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Labour reshuffle and policy review expected after May election losses

·3-min read
<span>Photograph: Toby Melville/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Toby Melville/Reuters

Keir Starmer is expected to reshuffle his top team and kick off a policy review as he seeks to reassert his leadership after a string of embarrassing losses in the “Super Thursday” elections.

Recriminations flew on Friday as the scale of the Hartlepool defeat sank in, and the Tories gained control of councils from Harlow to Northumberland.

One shadow cabinet member said the Hartlepool byelection result had sparked “full-on panic” among Labour MPs fearful that their seats could be vulnerable at the next general election. “It’s the fact that 2019 was not the floor: that’s pretty scary,” they added. Another described Starmer’s aides as “ashen” at the scale of the swing against Labour in the north-east England town.

Starmer made no public statement until late afternoon, more than nine hours after the Hartlepool result was announced, when he allowed broadcasters a brief interview. “He’s in his north London bunker, holed up with his advisers,” said one party source. A shadow cabinet member said: “I would like to talk to him, and tell him to hold his nerve.”

A senior party source declined to say whether Starmer would shake up his frontbench but repeatedly underlined the need for the party to show it had changed. “We have got to change, and that has got to be much harder and faster than we anticipated six months ago,” they said, adding: “We have got to look at the policy platform across the board, post-pandemic.”

Another senior party adviser said: “I think a reshuffle is quite imminent. They want people who are recognisable.”

Starmer is expected to focus on bringing in media-savvy big beasts from Labour’s backbenches. Names frequently touted include former cabinet ministers Yvette Cooper and Hilary Benn.

Rachel Reeves could also be set for a more senior role. Reeves is trusted by Starmer and has worked closely with him on Brexit policy, but could be given a big Whitehall department to shadow.

Meanwhile the shadow chancellor, Anneliese Dodds, and the shadow home secretary, Nick Thomas-Symonds, have sometimes been criticised for failing to make an impact. One source suggested the shadow health secretary, Jonathan Ashworth, could also be vulnerable.

A shadow minister loyal to Starmer said: “Keir hasn’t been able to do anything because of the pandemic – make proper speeches, talk to voters. The same is also true for the shadow cabinet, so to an extent some of the criticism of them is unfair as well. But I think people feel it’s time to bring back some of the genuine big hitters, people like Hilary [Benn] and Yvette [Cooper].”

Related: Hartlepool fell victim to the Labour leader’s lack of vision | Owen Jones

That would be likely to spark accusations of a shift towards the right, however, and others including the Brighton MP Lloyd Russell-Moyle called for Starmer to allow leftwingers a seat at the “top table” in an approach he compared to that of the US president, Joe Biden.

Some Starmer loyalists sought to blame his deputy, Angela Rayner, who is Labour’s national campaign coordinator, for the party’s poor electoral performance. But Rayner’s allies said she was overruled on messaging, with Starmer’s team keeping tight control over the campaign. Rayner had hoped to focus more on boosting sick pay, and “jobs, jobs, jobs”.

Starmer’s chief of staff, Lady Jenny Chapman, was another key figure mentioned by disgruntled Labour MPs as partly responsible for the humiliating scale of the loss in Hartlepool, including by masterminding the selection of the candidate, Paul Williams, a remain-supporting former MP who was chosen from a one-man “shortlist”. Chapman lost her Darlington seat in 2019, and has encouraged Starmer to focus on winning back voters in areas like hers.

Starmer’s focus on “Tory sleaze” in recent days has also been questioned by some in the parliamentary Labour party, who said it failed to resonate with voters. His team insist they have also highlighted other issues, including jobs and crime.