In 2015 an earthquake occurred within the British Labour Party when, against all expectations, its members elected Jeremy Corbyn, a representative of its previously marginal radical left, as its leader.1 And in doing so, they provided him with a handsome majority over his opponents.
Many within the party’s rank and file were delighted and exhilarated, but most of its MPs were aghast. Indeed, after a failed bid in 2016 to eject him, the parliamentary Labour Party was only grudgingly reconciled to Corbyn as leader. The following year, in 2017, the then Prime Minister, Theresa May, sensing an opportunity to crush a Labour Party lagging well behind her in the opinion polls, called an election. To widespread amazement, Labour polled well, gaining more than 30 seats and depriving the Conservatives of their overall majority. Corbyn’s control of the party was, at last, consolidated.
But not for long. Two years later, in December 2019, yet another election was called, this time by the new and popular Tory leader Boris Johnson. The Tories won with a massive 80-seat majority, with Labour reduced to fewer seats than at any time since 1935. Corbyn had no option but to resign.
In the subsequent leadership contest, three candidates secured the requisite number of nominations to enable them to stand. Rebecca Long-Bailey, the shadow business secretary, was the “continuity candidate” from the Corbyn camp. The other two candidates, shadow Brexit secretary Sir Keir Starmer and Lisa Nandy MP, were from Labour’s “soft left.”2 Interestingly, there were no candidates from the centre-right. The election, which took place in early April, resulted in a very decisive endorsement for Keir Starmer (table 1).
Starmer’s percentage of the poll was roughly equal to that obtained by Corbyn in 2015. Long-Bailey, in contrast, secured only half the vote won by Corbyn less than five years previously. Starmer won primarily because he was seen by dispirited and demoralized party members as a much more credible, competent and electorally appealing leader than the somewhat lacklustre Long-Bailey.
So who is Keir Starmer? In his accent, demeanour and manner he seems very much a scion of the British professional middle class. In fact, his staunchly Labour father was a skilled factory worker and his mother a nurse, and he was the first member of his family to go to university (Leeds). Elected to Parliament only in 2015, he has had relatively little political experience, but prior to 2015 had established a formidable reputation outside Parliament. A barrister in high repute, he was made a Queen’s Counsel (QC) in 2002, and became joint head of Doughty Street Chambers (where celebrated human rights barrister Amal Clooney was a colleague) specializing in human rights cases. In 2008, he was appointed to one of the most senior judicial positions in the country, Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP), remaining in that post until 2013. In 2014 he received a knighthood for services to law and criminal justice. Those who worked with him attest to his integrity, meticulous attention to detail, stamina and keen forensic skills.3
In 2016, a year after his election to Parliament, Starmer joined the shadow cabinet in the crucial post of shadow Brexit secretary. He played a key role in the process of hammering out a policy on Brexit, the issue that completely dominated British politics from 2016 until the 2019 general election. Securing an agreed position on Brexit proved tortuous and protracted because Labour was hopelessly divided three ways: between the Eurosceptic inner Corbyn circle, dominated by longstanding opponents of European integration who deemed the European Union a “capitalist club”; ardent Remainers drawing support from across Labour’s left-right spectrum, including the radical left; and Leavers, mainly on Labour’s right, who feared – rightly as it transpired – the loss of many pro-Leave working class seats if Labour was seen to prevaricate on Brexit.
Starmer, a firm Remainer, helped steer the party to a compromise position, which unfortunately satisfied few either in the party or among the voters. Notwithstanding, Starmer had enhanced his standing within the party with his capacity to master complex briefs, as well as his diligence, his fluency and, not least, his ability to think on his feet – unlike his predecessor. Admittedly, he lacked oratorical flair and inspirational qualities but, exuding soundness and solid good sense, he had a reputation as a “safe pair of hands”: a relief after the volatility of Corbyn’s leadership. Though associated with the soft left, he appealed also to the right and to prominent members of the radical left as well.4
The implications of Starmer’s triumph for Labour’s future programmatic direction are, as yet, unclear. Surprisingly little is known about his political beliefs. For virtually all his life as an MP he served on the front bench, which meant he was bound by the conventions of collective responsibility and thus discouraged from articulating his views outside his own brief. So, while from his career as a human rights lawyer we know much about his views on matters of civil liberty and criminal justice, we have few insights into his thinking on social and economic policy. During the leadership election contest, Starmer endorsed the party’s radical left wing’s 2019 election manifesto, but this may have been for tactical reasons. Under Starmer, we can expect a gradual disengagement from some of its controversial planks, such as its ambitious nationalization program.
