The election of Keir Starmer as Labour leader this weekend shows that in politics, as in life, anything is possible. Just a year ago we were contemplating the rise of Change UK, the resurgence of the Liberal Democrats and a fracturing of the British pollical system on the left and the right, forever more. Team Keir, his political supporters in Westminster, saw little way for him to break through. If a chance ever came to oust Corbyn, it was time for Labour’s first female leader. Helen Fielding was said to have based her fictional hero and diffident nearly man, Mark Darcy, on her friend, Sir Keir and you could believe it. But the events of this weekend have changed all that.
Starmer has now decisively made it to the top of the party. Securing more than 56% of the vote in the first round gives him a clear mandate, through winning a majority of all sections of the party membership and affiliated organisations. But this is, of course, only the end of the beginning. The challenge ahead for him could not be more stark. The Corona virus now dominates life and politics with it. Starmer will need to respond appropriately to the world we are in, whilst making his mark as a new leader with little space in the media or politically for party point scoring or setting out a new agenda. His opening 24hrs and his diplomatic yet searching statement on cooperating with the government while holding it to account suggests he knows this as well as anybody.
Starmer also of course has, as he himself has said, a political ‘mountain to climb’ – some have even described him as Labour’s ‘last hope’. Labour has just suffered a fourth and devastating electoral defeat and is left with a wounded rump of just 202 MPs, having lost much of its heartlands in the north of England and what was traditionally seen as its core working class vote. In some previously historic Labour seats majorities of over 10,000 will need to be overturned. He faces what has been since the election a highly confident and relatively unified Conservative Party, with a charismatic leader, an 80 seat majority and riding high in the polls, at the peak of corona virus crisis, with a 25 point lead. Moreover, Labour must deal with a governing party now positioning itself in the territory of national ownership, big government and high state spending – all traditional Labour party turf.
But the challenge for Starmer is not just an external one. Riven with divisions from the Corbyn and Momentum years with the shameful wound of anti-Semitism running through it, the Labour party has just about held together, despite the loss of some prominent former MPs such as Luciana Berger and Chuka Umunna. He will also need to wrest control of Labour’s controlling National Executive Committee, responsible for agreeing party policy and effectively run by the Corbynite left.
But ‘unity’ has been the watch word of Starmer’s campaign as he has looked to bring factions of the party together and been at pains not to align himself to any wing. He is in tune with people being tired of factional politics and irritated by attempts to pigeonhole him. Speaking to the Guardian as he launched his pitch for the leadership last December, he said: “I don’t find the badging of people helps, really. I don’t need somebody else’s name tattooed on my head to know what I think.”
To the disappointment of (those remaining) Blairites, it is unlikely that Starmer will track to the centre. He has described himself as ‘a socialist but not a Corbynite’. When asked which former Labour leader he would most identify himself with, it was not the young and charismatic pre ’97 Blair or his name sake, the firebrand Keir Hardie, it was Harold Wilson, a predecessor who was at pains to almost mathematically balance the numbers of left and right in his top team.
On policy, Starmerism is yet to be defined. To maximise support during the campaign he was deliberately vague, looking to appeal to both the right and left of the party and keeping key policies from the Corbyn era, such as nationalising railways, the Royal Mail and water and repealing anti-union laws. Again, ‘unity’ here has been the watchword but this time national unity and the need to bring our divided country together. He has long talked of the need to reduce inequalities highlighting the injustice of the life expectation gap of poorer Somers Town with Primrose Hill in his own central London constituency.
On economic policy Starmer has said the economy should have a ‘moral purpose’ and that transformative change is needed. He is critical of the free market and supports a mixed economy but has always looked to have good relations with business while on the front bench. His vision, he says, is to have a platform that is deliverable and future looking, taking a far more pragmatic and less ideological approach than his predecessor. Brexit of course has also defined Starmer in recent years. The policy was often confused and poorly managed on his watch but he was instrumental in moving Labour’s position to support a second referendum.
But has Starmer got what it takes not just to be leader of the Labour Party but to run the country too? He is often either described as ‘wooden’ and ‘dull’ or at best as ‘statesmanlike’. He is certainly no rabble-rousing Blair or Kinnock. When asked during the campaign what the most exciting thing he’d ever done was – his answer was ‘watching a football match’.
But while Starmer may not have the charisma of his Conservative counterpart or his predecessor Blair, there is an argument that now is exactly when we need a serious and grown up politician, after the weaknesses of the Corbyn years. He has said he will not pursue ‘opposition for opposition’s sake’. He is also a man of huge intellectual capability. His background is not PR or writing gossipy journalism, but that of a serious former human rights barrister and Director of Public Prosecutions who has worked on landmark rulings. He is a man with a ‘forensic’ mind and ability who should be more than capable of holding his own in parliament against the Prime Minster
His shadow cabinet appointments of young colleagues have shown already that he is not afraid to effect wholesale change in the party and to clear out the Corbyn stalwarts. He rewards loyalty too. Team Keir has been in operation for a long time and he has rewarded those who have helped him to get there. As for the vision, we will have to see if he can capture the national zeitgeist in the way that his hero Wilson did in the 60s before proceeding into government.
A new political era?
So, is this the start of a new political era? While the Conservative Party may be riding high for now, how long will this last in our calamitous times? Will they navigate the crisis and the monumental challenge ahead of the recovery? Will the Conservatives be equipped to navigate Brexit and trade deals in our now very changed world? How will they seek to rebuild our ravaged economy? Will the country feel that Boris Johnson is the right man for these times? And will Sir Keir be able to capture the public mood and people’s support and be able to navigate from a hugely successful legal career to national political leader? These are all unknowns, but our world is changing and so too could our politics. And do not underestimate Starmer or team Keir, a strong machine of capable people who have just done what many on the left, just a few months ago, thought was never possible.
Indeed, it could well be that in just a few years’ time Starmer is not so much emulating Colin Firth’s Mark Darcy but ends up as more a Hugh Grant – holding the keys to Number 10 – actually.