John Prescott, the big problem with… the big problem is him. Hang on a second the big problem is it sounds plausible…”

John Prescott speaking on Newsnight, 2010

“Listen, I’ve just been listening to you, don’t give me that rubbish. Ok but you her asked why…”

John Prescott speaking on Newsnight, 2011

“Okay can I come back on some things John Prescott has said? Don’t give him another go unless I’m coming back.”

John Prescott speaking on Newsnight, 2010

Now you may remember John Prescott. When Tony Blair was prime minister, John Prescott was his deputy. And, in some ways, he was probably everything Tony Blair wouldn’t have wanted his deputy to be.

He was a bit of a loose cannon. He had a habit of mangling his words. He punched a man who threw an egg at him, and stuck his fingers up at journalists.

But… and it’s a big but… he was everything that Tony Blair wasn’t. He was proudly working class. He’d been a steward in the merchant navy. The trade unions liked him. Tony Blair knew that, even though he and John Prescott were an odd couple, they were a good couple for the Labour Party. They made it look balanced.

And that’s where we come back to this week. Keir Starmer sacked his deputy Angela Rayner from her job running Labour’s election campaigns. To people in the Labour Party, Angela Rayner means a lot of the same things that John Prescott used to mean.

Why on earth did Keir Starmer think it was a good idea to give her the boot?

***

“Bitterly disappointed in the results, and you know I take full responsibility for the results and I will take full responsibility for fixing things.”

Sir Keir Starmer, speaking after the May 2021 by-election results

Even before the Labour party’s defeat in Hartlepool was announced, their leader Sir Keir Starmer was adamant he’d take “full responsibility” if his party did badly.

But when the votes were counted, the first thing Keir Starmer did was sack his deputy, Angela Rayner.

“We have learnt that Keir Starmer has sacked Angela Rayner from her roles as both the Labour party chair and as the party’s national campaign coordinator.

Novara Media news report

The move was described as both foolish and self-destructive. A move that was only going to inflame party tensions. 

“I said earlier, I think it’s baffling why he sacked Angela Rayner, she didn’t take any of the big decisions around Hartlepool and we’ve not heard anywhere in the country people saying they didn’t vote labour because of Angela Rayner.”

Diane Abbot speaking on Sky News’ Sophy Ridge on Sunday

Down at Labour HQ on Saturday afternoon, Angela Rayner had been taken aside by Keir Starmer and told she was being moved. A reshuffle was on the cards. 

And although that initial meeting between deputy and leader was short, the fall-out meant the reshuffle itself took 37 hours to complete. It was the longest shadow cabinet reshuffle in recent memory. 

And by 9.30pm on Sunday evening, when Labour were still unable to confirm just what exactly what was going on, it was clear that Angela Rayner wasn’t going quietly. 

So, the question is… why was sacking Angela Rayner such a disastrous move?

***

Angela Rayner had a meteoric rise to the top of the Labour party. 

She left school at 16, pregnant, and with no qualifications. She went on to be a care worker, and then a shop steward, discovering trade unions along the way. And when she turned to politics, Angela Rayner managed to bag a seat in Jeremy Corbyn’s Shadow Cabinet just one year after becoming an MP. 

“Some Tories look down their noses at me because you can hear I wasn’t born with a plum in my mouth. I get snobbery too…”

Angela Rayner speaking at the Labour Party Conference, 2016

And so four years on from her first Shadow Cabinet position, Angela Rayner was successfully elected as Deputy Leader of the Labour party.

And that is the key bit of information Keir Starmer seemed to overlook when he tried to sack her at the weekend. Angela Rayner had been elected by Labour party members. She has her own power base. She couldn’t just be sacked. 

“Labour sources say she will now be offered a quote, front-line shadow cabinet role in a somewhat rushed reshuffle but many are outraged saying she’s paying the price…”

Paul McNamara reporting for Channel 4 News

That was the initial party line as news hit that Angela Rayner was losing her role as chairwoman and national campaign coordinator… to a frontbench role covering social care, something she saw as a significant demotion. 

Cue… a very long row. 

***

By the time the Sunday morning politics shows came around the question on everyone’s lips was not about the by-election results, it was this…  

“Do you know whether Angela Rayner has been sacked from any of her positions or not?”

The Andrew Marr Show

You could say Keir Starmer’s choice of timing to sack Angela Rayner was poor… 

“Keir Starmer’s decision to sack his deputy Angela Rayner from her job as party chair and election coordinator has overshadowed today’s gains for labour and infuriated many on the left.”

XXX

The row dominated a weekend when far more promising results for Labour eventually came through. 

“What public relations genius thought this was a good move on the very day actually we were having successes, you know Andy Burnham in Manchester, Steve Rotherham in Liverpool, Paul Dennett in Salford, Marvin Rees in Bristol, Sadiq in London…”

Former Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell speaking on BBC News

***

As for the final result of the row, it was… a 24 word job title.

Angela Rayner stayed as deputy leader, of course, but now she’s also (wait for it) shadow secretary of state, shadow chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and shadow secretary of state for the future of work.

In other words, a real mouthful.

Arguably, Angela Rayner is more powerful now than she was before the reshuffle. Partly because Keir Starmer looks weaker. He made a bad call when he decided to sack her. People thought he showed poor judgement (and, really, Labour members made him leader because they thought he’d have good judgement).

And he upset the balance of the Labour Party. Just like Tony Blar and John Prescott, Keir Starmer and Angela Rayner were seen as a team which represented something: old and new Labour values, left and right, north and south.

Now Keir Starmer has wrecked that balance, it’s going to be a very hard thing to put back together again.

Today’s story was written and produced by Imy Harper


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