There will also be shifts in foreign policy. Corbyn had a long record as an unsparing, vehement and highly vocal critic of “American imperialism” and the Atlantic alliance, and was an enthusiastic advocate of “progressive” and “anti-imperialist” movements in Latin America and the Middle East (notably Palestinian organizations). Most controversially, he rejected the longstanding principle that the axiomatic basis of British foreign policy should be a close relationship with the United States. While Starmer will have little time for Donald Trump, it is highly likely that he will adopt a more pragmatic, considered and nuanced approach to international matters. He will avoid the persistent and truculent anti-Americanism and often uncritical zeal for “liberation movements” of his predecessor.
Lisa Nandy’s unexpected appointment as shadow foreign secretary, a reward for her impressive performance as leadership candidate, is worth noting here. Her positions on foreign policy issues are likely to be closely aligned with Starmer’s.5 She has firmly disassociated Labour from Corbyn’s rather indulgent attitude toward Vladimir Putin, commenting acerbically that under his leadership “we stood with the Russian government, and not with the people it oppresses.” She is a longstanding advocate for Palestinian rights, and has condemned arms sales to Israel, the Gaza blockade and the illegal occupation of the Palestinian territories. However, she also firmly defends Israel’s right to exist and was a tough critic of Corbyn’s failure to come to grips with anti-Semitism. It is an encouraging indication of her diplomatic skills that, while serving as chair of Labour Friends of Palestine, she received the nomination for the Labour leadership of the very pro-Israel Jewish Labour Movement.
Her only point of difference with the new leader is over Europe, where she opposed a second referendum and called for acceptance of Brexit – which might prove useful in Labour’s efforts to regain Leave voters. As noted, Starmer is pro-European and will certainly be keener to work with social democratic parties in the EU than Corbyn. However, on the issue of Brexit, his inclination will be to accept the fait accompli of the 2019 election, won by the Tories on a cast-iron commitment to quit the European Union. Transitional arrangements for the U.K.’s final departure from the EU are due to be concluded at the end of this year. Few regard this as plausible given the pandemic, but the government has reiterated its determination to meet the deadline. Starmer will urge agreement to an extension but will not campaign for a reappraisal of Britain’s exit from the EU.
On one issue Stammer was quick to make a clean break with his predecessor: the highly controversial, divisive – indeed toxic – question of anti-Semitism in the party. Many on the radical left insisted that the incidence of anti-Semitism in Labour’s ranks had been grossly exaggerated as a device to smear Corbyn. Whatever the truth, this plainly is not the view Starmer takes. One of his first pronouncements as leader was to denounce “the disgrace of anti-Semitism in our party” and to acknowledge that under Corbyn “we have failed the Jewish community.” He has pledged to “tear out this poison by its roots,” a declaration very well received in the Jewish community.6
A successful leader must be an effective and astute party manager. As party managers, leaders have two major priorities: to bolster their power base and to promote party unity. Given the intense polarization, rancorous atmosphere and hyperfactionalism bequeathed by the Corbyn era, neither task will be easy. The new leader inherited a party in which the key centre of institutional power, Labour’s powerful National Executive Committee (NEC), was under the mastery of the radical left. This mattered because the NEC has responsibilities for party policy formulation, organization, rule application, finance and personnel – including the appointment of senior party officials.
A combination of byelections and the use of the leader’s powers of appointment has already changed the political complexion of the NEC in Starmer’s favour, and radical left representation is likely to dwindle further. Starmer also enjoys solid support in other major party institutions: the affiliated trade unions, the constituency parties and (overwhelmingly) the caucus. We can expect substantial personnel changes in Labour’s Head Office as the pro-Corbyn apparatus is dismantled. An early indicator of the marginalization of the radical left is its meagre representation of three members (out of a total of 27) in Starmer’s reshuffled shadow cabinet.
