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Is the shadow chancellor on her way out? This is what you need to know about Anneliese Dodds

Labour’s leader on the economy has risen in haze—so can she survive if Starmer now wants clarity?
May 3, 2021

When Keir Starmer is asked who his team’s stars are, the first name out of his mouth is invariably Anneliese Dodds. And yet in what is proving to be a challenging spring for Labour, an increasing number of her colleagues expect the shadow chancellor to be reshuffled from the Treasury brief. The job is the second-most important on the opposition frontbench, so her fate will reveal whether Starmer thinks his year-old operation requires an early reboot.

In the face of a Conservative government spending big during the pandemic, and an opponent, Rishi Sunak, who is a master of slick PR, Dodds wears her relentless cheeriness as a suit of armour in an unforgiving fight. But she faces an uphill battle to convince voters that Labour has the answer to their economic woes.

MP for Oxford East since 2017, following three years in the European Parliament, Starmer’s surprise pick last year for the shadow chancellorship chats regularly with Gordon Brown, who held the real job for so long, and also retains the support of her firebrand predecessor John McDonnell, who saw her as the best performer in his own team. But she shuns ideology to the point of declining to call herself a democratic socialist, and told me “capitalism is here to stay,” in contrast to the Marx-inspired veteran McDonnell who has described overthrowing capitalism as his “hobby.” Dodds prefers what she calls a “neighbour test” to communicate ideas, framing policies in a language understandable to families rather than theoreticians. And yet polls suggest the great British public currently has little idea what the party stands for, or who she is.

Labour MPs’ confidence in Dodds was shaken by uncertainty in the response to Sunak’s spring budget. One shadow Cabinet ally told me part of the blame for the dithering belongs to Starmer, who couldn’t make up his mind on whether to oppose new tax measures, and that Dodds is a victim of female politicians being held to tougher standards. Shadow home secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds similarly struggles to make a huge impression, argues Dodds’s sisterly defender, and yet he escapes constant speculation about his future. The Daily Mail hasn’t helped, making play with a “story” suggesting Dodds underwent a makeover. Misogynist trolls on social media liken Dodds to a harassed social worker or Victorian chimney sweep.

The shadow chancellor can answer Tory charges that she knows nothing about business by replying that it is in her blood, her father running an accountancy firm in Scotland. Dodds, 43, grew up in Aberdeenshire, where she was sent to Robert Gordon’s College, a private school whose ex-pupils include Michael Gove. She worked as a kitchen porter, barmaid and weighbridge operator (measuring tenant farmers’ grain supplies) while studying, before the grain company offered her a permanent job. She declined in favour of PPE at Oxford, followed by a Masters at Edinburgh, a PhD in government at the LSE, and then academic posts at King’s College London and Aston University.

Those years learning and lecturing leave some puzzled about the way she eschews any hint of doctrine: when I pressed her to identify economists influencing her worldview she was reluctant, citing only a couple of pieces she’d read by left-leaning commentators Simon Wren-Lewis and Paul Mason. When we spoke in her Westminster office along the corridor from Starmer’s lair, the influence she saluted most enthusiastically was the late Carole Roberts, a former Labour councillor who founded an advice centre on Oxford’s Rose Hill estate, where Dodds lives.

The ability to straddle Labour’s divides, to be a bridge between the Corbyn and Starmer phases without making enemies, is Dodds’s major selling point at Westminster. The Brexit chasm is crossed by this past proponent of a second referendum doing her best to avoid the issue. The virus has made the job of shadow chancellor even tougher: voters want the government to succeed. In Labour circles, the conversation is whether Starmer now wants a change of face—Rachel Reeves and Yvette Cooper are the most cited possible replacements—or would prefer to persevere with Dodds. We’ll know soon enough.