Things can only get better for the new Labour Leader

By Dan Julian, Account Executive

Sir Keir Starmer is the new Leader of the Labour Party. You will be forgiven for not having noticed. With an epidemic sweeping the nation, the special conference to announce the winner of the interminable contest was cancelled and the result announced with a press release. Hardly the platform anyone would want to kickstart the new chapter in Labour’s history.

With coronavirus dominating the headlines, the fourth Labour Leadership election since 2010, which began in earnest in January and has been rumbling on in the background since the morning after the General Election was always going to receive little attention. Yet the coming months might present an opportunity for Keir Starmer and his newly assembled team for him to put his stamp on the Labour Party even if no one is watching.

The most difficult part of opposition is creating news, but with wall-to-wall coronavirus coverage Starmer is unlikely to cut through even if he were to decisively break from the Corbyn years. The lack of media coverage would normally be seen as a negative, yet a calm and composed politician like Starmer could turn it to his advantage. The nation is in crisis and the Prime Minister has asked all Opposition leaders to join him in the fight against COVID-19, a move which he waited to do until a few hours prior to Starmer’s election. That already gives Starmer more credibility as a possible Prime Minister than Corbyn ever had, and with the promise of not providing “opposition for opposition’s sake” he has made it clear he is not out to score cheap political points during a national emergency.

Starmer might also reflect that a gentler approach with regards to party management is needed at this time. Labour is still recovering from its worst defeat since 1935 and the new Leader, who ran on a message of uniting the different factions will attempt to close the chapter on one of Labour’s most divisive periods. Having appointed MPs from the 2010 and 2015 intake to the Shadow Cabinet and having excluded some of the most prominent pro- and anti-Corbyn voices in the Parliamentary Party, Starmer will attempt to put years of infighting behind him and emerge in the coming months as a Government-in-waiting. He has also rewarded the ‘quietly competent’ over some of the bigger names who might have cut through more with the media, highlighting the key quality he is looking for from his top team.

Starmer is also the first Leader since Tony Blair to have won in every category of the Labour selectorate – MPs, affiliates and Party members. This means he is unrivalled and will benefit from a honeymoon period even from MPs who didn’t back him. Only Blair had won all three groups in recent times and now Starmer’s mandate resembles that of the three-time election winner, meaning he has the power – if he wants to – to reshape the Party in his image.

However Starmer shouldn’t rush just to maximise media coverage just for the sake of it. With coronavirus having led to the postponement of next month’s local elections in England and Wales, Starmer now has a grace period of 13 months after which he will hope to have put the Party on a more stable footing. This in turn could lead to not only retaining the London Mayoralty but possibly even picking up the West Midlands and Teeside ones which went to the Tories in 2017. Should he do so, he is guaranteed to reap the benefits of more media attention.

Even Blair, who had been desparate for years to modernise the Labour Party, had to wait a few months before making his signature move to break with the past – the scrapping of Clause IV. While Starmer might have hoped for a bigger splash in the early months of his leadership, he will have months to lay the groundwork ahead of his first speech as Leader at Party Conference, and has been afforded the time to make vital internal party reforms. He has already moved to break with the Corbyn years by apologising for antisemitism and by sitting down with the leaders of the Jewish community. With the National executive Committee looking more Starmer-friendly after a series of byelections, he should be able to reform the complaints procedure which will speed up the process of expelling members found guilty of antisemitism. More low-key reforms like this will win him back the support of voters and cast him in a different light to his predecessor, which is the ultimate goal of a Stamer leadership.

The new Labour Leader takes office under the most unusual of circumstances. Even without a global pandemic it would have been difficult for Labour to make much noise. With local elections where Labour was projected to do poorly now postponed to 2021 he won’t face the electorate in his first year in charge either. However, with the country gripped by the biggest crisis since the War, he has been presented with an opportunity – to scrutinise the Government while looking up to the job of being Prime Minister. Maybe, as Tony Blair would say, things can only get better from here for Keir Starmer.

Picture taken at Labour in the City event hosted at Cicero/AMO

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Dan Julian

Account Executive