Sir Keir Starmer’s arrival as Labour leader is an important moment for British politics. He offers diligence and expertise, not bellowing and finger-pointing. In a crisis this seriousness will be an asset. Sir Keir has unified the party by retaining a tax-and-spend agenda. He also represents a break with the past. There is no resonant phrase, or signature policy, that one can decode to understand the incipient Starmer project. This makes it hard to define what Sir Keir stands for politically. But it is clear what he is not: a populist.
Sir Keir’s victory does signal a more competent and less sectarian approach. Labour’s shadow cabinet has room for defeated rivals, with the leftwing Rebecca Long-Bailey getting education. His apology to the Jewish community is heartfelt and overdue. The symbolism of the three top Labour jobs, the leader aside, being occupied by politicians from the north, Wales and Scotland sends a powerful message that the party aims to represent the whole country. Making a welcome return to the frontline is Ed Miliband, a former party leader and an articulate proponent of the green new deal, who will become shadow business, energy and industrial secretary.
Labour’s frontbench is powered by some prominent members of the People’s Vote campaign. It might have helped to keep a Labour leaver, such as Jon Trickett, on for balance. Although the 2020 Labour leadership contest stretched out over three long months, the Covid-19 pandemic has meant that the hiatus did not give the Conservatives an opportunity to frame Labour as an irrelevance. The Tories have retained a substantial lead in recent opinion polls. This advantage will probably evaporate as the sloppy response from government ministers sinks in.
In an encouraging sign of his professionalism, Sir Keir attacked the government’s shambolic handling of the crisis at the weekend, while offering constructive suggestions for ministers to set out an exit strategy from the lockdown. In the longer run, the Labour leader cannot let coronavirus define his opposition to the government. He will need to respond to the current crises of our age, which have been thrown into sharp relief by the Covid-19 outbreak. A decade of cuts has shredded the welfare safety net and left health and social care systems woefully under-resourced, while the fissuring of the workplace makes it difficult for governments to send help to workers with insecure employment. Sir Keir is right to say that the wealthy must pay a fair share to rebuild a post-coronavirus society.
Corbynism rose as a response to the living standards crisis, a concentration of corporate power and years of austerity. Sir Keir’s project will have to define the question it is the answer to. There is no shortage of pressing issues beyond the pathogen: dealing with growing wealth inequality; a climate emergency; how to bring a fractured United Kingdom back together.
Sir Keir has remade the shadow cabinet. He will want to change the party. His ability to exude Blairite competence and Corbynite idealism will only take him so far. There are precious few clues as to the direction in which he will head. We live in an era when political ambiguity is subject to a level of scrutiny that can brutally punish those who deploy it ineffectually. Sir Keir’s embrace of a programme to transform society and tame capitalism means that his party’s supporters won’t swallow timid policies. The next election is scheduled to be four years away. The country may be very different to the one we live in now. Sir Keir’s job is to make sure that his party’s progressive and radical policies inspire hope, not fear.