What does Keir Starmer’s election as leader mean for the direction of the Labour Party?
In these most serious of times, the Labour Party has selected a leader with a reputation for earnestness and calm consideration, built over years of work as a human-rights lawyer and as director of the Public Prosecution Service. We take a look at Sir Keir Starmer’s successful leadership campaign, his newly appointed Shadow Cabinet and the wider Labour Party under his leadership, and the likely policy direction he will strike under the shadow of the coronavirus public health crisis.
Starmer’s elevation follows a notably low-key leadership campaign, bearing more than a passing resemblance to Boris Johnson’s “steady as she goes” frontrunner approach from summer 2019. This campaign promoted two interlocking themes: restoring party unity by ending internal factionalism, coupled with enhanced professionalism to better communicate Labour policy solutions. Where policy did creep into his campaign, Starmer stuck to broad commitments of maintaining the “radical socialist tradition” of the Party through 10 policy pledges.
Starmer’s frontbench team
The new Labour Leader’s Shadow Cabinet choices reiterate these themes, bringing in a number of fresh, more centrist faces with a reputation for quiet competence, while purging the most vocal faction-fighters. In a “bonfire of the Corbynites”, Richard Burgon, Jon Trickett and Ian Lavery have all been given their P45s. However, Starmer has also rejected the opportunity to promote some the previous leader’s strongest critics, including Jess Phillips and Alison McGovern.
The appointment of Anneliese Dodds to shadow Rishi Sunak – though by no means a household name, the former MEP and Oxford Economics academic served for two years as John McDonnell’s deputy in the Shadow Treasury team and is universally respected within the Party – underlines the focus on strong, forensic media and Parliamentary performers able to hold the Government to account. Members of the Parliamentary Labour Party have vocally welcomed the new Shadow Cabinet drawn from the centre of the Party. Not surprisingly, there are prominent roles for his defeated leadership rivals Lisa Nandy and Rebecca Long-Bailey as Shadow Foreign and Education Secretaries respectively.
Recognising that Labour has once again failed to elect a female Party leader, Starmer has surrounded himself with women in his top team. One exception is the architect of the Climate Change Act and former Leader Ed Miliband, a close personal friend of Starmer’s, who returns to frontline politics as Shadow Business, Energy and Industry Secretary. Miliband’s appointment indicates that climate change will remain a central pillar of Labour’s policy offering under Starmer, while opening up headroom to roll back some of the more ambitious renationalisation proposals of the last manifesto.
Starmer’s Labour Party
Beyond the Shadow Frontbench, Starmer has already begun a clear-out of some of the most divisive voices within Labour central office with the departure of Corbyn’s radical communications and strategy lead, Seamus Milne. Others are likely to follow as Starmer and his newly elected Deputy Angela Rayner held their first conference call with UK Jewish community leaders, promising swift action to root out antisemitism from the Party. After witnessing the crushing election defeat first-hand in December, Starmer has inherited a pliant Party machinery ready to be quickly reshaped to reflect his own professionalised image. Similarly, the Labour Leader enjoys an in-built advantage to flip Labour’s National Executive Committee, the body which sets the direction of Party policy with the Shadow Cabinet, by controlling a number of appointments. Given the size of Starmer’s victory, the rump of unwavering hard left MPs, Momentum and Unite will likely fall in behind Starmer; though this may change if he is unable to gain traction.
The longer-term policy direction
Starmer was one of the longest-serving members of Jeremy Corbyn’s Cabinet – yet he was not a card-carrying Corbynite. While he was credited with moving Labour’s Brexit position to a more pro-Remain stance; in other policy areas, his views are less clear. So what kind of policy platform will he stand on? Our view – in light of Starmer’s analysis that Labour needs to change to win, the new faces in the Shadow Cabinet and his endorsement during the leadership contest of a number of “common ownership” pledges – is that he will land somewhere close or between the offering Jeremy Corbyn himself outlined in the 2017 General Election and that of Ed Miliband for the 2015 General Election. On Brexit, Starmer will tread carefully. As Leader, he has indicated that the transition period should only be extended if it is necessary. As a London MP, Starmer won’t want to look like he is pushing the country to extend the trade talks as a way of delaying the UK’s new relationship with the EU and the world.
The short-medium response to COVID-19
With the UK’s response to the coronavirus pandemic dominating news cycles, the new Labour Leader faces an enormous challenge cutting through to the electorate. Appearing on Sunday’s Andrew Marr Show for his first interview as leader, Starmer strongly rejected his predecessor’s attempts to politicise the crisis, instead calling for “constructive opposition” following his first conference call with the Prime Minister to discuss the UK’s COVID-19 response.
Once COVID-19 is defeated, there will be a debate about how capitalism should be ‘re-made’. The new Labour Leader will surely use this as an opportunity to press for social and economic change. And while Starmer is no Jeremy Corbyn nor John McDonnell, we will not be seeing a return to Blairism. Instead, expect the new Labour Leader to provide his signature brand of cool analysis of the Government approach, while proposing a bold, radical vision for country post-COVID-19.