Corbyn was not by nature a consensual leader and was disinclined to put much effort into conciliating those opposed to him. Starmer’s managerial style will be different. As his role in negotiating Brexit policy illustrated, he prefers to organize consent through bargaining, accommodation, dialogue and inclusivity. A clue to Starmer’s preferred style can be found in his response when asked which Labour leader over the last half-century he most admired. He cited the wily and adroit Harold Wilson (who was Prime Minister at the time of the divisive 1975 referendum on membership in what was then the European Economic Community), explaining that he respected Wilson for the way he “actually managed to hold bits of the party together … he was spinning plates left, right and centre, but he actually steered through it pretty well.”7
“Spinning plates left, right and centre” is not easy: Wilson complained how he used to have to “wade in shit” to construct compromises over contentious issues. Equally, it is unclear how much the radical left will reciprocate. There were always tensions within its ranks between the hardliners and the more pragmatically inclined, and these have recently been inflamed. Pragmatists include the defeated leadership candidate and now shadow education secretary Rebecca Long-Bailey. But the more intransigent elements are probably the majority.
Despite the coronavirus crisis, there has already been a drumbeat of discontent and denunciations from radical left websites berating the new leader for a range of failings: his role in pushing for a second referendum on the EU (and hence, it is claimed, for “losing the election”), his supposedly antiliberal record as Director of Public Prosecutions and his willingness to accept donations for his leadership campaign from the “Israel lobby.”8 These more unyielding radical leftists see their priority as developing extraparliamentary networks of power to mobilize resistance to Starmer.9 But such a strategy is likely to be counterproductive given the deep desire for party unity: the resumption of factionalism and tirades against the new leader will be deeply resented.
Starmer’s sweeping leadership triumph has conferred a strong mandate upon him and considerable discretion in how to resuscitate the party. But he faces a Herculean task given the serious shrinkage in Labour’s vote last December. Some on the soft left (such as the pressure group Compass) have suggested that the way forward is for Labour to form a “progressive majority” with the Greens and the Liberal Democrats, and to campaign for a more proportional electoral system. But Starmer is unlikely to follow this advice as he will be aware that neither a “progressive majority” nor electoral reform appeal much beyond the liberal middle class.
The fact is that Labour’s vote has been most seriously depleted with the hemorrhaging of white working-class support, especially in its former heartlands in the north and Midlands of England (not to mention mass desertions to the Scottish National Party in Scotland). Here Labour has been the casualty of two interlinked deep-seated sociocultural trends by no means confined to the U.K. The first is the increasing political salience of a value-based liberal/authoritarian cleavage, which has cut across traditional left/right and class-based divisions. Correlating closely with the Remain/Leave split, its starkest political manifestation is the flight of many Leave-supporting working-class voters from Labour to the Tories in the recent election.
The second trend is the ideological reconstitution of notions of the “elite” to refer not to the holders of wealth, power and privilege but to possessors of cultural capital – the so-called “liberal metropolitan elite,” of which Starmer appears a quintessential member. This mode of discourse has enabled the immensely wealthy global media corporations (such as the Murdoch empire), which control most of the U.K. press, to pose as the champions of “ordinary people” struggling against Labour’s “liberal elite.” For Starmer, a priority must be to reframe the terms of this debate, contesting the Tory argument that the most effective way the so-called “left behinds” can assert themselves is by voting for the party of the rich and privileged. Starmer’s task is to revive Labour’s tradition as the party of “the common people” without sliding into the outmoded rhetoric of the class struggle.
At the time of writing (April 2020) everything political is eclipsed by the coronavirus. As Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair’s former director of communications, recently wrote, the COVID-19 pandemic has had the unfortunate effect of depriving Starmer of the opportunity he would otherwise have had to “establish himself firmly in the national conversation.” But equally, Campbell added, the crisis plays to his strengths as a “forensic, consensus-seeking has a strong grasp of detail.”10 Which effect will be the weightier is, at present, impossible to judge.