It was supposed to have been the big political event of April, but the announcement of Labour’s leadership result was a low-key affair yesterday, with relatively little fanfare, overshadowed by the terrifying coronavirus crisis that has swept across Britain.
As expected, Keir Starmer, the party’s shadow Brexit secretary, was decisively endorsed by Labour members and supporters. In a sober, impressive address, he spoke of Labour’s mission in the coming weeks to save lives and protect the country through constructive opposition.
Starmer takes over not just at a time of unprecedented national crisis, but a difficult juncture for his party. His victory comes after its most disastrous election defeat since 1935, the product of a party that was mired in institutional antisemitism, divisions over Brexit and voters’ dislike of Jeremy Corbyn.
During the three-month leadership campaign, Starmer has not proved as willing as his rival Lisa Nandy to speak hard truths to members about the reasons for Labour’s defeat. But he was not the candidate endorsed by Corbyn and his election marks a welcome fresh start.
There are a number of daunting tasks on Starmer’s to-do list. The first is to get the substance and tenor of opposition right in these extraordinary times. Britain is crying out for a mature and responsible opposition that can forensically hold this government, whose response to the coronavirus pandemic has been marred by a lack of preparedness and transparency, to account. In recent weeks, frontbenchers such as the shadow health secretary, Jon Ashworth, have led the way in asking appropriately tough questions of government about some of the chaotic aspects of its response, for example in its tardy procurement of ventilators, personal protective equipment and testing capacity, without looking like they are seeking to make political capital. Starmer must press for proper parliamentary scrutiny, even while MPs are not meeting in Westminster.
Further, he must confront the toxic cultures that have polluted his party. Most importantly, he must take responsibility for rooting out antisemitism, including fully implementing the recommendations of the Equality and Human Rights Commission inquiry when it is published. The party has also proved incapable of adjudicating fairly on allegations of sexual harassment. We applaud his commitment to establishing an independent complaints process.
The country faces huge levels of uncertainty as a result of the pandemic, with little clarity about where we will be in a few weeks, let alone six months. The only known is that there will be no going back to normal. Starmer must find a way to set out a vision for a new politics that addresses the societal fragilities that have been so painfully exposed in recent weeks, while holding on to those small shoots that are already emerging from the hardships and losses that many are starting to experience.
The same questions therefore face a party that defines itself through its aspiration for a fairer, greener world – but with new challenges attached. How would a Labour government restore a healthcare system that rightly commands huge national pride, but that will be left ravaged not just by a decade of austerity but a pandemic? What is the best way of restoring dignity and fair reward to work often labelled as “low skill”, but which this crisis has shown we cannot do without, jobs we are expecting people to risk their lives to do while being paid a pittance? How would Labour close the attainment gap between children from poor and affluent backgrounds that will inevitably widen as a result of the long closure of schools? What measures are needed to reduce carbon emissions while ensuring that the richest have to adapt their lifestyles, like the rest of us? And what is the future of Brexit in a probable global recession?
These are questions that can only be convincingly answered by a party of the left. When the worst of the crisis has passed, Britain will need a progressive government more than ever. We are all relying on Starmer to get Labour there.