Opinion: Labour appoints new leader

The Labour Party elected Sir Keir Starmer as its leader over the weekend. Richard Dawson takes a look at the context in which the new Leader of the Opposition finds himself

The Labour Leadership contest is one which, in the context of the coronavirus crisis, has failed to generate the usual fanfare and media coverage that such occasions normally demand.

Given the scale of the COVID-19 pandemic and the way it has disrupted every aspect of our daily lives, this is hardly surprising.

But the position of Leader of the Opposition is an important one, particularly at a time like this where effective scrutiny of Government policy could be the difference between life and death.

When the news cycle is moving as fast as it is at the moment, Labour’s leadership election seems as if it has gone on for eternity.

It was back in early December when Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour was thrashed at the polls, returning its fewest members of Parliament since 1935.

If the world had changed then, when Boris Johnson was handed an 80-seat majority – the largest for a Conservative administration since 1987, today it looks almost unrecognisable.

In December, it was the European question that defined the General Election, with Mr Johnson being rewarded for his simple Get Brexit Done slogan in parts of the country that were previously Labour strongholds.

Today, the omnipresent Brexit issue has all but faded into obscurity as questions about coronavirus case numbers, testing, PPE, vaccines and the devastating economic impact of containment dominate the headlines.

It is in this fluid context that human rights lawyer and former director of public prosecutions and head of the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), Sir Keir Starmer, finds himself.

Elected new leader of the Labour Party on the first preference with 56.2 per cent of the vote, Mr Starmer beat opponents Rebecca Long-Bailey and Lisa Nandy decisively in the internal contest.

While he served previously in Jeremy Corbyn’s shadow cabinet as Brexit spokesman and has committed to keeping many of Labour’s 2019 manifesto policies in place, the former QC does represent a significant break with the Corbyn era.

Given that Mr Corbyn’s leadership was mired by endemic infighting, antisemitism and factionalism, culminating in the party’s worst result for many decades, that is probably a good thing.

At such a challenging time for the country, an opposition with a renewed sense of purpose could inject a much-needed boost into our democratic institutions.

Mr Starmer has already promised to work with the Government on its response to the coronavirus crisis.

He said: “Under my leadership, we will engage constructively with the Government, not opposition for opposition’s sake. Not scoring political points or making impossible demands. But with the courage to support where that’s the right thing to do.

“But we will test the arguments that are put forward. We will shine a torch on critical issues and where we see mistakes or faltering Government or things not happening as quickly as they should, we’ll challenge that and call that out.”

Mr Starmer has a pedigree in making critical decisions, having been in charge of the UK’s principal public agency for conducting criminal prosecutions, the CPS, for five years before entering Parliament in 2015.

His politics is described as ‘soft left’ in that he supports Labour’s anti-austerity agenda and believes in higher taxation, better-funded public services and reducing inequality.

But looking at the politicians he has selected to take up key roles in his shadow cabinet, it is probable that his leadership will be less informed by the essential works of 19th century German philosopher Karl Marx than his predecessor.

The MP for Oxford East, Anneliese Dodds, will serve as Shadow Chancellor alongside Torfaen MP and fellow former barrister Nick Thomas-Symonds as Shadow Home Secretary, leadership rival and MP for Wigan Lisa Nandy as Shadow Foreign Secretary and Rachel Reeves the MP for Leeds West as Shadow Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster.

Jonathan Ashworth, Angela Smith and Nick Brown have remained as Shadow Health, Shadow Leader of the Lords and Chief Whip respectively. But John McDonnell and Dianne Abbott have been removed from the shadow cabinet, as well as other key players in Mr Corbyn’s regime like Ian Lavery and John Trickett.

All of this points towards a renewed Labour Party that will hopefully play its part in the fight against COVID-19, offering advice, support and expertise in the formation of policy but equally holding the Government to account where its falling short of its responsibilities.

It’s early days, but a well-organised, tenacious and diligent official opposition could be just what the country needs right now.

Photograph of Sir Keir Starmer taken by Christopher Owens for North East England Chamber of Commerce publication, CONTACT – www.christopherjamesowens.com@thisischrisjo