BCW Political Insight: Keir Starmer’s Labour Party: Spent Force or Credible Challenger?

4.06.20 • News

Labour Leader Sir Keir Starmer stamped his authority on the Labour Party as soon as he was elected with 56 % of the vote. His first action was to write to the Board of Deputies of British Jews to state his commitment to eradicating anti-semitism within Labour and stating that people can judge his success by the Jewish community returning to the Party.

Starmer received 275,780 votes - more than Jeremy Corbyn in 2015 - a resounding victory that provides him with the political capital to change the Labour Party - and possibly its fortunes. He won on the first round, leaving his competitors far behind with Rebecca Long Bailey and Lisa Nandy receiving 135,218 (27.56%) and 79,597 (16.22%) respectively.

While Starmer had been careful to court Corbyn’s supporters and remained a member of his shadow cabinet, the result undoubtedly represents a resurgence for Labour’s moderates and defeat for the Party’s left – something which seemed unthinkable when the election was called. Moderates also picked up seats on the Party’s National Executive Committee, and elected Jackie Baillie MSP as Labour’s Deputy Leader in Scotland.

For Corbyn’s supporters, the fight will now focus on ensuring a radical policy agenda remains as his legacy.

For Starmer the question is whether Labour can recover to become a credible electoral force that can challenge the Conservative government.

WHO IS KEIR STARMER?

A human rights lawyer and former Director of Public Prosecutions, Mr Starmer is committed to campaigning on social justice issues such as poverty, inequality and homelessness. His views on Brexit led to his prominence within the Party, and as Shadow Brexit Secretary he pushed the leadership to back a second referendum. And as recently as March he declined in an interview to rule out campaigning to re-join the EU in the years ahead.

During the leadership contest he presented himself as the unity candidate who could heal the Party from the splits that emerged during the Corbyn years, especially amongst the Parliamentary Labour Party. He describes himself as a socialist but not of the Corbynism mould; how much he departs from his predecessor radical left wing policies will be monitored closely in the months ahead.

KEY POLICY COMMITMENTS: A CHALLENGE FOR BUSINESS?

Starmer’s anti-Brexit position was rooted in his concern for its impact on the UK economy and business. His immediate appointments to his inner – ‘Coronavirus’ – Shadow Cabinet are distinctly pro-business.

However, he has praised the policies on which Corbyn stood for election – calling the 2017 manifesto ‘foundational’. In his leadership campaign he made 10 pledges which placed him on the left of the party. While Starmer is expected to move Labour to the centre ground to make the party electable, there are significant challenges for business if he sticks to the programme on which he ran for leader:

- How would he return rail, mail, water and energy companies to public ownership?

- What are the tax policies for large companies – particularly those labelled as tax avoiders?

- How can private sector providers be taken out of the NHS and local government?

- How does he think Labour should support the ‘right to take industrial action’?

- What does the commitment to review arm sales mean?

Although he is at pains not to be categorised as left, right or centrist, having once said: “I don’t need somebody else’s name tattooed to my head, some past leader, in order to make decisions. I can make them for myself.”

STARMER’S SHADOW CABINET

On Sunday afternoon, Starmer began shaping his top team in the shadow cabinet. To mark a clear break with the past, Starmer chose to sack three close allies of Corbyn – Barry Gardiner, Ian Lavery and Jon Trickett. It is also notable that they were among some of his strongest opponents as he pushed Labour towards a second referendum on Brexit. While the reshuffle is not yet complete, with more appointment due to take place over the coming days, Starmer took the opportunity yesterday to make three key appointments.

Firstly, the Shadow Chancellor role will be filled by Anneliese Dodds – a relatively unknown figure outside Westminster. Dodds is a former academic and MEP and has previously named her predecessor Gordon Brown as her role model. How exactly she will shape Labour’s economic policy for a post-corona world and draw clear dividing lines with the government has become one of the party’s most immediate and complex challenges.

Lisa Nandy’s impressive leadership campaign has landed her a leading role as Shadow Foreign Secretary, and she will be central to the strategy of winning back Labour’s ‘red wall’ seats in the Midlands and the North.

Nick Thomas-Symonds has been appointed shadow Home Secretary, taking over from Diane Abbott. A former barrister from Wales, the MP has been considered one to watch in Westminster for a number of years now. He previously took a role within Diane Abbott’s home affairs team, where he had been a strong critic of Prevent, the government’s anti-extremism programme.

VIEW FROM JOHN MCTERNAN, BCW SENIOR COUNSEL AND FORMER DIRECTOR POLITICAL OPERATIONS TO TONY BLAIR

It has been clear for months that Keir Starmer would become leader of the Labour Party. Members and unions alike agreed after Boris Johnson’s landslide victory in December that Labour had to change – and change quickly. What wasn’t clear was just how much the party wanted to reject the Corbynite Continuity candidates- Rebecca Long-Bailey and Richard Burgon.

In ordinary circumstances the scale of Starmer’s victory would be a mandate for swift radical change – and the immediate appointments to his Shadow Cabinet, and the departures of core Corby supporters, show real authority.

But these are not normal times. The COVID-19 pandemic is demanding exceptional leadership from Prime Minister and his Cabinet. It is equally demanding for the Leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Oppositions.

Thus far – his first 48-72 hours – Starmer has been pitch perfect. Taking briefings. Offering critical support. Reserving the right to ask searching questions, but refusing in to score party political points.

These are very early days, but the times play to a politician who is mature, serious and forensic – as Starmer is. Serious times demand serious politicians, and if Boris Johnson sees in himself an inheritor of Churchill and his flamboyant leadership, observers can be forgiven for seeing in Starmer more than just a little of the solid, indeed stolid, style that took Clement Attlee to the very top.

If you would like any further information or detail, please do not hesitate to contact the Issues and Public Affairs team.