Two weeks after the lockdown was announced, while the country was still trying to come to terms with a new way of life, Keir Starmer was elected as the leader of the Labour party.
The former barrister rose to prominence as a key party spokesman on Brexit and won the leadership contest by a clear margin after the resignation of Jeremy Corbyn. Essentially thrown in at the deep end as the nation tackled the coronavirus response, Starmer told the BBC that his “unrelenting” focus as leader would be returning Labour to government at the next general election.
So, five months into his new job, what do we know about the direction the party is heading under Starmer? And will the new leader pursue the radical economic agenda of his predecessor, or move Labour back towards the centre of British politics?
‘Reassure first, transform later’
Despite being the leader for less than six months, Starmer is already the most popular leader of the opposition since Tony Blair. His personal polling is very high; indeed, he has overtaken incumbent Boris Johnson as the voters’ preferred choice for Prime Minister.
His forensic, legal approach has won him many plaudits at Prime Minister’s Questions and he has successfully forced the government into policy changes; most notably the dropping of the surcharge on overseas NHS workers.
So, while he appears to be popular and respected, where does Starmer stand on the important issues?
The simple answer, according to Eunice Goes, Professor of Politics at Richmond University and the author of The Labour Party Under Ed Miliband: Trying But Failing to Renew Social Democracy is that Starmer is pursuing a ‘reassure first, transform later’ agenda.
This is partly as a consequence of the party’s poor showing at the 2019 general election and the stinging enquiry into the defeat. The post-mortem concluded that Labour has no chance of winning a general election if it is perceived to be incompetent, unprofessional, too radical, and out of touch with voters.
Recent polls have shown that Labour still has work to do. A YouGov study found that only one in five voters trust Labour to manage the economy while a third of voters say that Starmer does not look like a Prime Minister in waiting.
The new leader’s first job has been to try and rebuild his party’s reputation – particularly when it comes to antisemitism.
Having already apologised to the Jewish community, Starmer has since sacked front-bench Corbynite Rebecca Long-Bailey for sharing an antisemitic conspiracy theory, said he will implement in full the findings of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, and has apologised and paid damages to a BBC journalist defamed by the party for a documentary entitled Is Labour Antisemitic?
It is clear that the immediate priority is to improve the standing of the party among voters. But what can we expect from Starmer in terms of policy, particularly when it comes to the economy?
Starmer’s 10 pledges
On his website, the Labour leader makes the ‘moral case for socialism’ with ten pledges that commit him to socialist policies. These include:
- Increase Income Tax for the top 5% of earners
- Reverse cuts in Corporation Tax
- Clampdown on tax avoidance, particularly of large corporations
- Support the abolition of tuition fees
- Support common ownership of rail, mail, energy and water
- Defend free movement as we leave the EU
- An immigration system based on compassion and dignity
- A federal system to devolve powers – including through regional investment banks and control over regional industrial strategy
- Replace the House of Lords with an elected chamber of regions and nations.
It is, however, the tenth pledge that suggests how Labour will progress over the coming months and years. Starmer pledges:
“Forensic, effective opposition to the Tories in Parliament – linked up to our mass membership and a professional election operation. Never lose sight of the votes ‘lent’ to the Tories in 2019. Unite our party, promote pluralism and improve our culture. Robust action to eradicate the scourge of antisemitism. Maintain our collective links with the unions.”
This so-called ‘public attitudes-led policymaking approach’ has been seen in the way the party has proposed specific, realistic solutions to dealing with the coronavirus pandemic. From ideas to reform the furlough scheme to working to reopen schools, the party has eschewed grand policy announcements in favour of specific policies that benefit the ‘average’ voter.
As Corbyn found, announcing contentious policies such as free broadband or scrapping Trident can be divisive. Starmer is aware that such positions need to be tested through focus groups and opinion polls and only presented when they feel it reflects the core values of ‘normal’ voters. Bold proposals will also be stripped of any ‘radical’ connotations and instead presented in everyday language.
Of course, this approach means the left of the party remains suspicious about Starmer’s intentions. But, with the leader set to spend time reassuring and winning back trust, revolutionary ideas and transformative policies will continue to take a back seat.