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New New Labour

Brexit, coronavirus, the US presidential election – competition for the spotlight of public attention is rarely so fierce. On the stage of British politics in particular, the battle for the immediate health and long-term prospects of UK nationals seems to have pitted the Conservative government against a new foe every day of the year. Meanwhile, reeling from a historic defeat in the general election last December, the Labour party has been relegated to the shadows. Almost a year later, the political underdogs of the decade are under new leadership and are keen to restore their former glory, or at least, their credibility. After the Brexit-fuelled chaos of Corbyn and May’s cohabitation in the Commons (not the lower house’s finest hour by any means), a new age has begun as prime minister Boris Johnson faces Sir Keir Starmer as the new head of Her Majesty’s Most Loyal Opposition. As the point man for the United Kingdom’s primary check on governmental power, his story and his vision for the future cannot be overlooked.

A calendar year ago, in the relatively simple times of October 2019, freshly elected prime minister Johnson called for an early “snap” election, hoping to secure the elusive majority needed to effectively “Get Brexit Done”. With his popularity flailing, Corbyn flatly rejected the idea despite the fact that, as a publicly elected official, there are few positions less tenable than refusing to offer yourself up to popular vote. As the threat of a no-deal Brexit was taken off the table, so was Labour leadership’s prime excuse for evading an election. In the run-up to the vote, the party officially endorsed the proposal of a referendum on the withdrawal agreement negotiated by Johnson. As a political gamble, supporting what amounted to a second Brexit referendum proved disastrous. Losing Leavers (those staunchly in favour of leaving the EU) to the committed Tories and Remainers to the Liberal Democrats (who vied a reversal from day one), Labour was essentially positioned to occupy a middle ground on an issue that had been pushing the nation into the extremes for over three years. Add to that a mistrusted leader plagued by allegations of anti-Semitism and the outcome was a foregone conclusion: the Labour party’s fourth consecutive general election defeat and its worst since 1935. With the headlines reading as such, Jeremy Corbyn had no choice but to step down. Nonetheless, much as Theresa May still represents her Maidenhead constituency, he remains the Member of Parliament for Islington-North, albeit as a very discreet backbencher.

The ensuing Labour leadership contest saw Sir Keir Rodney Starmer secure a comfortable victory, with 56.2% of the vote, more than double that of his nearest rival. As a man named after the founder of the Labour party, Keir Hardy, he appears to have fulfilled his destiny following an illustrious career in the legal profession. Before obtaining a 1st class degree in Law at the University of Leeds and a post-graduate degree in Civil Law from Oxford, Starmer was classmates with DJ Fatboy Slim in grammar school. In 1987 he became a barrister (or litigator in American English), specializing in human rights cases. From 2008 onwards he was Director of Public Prosecutions and ran the Crown Prosecution Service. In 2014, Starmer was knighted for services to law and criminal justice.

Only in 2015, just five short years ago, did Sir Keir Starmer step into the political arena becoming Labour MP for Holborn & St. Pancras. Despite prompting from a number of his colleagues to run against Jeremy Corbyn in the leadership race that year, he declined citing “insufficient political experience”. In 2016 he was appointed to the shadow cabinet as Brexit secretary (or, to be exact, Shadow Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union). In the role he designed part of the policies that led to the 2019 election defeat, being a vocal advocate for a second referendum.

In terms of policy, Sir Keir identifies as a socialist and counts himself among the “soft left” of the Labour party. Although he finds himself aligned with his predecessor in his desire to renationalize public utilities, his turn towards centrist politics has prompted comparisons with Tony Blair’s New Labour (which essentially retracted the rejection of free-market economics from the Labour constitution). Starmer also advocates increasing taxes on the rich and corporations and abolishing the House of Lords.

Although he may lack the performative flair of Boris Johnson, his years in the courtroom have provided him with shrewd oratory skills. The Daily Mirror’s Political Editor Pippa Crerar claims the public perceives him as “a bit dull but very competent”. Many would pit him as Johnson’s polar opposite based on that quote alone.

In September, Starmer had his first major opportunity to address the nationwide membership of his party during their annual conference, this year held online and named “Labour Connected” (a slightly less extravagant spectacle of online conferencing technology than the Conservative Party Conference, where “virtual stalls” went for up to £25,000 plus tax). As evidenced by the choice of Doncaster in South Yorkshire from which to record his speech, the crux appeared to be a plea to the “red-wall” voters of the Midlands and Northern England that had defected to the Tories in the last election: “We hear you. Never again will Labour take you or the things you care about for granted”.

On multiple occasions, he also expressed his anger at the Conservative government over their failures during the pandemic, accusing them of “serial incompetence”, highlighting their failure to implement an effective testing scheme. Other than that, short of outlining any actual policy plans, the rest amounted to the drawing of battle lines between past failures and present rivals. Dispelling any doubt, he solidified his party’s stance as no longer flirting with the idea of a new referendum, instead being in favour of seeing Brexit through with a constructive deal. Addressing another thorn in the party’s side, he assertively declared that “We will root out anti-Semitism by its roots”. The strategy for elevating himself above the commander-in-chief seems to be characterizing him as “just not serious”, whilst emphasizing the relative nobility of Starmer’s past as legal do-gooder: “Whilst Boris Johnson was writing flippant columns about bendy bananas, I was defending victims and convicting terrorists”.

In parting, he guaranteed that his focus is without doubt on getting Labour back into power: “There have only been three Labour winners since 1945, I want to be the fourth”. In a grandiose if slightly clunky manner, he described what their policy agenda would be like at the next election as “It won’t sound like anything you’ve heard before, it will sound like the future arriving”. The details, it seems, are therefore a surprise lying in wait. That said, there is hardly a rush given that he is most likely plotting a course as captain of the Opposition until at least 2024.

Propelled by a distinguished legal career, Sir Keir Starmer successfully navigated the political minefield that has claimed the careers of countless MPs over the last few years. He now faces the task of building the Labour party back up from the ashes whilst the country and the world traverses a most perilous time. It will be no easy task, but the evidence thus far shows a useable wind in his sails.


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