The world changed while Labour was changing its leader. Starmer’s plan will need to change too
It’s over. We can finally come out of hiding. Today is the last day that Jeremy Corbyn is the leader of the Labour Party.
Throughout this seemingly interminable, and frequently forgettable Labour leadership contest, I’ve been trying to convince casual observers that Labour is turning a corner. It is not about to vote itself out of existence by electing another hard-left leader in Corbyn’s image; but rather that Labour is about to pick an eminently respectable QC with a knighthood as its next leader. Polling of Labour members points to a solid victory for Sir Keir Starmer, and he has scooped up nearly 60% of local constituency parties’ nominations. He is going to win, and win comfortably. But this leadership campaign has gone on so long that the world ended in the middle of it, and so the problems facing Starmer on day one of his leadership will be unlike those faced by any other incoming leader.
Coronavirus has meant that all of Starmer’s policy priorities have had to be shelved. Ideas on issues including devolution, new community powers on unused buildings, and green jobs will all have to take a back seat for a while. He will need to find a new way to introduce and define himself to the public, before the Conservatives try to do it for him.
That starts with finding a way to hold the Government to account on its coronavirus response while not appearing to play hard politics with a life-or-death crisis. This looked harder a fortnight ago than it does now – concerns over testing, personal protective equipment for NHS staff, and the supply of ventilators are all showing why the Government needs someone to hold its feet to the fire. But it will take methodical, focused questioning (rather than Corbyn’s vague and scattergun tirades) to hold ministers to their promises. Starmer’s friends are confident he can do that.
That might be why some Tories are openly wondering whether the extraordinary circumstances warrant bringing the new Opposition Leader into the Government’s own decisionmaking on the coronavirus crisis. While I think we’re unlikely to see Starmer invited into a coronavirus war cabinet, people close to Starmer tell me he would accept it if it were offered.
But it’s far more likely that Labour will have to relearn how to be an effective opposition again before it gets anywhere near government. Starmer’s new frontbench will be key to this. The current Shadow Cabinet will be almost entirely cleared out, and insiders say there won’t be many old faces from the past returning to prominent roels either. And although leadership rivals Lisa Nandy and Rebecca Long-Bailey will be offered frontbench jobs, they may well be junior roles outside the Shadow Cabinet.
What we will see is a crop of talented but less familiar figures taking big roles. The best-known may be Rachel Reeves, formerly a Bank of England economist and Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary under Ed Miliband, who has been tipped for Shadow Chancellor. Two wise heads already in the Shadow Treasury team, Anneliese Dodds and my old boss Jonathan Reynolds, are both being considered for promotions – one of them is likely to be offered the Business, Innovation, Energy & Industrial Strategy brief. Jo Stevens and Nick Thomas Symonds are also both tipped for bigger jobs.
But until Starmer has room to set out his stall on policy, the one priority that he can pursue is fixing the Labour Party. Years of vicious factional warfare has hollowed out the party machinery across the country and in its Westminster HQ, and seen experienced people replaced by hard-left placemen. Starmer’s supporters are worried about a ‘scorched earth’ retreat by the Corbynites, so the party’s top official, Corbyn loyalist Jennie Formby, will be first to be shown the door.
That takes us to antisemitism, emblematic of all that was rotten in Corbyn’s leadership. Starmer’s team know that he must get this under control in order to restore Labour’s moral authority and demonstrate his ability to lead. So big decisions on this front will come very early on. Among them will be what to do with the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s investigation into Labour’s institutional antisemitism, the outcome of which is due in a few months. Starmer has already said that the Party must “throw open the books” to the EHRC investigators. When the report comes it will be a shameful moment for Labour, but Starmer will have to take it on the chin. It will be a defining moment of his leadership.
So Labour’s new leader has his work cut out: he must be the greater statesman in a time of unprecedented national emergency; he must teach Labour how to be a proper opposition again without looking like he’s playing politics with a life-or-death crisis; and he must fight a series of grubby internal battles to sort his party out, at the same time as introducing himself as a clean skin to a distraught and distracted public. Succeed or fail, the country has never needed a working opposition more.
Dan Hogan is a former Labour Party staffer and an Account Director at Quatro
3 April 2020 | Dan Hogan