These days it’s easier to work out who is leaving Keir Starmer’s team than who is still in it. Ahead of the Batley and Spen by-election next Thursday, there have been a series of moves and departures – from one-time political secretary Jenny Chapman’s demotion to a raft of departures in the comms team.
After Labour’s top spinner Ben Nunn stepped down, the hunt is on for a new Director of Communications to turn round Starmer’s lacklustre approval ratings. Already the team is on its second interim replacement, with Steph Driver replaced on Wednesday by Blair-era fixture Matthew Doyle. Asked for their thoughts on who'd get the job, one top Labour aide told Mr S 'God knows.'
The current buzz within Labour’s Victoria Street headquarters is about whether the new hires will be internal or external, drawn from the existing staff in the Leader of the Opposition’s office or brought in from outside. With the New Statesman’s political editor Stephen Bush warning on Monday that ‘Labour’s approach to communication under Starmer been better suited to a Trappist monastery than a political party’, there is a push to hire a seasoned politico with media experience.
So below Mr Steerpike presents his guide to some of the names currently doing the rounds on lobby and party WhatsApp groups for the tricky task of making Labour electable again…
— Patrick Hennessy (@PatJHennessy) May 11, 2021
First day of the rest of my life! It's been an immense privilege working for Sadiq as he's led London through such a tough five years. I'll miss him terribly, but now is the time for me to seek fresh challenges. His new top team is fantastic.https://t.co/vtwKE0OUK6
Patrick Hennessy – up until last month, he held the most senior comms job for an elected Labour politician in England. He quit City Hall after five years in the role but would bring badly needed heavyweight experience back to party HQ. Besides, his former life as the Political Editor of the Sunday Telegraph means he could continue the tradition of planting Starmer op-eds in right wing papers.
Uma Kumaran – another possible internal hire. Director of parliamentary affairs under Starmer, previously in City Hall and well respected within HQ so could be up for promotion.
Sophie Nazemi – Labour’s current head of press is one of the few remaining survivors from the Corbyn years. A battle-hardened veteran popular amongst Westminster hacks, Nazemi could be seen as someone to keep the left wing of the party on side.
Rob Burley – most recently the BBC’s editor of live political programmes but due to leave his post later this year. He produced the Andrew Marr Show and Daily Politics amongst others – something eagle-eyed Steerpike readers might have noticed last Friday. While Burley certainly has the desired broadcast experience, his penchant for social media could prove a step too far – he spent much of last year protesting the BBC’s impartiality on Twitter.
Pippa Crerar – incumbent Daily Mirror political editor who won scoop of the year for breaking Barnard Castle-gate. She boasts Labour contacts as befits the party’s house paper and was first to break the news of Nunn's imminent resignation last week. ‘Could make it official’ according to one lobby source.
— Pippa Crerar (@PippaCrerar) June 18, 2021
EXCL: One of Labour leader Keir Starmer’s top aides - Director of Comms Ben Nunn - to step down https://t.co/czFWEZZUMF
Damian McBride – Gordon Brown’s one-time chief spinner infamously resigned in 2009 over ‘Smeargate’ lies. But his legendary skills were memorably recounted in his memoir Power Trip in which he details how he enabled Gordon Brown's survival in Downing Street, defeated Stephen Carter in a briefing war and organised such media triumphs as the derailing of George Osborne's high speed rail announcement. Now a decade on and working as Emily Thornberry’s advisor, surely ‘Mad dog’ could bring back some bite to the once great Labour comms operation?
Paul Waugh – Huffington Post’s long-time political editor who may wish to get out before its parent company guts the remnants of their UK operation. A noted story getter, expert Kreminologist and long-time Labour watcher.
Francis Elliott – former Times political editor who knows the lobby inside out, as he wrote in The Spectator back in March. A canny operator who turned down an offer in the Brexit years to work in Theresa May’s Number 10 team – a sign of shrewd political judgment. He left the paper to work for the charity Engage Britain and left the WhatsApp lobby group just this week – but for how long can he resist the SW1 siren song?
Kevin Schofield – Scotsman who spent 25 years in various newspapers before teaming up in February 2020 with former Labour MP Michael Dugher at the Betting and Gaming Council. While he is regarded as a long shot, he still has links with influential members of the press pack and could be a natural ally for Starmer's allies north of the border in their efforts to revive Scottish Labour.
Dan Hodges – the Mail on Sunday columnist is a long-time critic of successive Labour leaders. Could he finally get his chance to do things properly?