After both his victories in the two Labour leadership elections he faced, Jeremy Corbyn boasted about his ‘huge mandate’ from members to reshape the Labour Party. Today, Sir Keir Starmer has a similarly resounding backing from the party as leader: he won 56 per cent of the vote in the first round, compared to Corbyn’s 59 per cent and 61 per cent in 2015 and 2016 respectively.
Just as Corbyn’s leadership success was followed by the left taking over key parts of the party’s organisation, including the ruling National Executive Committee, so Starmer has seen signs of a fight-back from the centrists. In the past few minutes, the party has announced the results of elections for three places on the NEC. The ‘moderates’ won a clean sweep.
In his acceptance speech video, Starmer focused on coronavirus, which is the task that will occupy him and his party for the next year or so. He has received a letter this morning from Boris Johnson inviting him to join cross-party discussions next week on the government’s approach to the outbreak. But he also suggested that he was already thinking about what society would be like in the aftermath of the pandemic. Many people talk about life ‘going back to normal’ at some point, but as Starmer made clear, many will have lost and given too much for things to ever be the same again.
But for Labour to have a role in the debate about how to rebuild society and change it for the better once the immediate crisis is over, the party needs to be taken seriously. And this is where that huge mandate comes in. During the contest, I spoke to many MPs who were desperate for the new leader to have a ‘Kinnock moment’ and turn on the Hard Left in the party.
Many of those around Corbyn sincerely believe that coronavirus proves the former leader was right because the Conservative government has been required to spend a lot of money on protecting workers and propping up the economy as much as possible during the lockdown. It’s an odd interpretation of a manifesto that didn’t discuss how governments should respond to pandemics that trigger global recessions and spiralling unemployment, but it’s part of a wider school of thought within the party that the Labour manifesto was actually very popular with voters.
Starmer himself steered away from criticising the party’s 2019 offer during the leadership contest, giving the same hedged line as the other candidates about there being too many policies, rather than the policies themselves being incredible. Will he now stand up to those who demand a continuity of the Corbyn/McDonnell approach to public spending?
He has apologised for the anti-Semitism that has stained his party for the past few years and promised to ‘tear this poison out by its roots’. Changing the way the party approaches complaints, even against those close to the leader, was something all the candidates promised, but it will require not only a properly-staffed compliance department, but also a change in staffing at the top. Don’t forget that the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s inquiry into the party has not yet concluded, and there may well be many senior figures who are implicated.
But some of those senior figures may well hinder any attempts to change the party, regardless of the work Starmer does on anti-Semitism. General Secretary Jennie Formby this morning tweeted her congratulations and said she was looking forward to working with the new leader, but many in the party hope that she and other Corbynite allies will soon be leaving party headquarters for good.
Starmer spoke about the need to unify the party, but we will soon see how he really intends to do this when he announces his shadow cabinet. Will he go for a ‘unity cabinet’ which preserves the power of the Corbynites, or will he send a message that this is a brand new party with serious plans for government? He has promised Rebecca Long-Bailey and Lisa Nandy ‘top jobs’, but it isn’t clear whether Long-Bailey will retain her current position as shadow business secretary. Beyond that, there are many moderate backbenchers such as Yvette Cooper and Hilary Benn who are keen for a return to the front line, and many Corbynites on that front line who will want to keep the flag flying for their former leader. Starmer has a big enough mandate to do what he wants: but will he use it?
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