Is Labour trying to become a party with serious electoral ambitions again?
- Credit: PA
It has been almost 80 years since a new leader took the reins of his party in quite such crisis-ridden circumstances as Sir Keir Starmer has found on taking over at the head of the Labour Party.
You have to go back to Churchill’s election as Prime Minister in 1940 to come across a similar scenario. Sir Keir might not have the struggles of government to wrestle with, but he does take on the not inconsiderable job of Leader of the Opposition at a crucial moment in our nation’s history.
And the Labour election result does suggest to me that the party’s members now want the movement to take an active role in how this country fights the coronavirus crisis – and how it prepares for a new post-virus world where everything is likely to be very different.
He may be only a few days into his term as Labour leader, but Sir Keir certainly seems to look like a serious politician knowing that he has a serious job to do, and understands the need to work with serious people to achieve his aims.
In short, it looks as if a Starmer-led Labour Party will be looking to get back into government rather than just producing a wish-list of left-wing policies that many voters either don’t like or don’t consider to be vaguely realistic.
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Sir Keir Starmer certainly isn’t the answer to all Labour’s problems.
Ipswich Conservative MP Tom Hunt hit the nail on the head when he asked if a knighted member of the southern establishment (and as a former Director of Public Prosecutions Sir Keir is, almost by definition, a member of the establishment) can win back lost Labour votes from the “Red Wall” of seats across the country that turned to the Conservatives in December.
Mr Hunt has a good point. Many working-class Labour voters have very socially-conservative attitudes, many were attracted by the Tories’ clear pro-Brexit message, and a posh southern knight isn’t the obvious choice to lead them.
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However Sir Keir clearly understands that and has built a team around him that are in a good position to fend off those criticisms when they come.
Deputy leader Angela Rayner has clear working-class credibility and a strong Labour back-story. And no one understood the pressures faced by Labour from pro-Brexit voters more than Lisa Nandy who has now been given the key role of Shadow Foreign Secretary.
I can see the leadership combination of Starmer/Rayner being as potent a political force as Blair/Prescott in the 1990s as the party headed towards the 1997 General Election.
What is also significant is the way the political jokers of the Corbyn years have been seen off. John McDonnell and Diane Abbott had already fallen on their swords, but Ian Lavery, Richard Burgon and Barry Gardiner who had been seen as political clowns have also been relegated to the backbenches.
Sir Keir’s election seems to have been welcomed by people from all wings of the party – many left-wingers have seen that the work to create a more balanced shadow cabinet has made Labour look like a much more potent electoral force.
And the new leadership’s reaction to the coronavirus crisis looks more reasonable than that of many members of the previous shadow cabinet.
Labour health spokesman Jonathan Ashworth has always seemed like a voice of reason – questioning issues like the number of ventilators and the provision of protective equipment while offering broad support for measures introduced by the government after advice from scientific experts.
However others – including Mr Corbyn himself – had been criticised for appearing to use the crisis as a way of claiming that the economic policies they had advocated at the general election were right all along.
What is the right economic policy for nations faced by a global pandemic might not be the right economic policy in “normal” times. The new Labour team appears keen to work with the government to ease us through the crisis rather than make political points which might look good in a manifesto four years down the line.
So overall, it looks as if the new Labour leadership has made a sure-footed start. The circumstances under which it starts operating are quite remarkable. But it does seem as if the country has entered a new era of real grown-up politics with two parties both wanting to win the next general election.