When the history books are written, this week may well be seen as the time when Keir Starmer’s takeover of the Labour party was complete.
At the first completely in-person meeting of the parliamentary Labour party since he became leader, Starmer made clear that any member – and, by extension, any MP – who draws “false equivalence” between Nato and Russia would be kicked out.
It was a clear repudiation of Jeremy Corbyn’s legacy as leader, which was marked by a suspicion of western intelligence, most notably after the Salisbury poisoning.
Just 48 hours later, former shadow chancellor (and Corbyn ally) John McDonnell pulled out of a planned appearance at a Stop The War ‘No To War In Ukraine’ rally after HuffPost UK revealed he faced losing the whip if he turned up.
As the second anniversary of Starmer being elected Labour leader approaches, here is the inside story of how he faced down the left to take control of his party.
‘A new era’
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%.
On the same day, Angela Rayner became deputy leader with 52.6% of the vote.
“It’s the honour and privilege of my life,” Starmer said. “I will lead this great party into a new era, with confidence and hope, so that when the time comes, we can serve our country again – in government.”
But with a party still very much in the image of Jeremy Corbyn, his challenges were just beginning.
Taking back control
The prospect of Starmer standing on the steps of 10 Downing Street as prime minister seemed fanciful, however. He was taking over a party that had just suffered its worst election defeat since 1935, had lost dozens of formerly safe seats in the north of England and been left with just one MP in Scotland.
In order to stand any chance of winning the next election, Starmer needed to first try to unite a party that had become hopelessly split under his predecessor.
“There were two schools of thought,” says one Starmer ally. “One, that you should negotiate with the Momentum types in order to build as broad a church as possible. Two, that they were implacably opposed to Keir and Angela’s leadership and that, as disappointing as it is, they had no intention of ever being good faith partners.”
Labour’s ruling national executive council was split between those who wanted to keep the Corbyn flame alive and those who, like Starmer, believed the party needed to stop talking to itself and instead start talking to the country.
“Keir is not any sort of factionalist,” one senior party source told HuffPost UK, “but he quickly grew to understand that in order to get done what he wanted and needed, he would have to have more control.”
Winning a majority
When Starmer became leader, the NEC was finely balanced, meaning he could only rely on 18 votes on the 38-member body. This meant that his plans for changing the way the party operated could always be defeated by a united anti-Starmer majority.
“Almost every item on the NEC agenda was pushed to a vote, with the leader’s coalition usually winning by a single vote,” says one insider.
It meant that progress was repeatedly delayed, internal elections were postponed and important decisions were deferred. Clearly, this was an unsustainable position.
Handily for Starmer, nine NEC seats – all held by members of the pro-Corbyn campaign group Momentum – were up for re-election in November, 2020.
Despite fierce opposition from the left, Starmer’s team successfully pushed for them to be elected by proportional representation. Momentum lost four of the nine seats they’d held, handing the new leader the NEC majority he craved.
A Labour insider said: “We now have NEC meetings that are focused and collegiate rather than miserable affairs. There are still disagreements, but they are within the spirit of the party.”
The left strike back – then walk out
One memorable, if rather bizarre, incident perhaps typifies the marginalisation of the left in the post-Corbyn era.
In November 2020, just days after Starmer had finally secured his NEC majority, a virtual meeting of the ruling body convened to decide who would become its chair. Veteran MP Margaret Beckett, a former foreign secretary who had served as temporary party leader following the death of John Smith in 1994, was seen as the mainstream choice, but was opposed by the left.
The meeting took place barely 48 hours after Starmer had refused to restore the Labour whip to Corbyn over comments he made in response to the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s report into anti-Semitism in the party when he was leader. This meant the left caucus were already spoiling for a fight.
They disapproved of Beckett, arguing that Ian Murray of the Fire Brigades Union should become NEC chair instead. With no hope of carrying the day, 13 of them staged a walkout – a protest which lost a lot of its impact on Zoom. Among the rebels was Unite’s Howard Beckett (no relation), who spent a minute stabbing at his screen trying to remove himself from the meeting while the others on the call looked on dumbfounded.
“Nothing sums up the left’s impotence more than a red-faced Howard trying and failing to hang up,” recalled one eyewitness.
The unions come aboard
As ever with the Labour party, gaining buy-in from the trade unions was crucial to the Starmer project, which is where backroom fixers Morgan McSweeney and Matt Pound come in.
Working in tandem, the pair – both hate figures for the left – were tasked with pushing through the internal changes Starmer believed were necessary if Labour were to stand any chance of winning the next election.
“Keir’s brief was very clear – he wanted the party to stop talking to itself and start talking to the country,” says one source.
After tense negotiations with union leaders, an agreement was reached that in any future leadership race, candidates would need to have the support of at least 20% of MPs – a high threshold virtually guaranteeing that no left-wing candidate can make it onto the ballot.
In addition, a six-month freeze date on party membership means left-wing activists are unable to simply join when a contest is announced, the tactic that proved so successful for Corbyn in 2015 and 2016.
Changes to the rules on “trigger ballots” have also made it much more difficult for local parties to dump their sitting MPs – a tactic regularly employed by left-wing activists during Corbyn’s time.
The changes – presented as “getting Labour election ready” – were passed at Labour’s annual conference last year, at a time when Starmer’s leadership was coming under pressure as the party failed to make much headway in the polls.
A source said: “There were powerful figures telling Keir and those around him not to push ahead with the rule changes, but it was utterly crucial.
“It’s never been about picking fights or settling scores – it’s about ensuring we face outwards, rather than worry about what factional groups within the party want. It’s no surprise that the loudest voices against were the factional warriors and the vested interests.”
‘No more Mike Hills’
McSweeney and Pound’s final task was to revamp the rules on candidate selection so that party bosses had the power to veto anyone deemed to be unsuitable. Or, as one insider put it, “to stop there ever being another Mike Hill”.
Hill was elected Labour MP for Hartlepool in 2017, but suspended by the party in September, 2019, over sexual harassment allegations. He was reinstated a month later, but quit parliament last year. The resulting by-election was won by the Conservatives’ Jill Mortimer.
According to Starmer’s team, the old candidate selection rules allowed shortlists to be stitched up by big-spending unions, and for would-be MPs to be parachuted in with little or no checks carried out on their suitability for the job.
“Imagine that you run your own business and have a family – you probably have loads of life experience that we need in the party,” says a source. “But you can’t get selected because you don’t have the time to attend every meeting or the money to run. We miss out on so many great candidates because of this.”
Once again, McSweeney and Pound – plus newly-appointed political director Luke Sullivan – managed to square off the unions so that new rules were brought in preventing local parties from blocking candidates, putting spending caps on campaigns and shortening selection timetables.
“In just two years, a dedicated team of Starmer enforcers have completely rewired the party, stamped down on factionalism, weeded out vested interests and given the leadership more control than any Labour leader has previously had,” says one insider. “The left really, really dislike this.”
HuffPost UK understands that in the coming weeks, as working from home becomes a thing of the past, Labour officials loyal to Starmer will start moving into Southside, the party’s HQ five minute’s walk from parliament.
“Keir is adamant about the fact we have to keep pushing Labour away from its comfort zone and towards the voters,” says a source. “And he knows you can only do so much from the leader’s office or on Teams.
“You can expect to see some of his most loyal and effective people moving to Southside in the coming months. The work continues.”