Obi-Wan Starmer - Labour’s only hope?

09/04/2020

For a number of years, many Labour members to the right of the Momentum tribe have clamoured for a leader of the stature and seriousness of Sir Keir Starmer. Despite Jeremy Corbyn’s success in growing the Labour membership, he dragged the party so far left that for many he rendered it unelectable. While Sir Keir Starmer’s rise to party leader may have been pre-empted weeks ago by the commentariat, this week all eyes have been on the former Director of Public Prosecutions’Shadow Cabinet picks. Following the wholesale clear out of Corbynites, nobody can be in any doubt that a new dawn has broken for the embattled party.

Though Starmer has dutifully doled out prominent roles for his fellow leadership hopefuls – Wigan MP Lisa Nandy has taken up the Shadow Foreign Secretary brief, while Momentum-backed Rebecca Long-Bailey has moved to Education – not all former contenders have made it into the top team. One particularly noticeable absentee is Labour ‘right-winger’ Jess Phillips. Former Work and Pensions Secretary Yvette Cooper, who had been tipped to return to the frontbench, was also overlooked.

Starmer’s leadership election win is seen by many to mark a decisive shift towards the centre-ground, though he is by no stretch a Blairite. The left-wing Corbyn faithful have been stood down, posing the question as to whether die-hard Corbyn supporters will remain loyal to Labour and its new ‘value-set.’ The grassroots movement, Momentum, that has for some time sat at the heart of all National Executive policy decision-making and pushed Labour further to the left than in recent memory, is not amused by latest developments, nor likely to go away quietly. To remain relevant, there are calls for the removal of its founder Jon Landsman, in order to present a ‘clean start’ image. Momentum’s initial response to Starmer’s win was telling, promising its members that they would hold ‘Starmer to account’ as opposed to the government. Those on the hard left truly believe that had the party united around Corbyn in 2017 and not sniped from within that he would be the current occupant in Number 10.

So, what does this all mean? For business, Starmer’s reconfiguration may provide a sigh of relief. Anneliese Dodds, the new Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, is well-respected across the House and seen as ‘sensible.’ Five years on from concluding his tenure as Party leader, Ed Miliband has made a surprise return to the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) brief. In response to his appointment, Miliband released a statement on Twitter arguing that economic recovery must be based on ‘providing economic justice through a Green New Deal’. Rachel Reeves moves on from her successful spell as Chair of the BEIS Select Committee to shadow Michael Gove – the latest government minister to go into self-isolation after a family member developed COVID-19 symptoms. Fellow Labour leadership contender, Emily Thornberry, remains in the Shadow Cabinet as the Shadow Secretary of State for International Trade – a role to become more prominent once Brexit returns to dominate the news cycle. There is a wealth of tangible experience in this Shadow Cabinet that simply fell short against Corbyn’s prioritisation of grassroots activism. The importance of its collective range of experience cannot be underestimated during this time of national crisis.

While this is good news for those clamouring for an alternative to the current government and all it stands for under Boris Johnson, whether Starmer can get the keys to Number 10 in 2024, of course, remains to be seen. Caution should be advised. The Labour Party as an institution has experienced systemic deterioration under Corbyn and is far removed from the days of its dramatic 1997 election win. It has seen four election defeats on the trot, just 202 MPs in the House, the loss of its ‘Red Wall’ and backyard in the North of the country, and a new leader in Starmer seen as a principal architect in calling for a second Brexit referendum that caused many Labour voters to vote blue for the first time in their lives. Additionally, Labour must regain wholesale support in Scotland if it is ever to hold power again. The party’s sole Scottish MP and Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland, Ian Murray, has a colossal task ahead of him.

Labour faces the challenge of unseating vast numbers of 10,000 seat majorities, a Conservative party united behind a charismatic leader with a chunky majority, and a commitment to spending and investment in national services after a decade of austerity, blowing the doors of its own fiscal rules in response to the COVID-19 crisis. A shiny new Labour frontbench isn't going to be enough on its own to turn the tide on the Party’s fortunes. Yet in the words of Princess Leia, for many Labour moderates, Starmer may be their only hope.