Keir Starmer’s first five months of leadership have been busy. In the context of a global pandemic, he’s walked a difficult tightrope – insisting that labour “will have the courage to support the government where it gets things right; but challenge it where it gets things wrong”. With an Observer poll at the end of August putting both the Tories and Labour on 40 per cent of the vote, Starmer’s approach seems to have been vindicated and he has started to regain some of the credibility and support Labour lost under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership.
Undoubtably this surge in support for Labour comes to an extent as a result of the Conservative government’s failings in the pandemic. Boris Johnson’s leadership has floundered with the government pivoting from one U-turn to the next. The failure to lockdown early, protect care homes and provide an adequate testing regime combined with a soaring infection-rate and imminent second wave has been complemented with an embarrassing summer exams fiasco and Brexit negotiations once again unravelling. Yet Starmer has been sure to capitalise on the Tory party’s fall in the polls. By presenting Labour as the ‘sensible opposition’, Starmer has been the calm, forensic and competent antithesis to Johnson’s bluff and bluster. At the dispatch box, he’s highlighted Johnson’s inability to do detail and the sparse benches in the socially distanced commons have left the Prime Minister looking weak and isolated.
Labour under Keir Starmer has decisively pivoted away from the politics of the Jeremy Corbyn era. His first steps after winning leadership of the party were to address the Jewish community, promising that anti-Semitism within the party would be stamped out. Starmer’s insistence that Labour tackles anti-Semitism head on is a clear signal that he wishes to move away from the problems that held Labour back under Corbyn. His swift and resolute sacking of Rebecca Long-Bailey from the shadow cabinet, after she shared an article that detailed anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, proves that his approach is not just rhetoric. However, the sacking of a significant Corbyn ally from the shadow cabinet is perhaps indicative of a much wider rejection of the radical left, with Starmer often described as being on the ‘soft left’ of the party.
When Labour was last in power, Tony Blair’s ‘New Labour’ politics reigned supreme. The Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband years failed to provide Labour with the answer to the demise of Blair’s vision. Under Corbyn Labour swung to the hard-left, promising free tuition, a living wage and an end to universal credit. ‘Corbynism’ was a clear and definable political brand even if it didn’t appeal to the majority of the electorate in the 2019 general election.
More so, ‘Corbynism’ promised to transform the state, not just legislate through it, and to use extra-parliamentary struggles fought in trade unions and other social movements to force a change in convention. Starmer is yet to define exactly what direction party policy will take on more nuanced political issues such as taxation and student tuition. He clearly places more emphasis on consensus politics than Jeremy Corbyn ever did, especially given the current pandemic, and his performances in the commons have been a marked improvement on Corbyn’s lacklustre displays. Nevertheless, Starmer will need more than a blundering Tory party and a good dispatch box performance to open up a sizeable lead in the polls.
Labour’s current success in the polls can be attributed more to Starmer’s style of leadership than actual Labour politics. But with a no-deal Brexit looking imminent, increased support for Scottish independence and an unprecedented economic crisis, Starmer must now begin to define what ‘Starmerism’ is, and how his approach will come to shape Labour in the coming years and not just months.
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