Opinion

Anneliese Dodds: reflections on Labour’s woman near the top

I first met Anneliese Dodds in the 2019 election count for her constituency, Oxford East. I was there representing Sky: a student with coffee and a press pass, and responsibility only for entering some results at the end of the night. Dodds was there preparing to get one of the most important
jobs in the nation – though she can’t have known it quite yet.

To nobody’s surprise, Dodds was elected with 28,000 votes and a 17,000 strong majority. Sky were probably last to get the result; I can’t work a computer. But neither particularly mattered: when the nation woke, they did so to a Conservative majority beyond expectation.

When I caught glimpses of Dodds that night in the count, whenever I crept down to the coffee table, she was usually chatting to her Liberal Democrat opponent, Alistair Fernie. They’re good friends, or so the local reporters in the press room told me. Later, as it became clear her majority was secure, she wrote her victory speech from scratch, on the back of scrap paper. It’s not that her huge win was a surprise – her victory had never been in doubt. What she was writing wasn’t really a victory speech; it was a lament, for the annihilation of her party nationwide.

On January 15th, Dodds introduced Keir Starmer at a campaign event at the Wesley Memorial Church on New Inn Hall street; next door to my college, St Peter’s, and just on the edge of her constituency. A long-term supporter of his leadership bid, and one of the first MPs to nominate him, she spoke of Starmer’s lifelong commitment to fighting injustice – not outside the system, but within it, as a lawyer and as Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP). She spoke with the passion of a close ally, and the urgency of a politician conscious of the human cost of her party’s loss just a month before.

Three months later, Starmer was elected Labour leader, and Dodds appointed Shadow Chancellor.

The most prevalent criticism of Starmer during his bid for the Labour leadership was that no one quite knew what he believed. He claimed radical credentials, and he served on the Corbyn frontbench when so many talented moderates refused – yet among those who nominated him weresome of the party’s most vocal Blairites. This display of what some call pragmatism, and some dishonesty, extended to his choice of top team – not least in the appointment of Dodds. Her human face might have made her a popular MP, but she serves a city where the coalition of students and Cowley residents make Labour candidates’ lives easy.

What, then, does she believe?

Since her appointment, articles about Dodds have covered everything but her political beliefs; political journalists seem, unsurprisingly, to have been distracted. Googling her name, Dodds’ strongest political conviction would seem to be bringing her young daughter to public appearances. She is invariably described as ‘soft-left’ and ‘pro-European’, as if the former is not
meaningless, and the latter not platitudinous

An academic in the years between contesting seats, Dodds has published papers on public policy. She is never ideological; she examines, rather than opines. In one article about the relationship between globalisation and higher education, she considers the understanding of globalisation within higher education institutions – yet stops short of taking a position on
globalisation itself, one of the hottest topics in political and academic discourse at the time.

Where opinions seep through, they are produced from facts, not the other way round. While with one hand criticising the government’s role in the sale of UK higher education abroad, with the other she laments the weakness of Kosovan environmental policy at the hands of the US and EU.
In an article published in August 2016, she sets out an astonishingly complex approach to the Leave vote; shows a deep understanding of Leave voters’ fears, and cautions against abandoning them. Her academic opinions are complex, balanced, and not ultimately ideological. She is
politically sensible.

This rationality is the foundation of Dodds’ close alignment with Starmer. The pair could hardly look less like their predecessors: they are united not by decades of burning ideological passion, but by simple beliefs – in Labour values, and above all in Labour values, in government.

On her first day in her new job, in her first early-morning interview round, Dodds’ child joined her Sky interview. Within minutes, the video was all over Twitter. And, for once, nobody said, or did, anything bad. It wasn’t turned into a viral moment of political cult of personality, converted into
meme format by Momentum, or abused by her political opponents. Instead, the video slowly filled up the first page of the Google results for Dodds’ name because, for so many, this was the first they knew of her: a working mum, with a sense of humour and her heart just about in the right
place, experiencing the same daily mishaps as everybody else in this strange time.

For a Labour Party at the beginning of a long healing process, she might be just what we need.