In Depth

Keir Starmer: what kind of leader will he be?

The moderate’s victory marks a shift away from the politics of Jeremy Corbyn, but his vision is yet to be clarified

Keir Starmer was elected convincingly on Saturday to become the new leader of the Labour party, winning 56.2% of 490,000 ballots in the first round of the vote.

His nearest rival, Rebecca Long-Bailey, represented a continuation of the politics of the former leader, Jeremy Corbyn, but the distant 27.6% she secured means that brand of politics has been largely repudiated by the party membership.

The 57-year-old Starmer - who was knighted in 2014 for “services to law and criminal justice” - has been handed a strong mandate to take the party in a new direction, but what direction this is remains to be seen.

The former shadow Brexit secretary has historically eschewed the bitter intra-party feuds that have dogged Labour for decades. Nevertheless, the factionalism that has beset the party has not evaporated, and Starmer must unite his party internally while simultaneously projecting a clear vision that will convince a broad national coalition.

With the media narrative dominated by the coronavirus pandemic, and another general election not due for another four years, this is a huge challenge for the new leader.

A more serious man than his opponent in 10 Downing Street, Starmer is a moderate politician who also boasts a reputation as a sharp debater: a former human rights lawyer, he can confidently wield forensic detail.

Starmer’s new cabinet

The first new shadow cabinet members have swiftly been installed. His rival in the leadership race, Lisa Nandy, is a figurehead for the party’s centrist politics, and has been named shadow foreign secretary.

Anneliese Dodds, who served as an MEP in the European parliament’s economic and monetary affairs committee before entering the commons in 2017, will assume the position of shadow chancellor, while Nick Thomas-Symonds, a Welsh lawyer and student of Clement Atlee, is now the shadow home secretary

In discussing his first selections, Starmer reiterated his commitment to healing the left-right schism within his party.

“I will have in my shadow cabinet those that want to serve towards the future aim of winning that next general election. It’ll be a talented, balanced shadow cabinet,” he said. “We’re not looking back, we’re not badging people by the past. We’re going forward to the future, focusing on how we win the 2024 general election.”

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Starmer’s coronavirus stance

The incoming Labour leader has not ruled out the idea he could join in a government of national unity with the Conservatives during the pandemic. 

Starmer has promised to perform his role as the government’s scrutiniser-in-chief, but also to be a constructive partner in helping the government navigate the crisis.

“We’ve got to pull together, support the government where it’s right to do so, but asking those difficult questions matters,” said the new leader on the BBC’s The Andrew Marr Show. “Scrutiny is important here, because if scrutiny points out mistakes that can then be put right, it’s achieved a very important thing.”

He was clear that now was not time for partisanship - promising not to engage in “opposition for opposition’s sake. I’m not going to score party political points, and I’m not going to demand the impossible, which is very easy to do at a time like this.”

Anti-Semitism

Starmer - who has a Jewish wife - has sought to draw a line under the anti-Semitism issue that dogged his predecessor. “Anti-Semitism has been a stain on our party. I have seen the grief that it’s brought to so many Jewish communities,” he said at his victory speech.

“On behalf of the Labour party, I am sorry. I will tear out this poison by its roots and judge success by the return of Jewish members and those who felt that they could no longer support us.”

Can he succeed?

“Starmer will bring order to the grotesque chaos of today’s Labour Party, he will make his arguments in a reasonable tone and he will get a hearing. But in the end he is too immersed in the gospel of the progressive elite to be able to reach out to the communities abandoned by Labour,” writes Sir Robbie Gibb in The Telegraph.

“Above all, he won’t do the crucial thing that all successful leaders of the opposition do,” Gibb continues, “he won’t challenge his party activists to look at themselves in the mirror and ask why the public rejected them.”

Starmer’s election “marks a welcome fresh start,” says The Guardian. “When the worst of the [coronavirus] crisis has passed, Britain will need a progressive government more than ever. We are all relying on Starmer to get Labour there.”

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