Labour chair Angela Rayner has been dramatically fired by Keir Starmer as a bitter row erupted over the party’s disastrous performance in Thursday’s bumper set of elections.
She was blamed for her role in running the council and mayoral polls and the byelection in Hartlepool, but her allies said she was never given control over campaigns that were “run out of Starmer’s office”. As the chair of the campaign, her supporters said she was being set up for the blame.
One frontbencher said that blaming Rayner for the election results was “utterly ridiculous”, after Starmer had explicitly accepted personal responsibility in a statement on Friday.
Party insiders said they believed MP Steve Reed would take over as chair. Reed is close to Starmer’s chief of staff, Morgan McSweeney, and Labour’s general secretary, David Evans.
The move came ahead of an anticipated reshuffle of the shadow cabinet early this week. MPs were last night pointing out that Rayner, a former care assistant and union rep originally from Stockport, was chosen for her role because of her appeal to northern, working-class communities.
Former shadow chancellor John McDonnell said the decision to remove Rayner as Labour’s chair and campaigns chief was a “cowardly avoidance of responsibility”.
Meanwhile, senior Labour figures blamed the election fiasco on a failure to understand how Boris Johnson has changed the Tory party so it can appeal to working-class voters, as questions mounted over Starmer’s leadership.
As the postmortem continued, the re-elected mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, criticised the move to oust Rayner. “I can’t support this,” he said on Twitter.
Burnham said on Saturday that he would entertain becoming leader of the Labour party “in the distant future” but insisted that his mind was firmly fixed on his second term as mayor. Starmer has been in office for just 13 months.
In the aftermath of the latest election drubbing, Burnham told the Observer: “Labour at a national level has lost its emotional bond with many people who were former supporters and that sentiment is strongest in the parts of the north that were previously most loyal to us.”
In a clear criticism of the party’s national approach, Burnham added: “You don’t get it back by operating an overly cautious form of politics nor by continuing to see everything through the lens of Westminster.”
Asked on Sky News whether he wanted to lead the party following reports he would be a frontrunner to replace Starmer, Burnham said: “I’ve been elected as mayor of Greater Manchester – that is where my focus is.”
Labour losses in the Hartlepool byelection and in other red wall areas, where it hoped to win back voters who deserted it at the 2019 general election, have left MPs and party activists in a state of shock and despair.
Several frontbenchers loyal to Starmer broke cover to say it had been an error to regard Johnson’s party as “the same old Tories” as they had been under Margaret Thatcher, when they had in fact been transformed into a high-spend party to appeal to voters in former industrial areas behind the red wall.
One frontbencher said: “I kept getting briefing notes telling me to say ‘same old Tories’. The problem is that they are not the same old Tories. They are different and we didn’t get that.”
The shadow minister for the City, Pat McFadden, said: “We are not facing the Conservative party as in Margaret Thatcher’s days. This is a high-spending Conservative party which is promising to pump a lot of money into working-class towns and cities and whether they can deliver or not we have to work out how to deal with that.
“If we keep making the same offer and say we got the timing wrong we are going to face more nights like Thursday night.”
Wes Streeting, the shadow schools minister, said the target Labour needed to attack was now a different one, but the party’s tactics had not shifted to reflect that.
“We are no longer facing the same old Tories and if we continue to look like the same old Labour party we will go on losing like the same old Labour party. We’ve got to change and that means showing, not telling. On policy, on organisation and on an optimistic vision for our country’s future.”
Clive Lewis, a former frontbencher and MP for Norwich South, said: “To turn things around Keir must ensure our movement is allowed to build an authentic policy offer that matches the challenges facing the country.
“The middle ground of British politics is a myth. Boris Johnson has proved that it is wherever you make the case for it to be.
“This then is a new phase of Toryism – neo-illiberalism if you will. One which combines large state spending and market intervention with authoritarian and nationalist instincts. The ‘same old Tories’ playbook simply won’t cut it.”
Frontbencher Peter Kyle, MP for Hove, said: “During the pandemic we clearly overestimated the attention paid to Labour’s positive changes and underestimated the appeal of Johnson’s bumbling positivity during a campaign.
“His high-spending populism has disrupted the political landscape and we need to rethink our entire approach accordingly. We’re fighting the Tories we’ve got, not the ones we want.”
Johnson last night said there would be no letup in the Tories’ attempts to “level up” the poorer parts of the country with the more prosperous.
“These election results are an instruction to us to keep our focus on what matters: more jobs and investment, better public services and levelling up opportunity in every single community across the country.
“Many people will have voted Conservative for the first time. From the Vale of Clwyd to Harlow, from Cornwall to Dudley – and, of course, in Hartlepool.
“Voters have put their trust in Conservative representatives, councillors and mayors and we must deliver for them. We will have a laser-like focus on the people’s priorities as we build back better from the pandemic. There will be no let-up in levelling up.”
The shadow cabinet and parliamentary Labour party will meet on Monday, with tensions running high and factions on left and right blaming each other.
Some MPs said they had been told that Peter Mandelson had been allowed to sign off party lines during the campaign. Another insider said: “I hope Andy [Burnham] does run.”
While Starmer has vowed to make significant changes in response to the results, he has not yet outlined them. It is understood that the pollster Deborah Mattinson is poised to join the Labour leader’s team to oversee a strategy overhaul.
Having already suffered heavy losses in the Hartlepool byelection and the Tees Valley mayoralty, Labour also lost to Conservative Andy Street, who was re-elected as mayor of the West Midlands, taking 54% of the vote after a second round of counting. It was a significantly bigger victory than his first win in 2017.
However, there was some good news for Labour, as Sadiq Khan won a second term as London’s mayor. Khan beat the Conservative challenger Shaun Bailey by 55.2% to 44.8% in the runoff.
Burnham also enjoyed a huge win as he was re-elected Greater Manchester mayor, taking 67% of the vote while Steve Rotheram comfortably secured a second term as Liverpool city region mayor and Marvin Rees held Bristol after going to a runoff against the Greens.
There was also a Labour win in the West of England mayoral race for Dan Norris, while Labour’s Nik Johnson was elected Cambridgeshire and Peterborough mayor, suggesting the party could be making progress in pro-remain areas that returned a Tory MP at the 2019 election.