Labour needs big personalities to take on the Tories

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It is springtime for Sir Keir Starmer and the Labour party is readying for another by-election. It has yet to make a by-election gain in this parliament but this is a fight it has a chance of winning. In Wakefield, in West Yorkshire, Starmer is hoping to kick off the party’s fightback in its former “red wall” heartlands.

Imran Ahmad Khan, the town’s first Tory MP since 1931, was convicted on Monday of sexually assaulting a teenager. He is appealing but if that fails, a sentence of over 12 months would trigger automatic expulsion from parliament and an election.

The Conservatives have been preparing for a Wakefield by-election with dread. The backdrop for a ballot-box kicking could barely be worse: a prime minister and chancellor fined for breaking the law, soaring inflation, rising fuel and energy costs, the row over Rishi Sunak’s family tax affairs — compounded by a former minister controversially suggesting Khan was hard done by.

With a majority of 3,358 and Labour eight points ahead of the Tories, anything less than a decisive win would be damaging for Starmer. Winning Wakefield is a critical step to regaining those seats his party lost for the first time in generations in 2019. As one seasoned Labour activist put it, “it’s a great opportunity for Keir. We’re going to win, I think, but if we don’t then we are fucked.”

The by-election, along with May’s local polls, marks two years of Starmer’s leadership and the party is barely recognisable as the one he took over. Previously, the tentacles of Jeremy Corbyn’s leftwing project reached into every corner of the party. Now the shadow cabinet, national executive committee and parliamentary party are in Starmer’s palm. It took Labour over a decade to undo the left’s control in the 1980s; he has done it in two.

Yet there is still unease within Labour that it has not changed enough. Last month, I sat with 20 moderate MPs discussing their future. All agreed that voters were yet to embrace the party. One says, “voters are going off Boris Johnson in a big way, but they are yet to come over to us. That worries me.”

One of Labour’s senior figures from its last stint in office warns, “every time you think you’ve done enough to reassure the public, you need to double down on it again”. The former minister adds, “all of the policies from that era need to be thrown out of the window, which is a much more difficult thing to do”.

There is another major challenge Labour is overlooking: personalities. The shadow cabinet has the most plausible line up of future ministers in a decade. Whether it is Lisa Nandy as a potential levelling-up minister or Wes Streeting on health, Labour’s team is holding the government to account. But they are failing to make the weather.

Part of the problem is Starmer himself. Watching him against Johnson at prime minister’s questions each week is akin to watching a small ferret darting around, only to be repeatedly run over by a bulldozer. He offers reassurance but cannot match Johnson’s bombast. At the next general election, in two years, Labour will have to lean on other personalities.

Wakefield is an opportunity to bring more in and the party should think creatively. Step forward Ed Balls: former Financial Times journalist, political adviser, MP, cabinet minister and shadow chancellor. Since losing his seat in 2015, Balls has reinvented himself as a celebrity TV star. According to YouGov, he is the UK’s second most popular politician.

Like many of the party’s centrist figures, Balls stepped away from politics and has found a new, easier life. Those who have spoken to Balls about politics say he misses Westminster and think he could, maybe, be persuaded to have another shot in the shadow cabinet. One friend reflects he is a mirror image of Johnson: “a former celebrity TV star who is wildly popular with large parts of the country. Ed is exactly what Labour needs now.”

But second acts in politics almost always fail. The fact that Balls is being discussed — and a return for former foreign secretary David Miliband mooted — is indicative of a dearth of talent, a lack of exciting faces to engage their lost voters. Labour has to focus harder on who, not just what, it is presenting to voters.

sebastian.payne@ft.com 

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