Labour Leadership Contest 2020

Profile

  • PERSONAL – Rt Hon Sir Keir Starmer KCB QC MP; 57; married to solicitor Victoria Alexander with two children; studied law at University of Leeds and Oxford University.
  • CAREER – first elected to represent Holborn and St Pancras constituency in 2015; Director of Public Prosecutions 2008-13; appointed Queen’s Counsel in 2002.
  • TEAM – Chief of Staff Morgan McSweeney leads a politically well-balanced team which includes former MP Jenny Chapman; former senior Corbyn advisors Simon Fletcher and Kat Fletcher; and longstanding Starmer aide Ben Nunn. 
  • LIKELY APPROACH – left of centre politician with a forensic and serious style; his campaign centred on the slogan ‘Another future is possible’; he has warned Labour should not change course too drastically meaning the party’s renationalisation agenda will likely remain.
  • OPPORTUNITY – a listener who will be more open to meeting with businesses. Engaging with Starmer, his team and new shadow ministers early will be advantageous as they seek to shape business-related policies.

 

Overview    

After a gruelling three-month leadership contest, Labour has announced that its new leader is the party’s former Shadow Brexit Secretary Sir Keir Starmer. The breakdown of the results show that Starmer won in the first round of voting with 56.2% with rivals Rebecca Long Bailey securing 27.6% and Lisa Nandy 16.2%. He won in every part of the electorate, including across the general party membership, affiliates (including trade unions) and registered supporters. 

The scale of Starmer’s victory gives him a powerful internal mandate for change. It also offers hope to mainstream Labour members that the magnitude of the December 2019 election defeat and the previous leader’s handling of the antisemitism crisis within the party has finally hit home. Additionally, it demonstrates how successful Starmer was in neutralising the in-built advantages the early frontrunner Long Bailey had during the contest. She not only secured the support of the outgoing leadership but also the backing of Unite trade union and the Momentum campaign group.

Starmer relentlessly positioned himself as the unity candidate and did so with authenticity. The senior campaign team advising Starmer is well-respected and politically balanced, as it includes figures such as Chief of Staff Morgan McSweeney, former MP Jenny Chapman, former Corbyn aides Simon Fletcher and Kat Fletcher, and longstanding Starmer aide Ben Nunn. The professionalism of the campaign was noted by many commentators, as well as its careful approach to policy and communications. The message of unity for the party and the country is one that will likely be the focus of Starmer’s leadership.

Starmer has already begun to reshuffle his Shadow Cabinet with key Corbyn allies having been quickly dismissed. The most senior positions in the new Shadow Cabinet have been given to relative newcomers to Parliament. Anneliese Dodds, who served under John McDonnell in the shadow treasury team, has been appointed Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer and Nick Thomas-Symonds, who was a junior member of the shadow home affairs team under Dianne Abbott, has been appointed Shadow Home Secretary. This new generation is buttressed in the Shadow Cabinet by more experienced frontline politicians. Jonathan Ashworth remains as Shadow Health Secretary given he is leading the party’s response to COVID-19, leadership rival Lisa Nandy has been appointed Shadow Foreign Secretary, and Chair of the influential Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Select Committee, Rachel Reeves, is now Shadow Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, shadowing the Cabinet Office. The appointments made by Starmer thus far show he is intent on reshaping the Shadow Cabinet in his own image – relatively low-profile but capable and hard-working. More appointments to the Shadow Cabinet and the wider shadow ministerial team are expected over the coming days, all of which will bear significant influence on the future policy direction of the party.

Over the coming days Starmer and his team will also seek to gain further control over the party machine and its structures. They will do so by removing legacy staff loyal to Corbyn and replacing them with their own people. In addition to the scale of Starmer’s victory, the outcome of elections for the National Executive Committee (the party’s ruling body), which took place at the same time as the leadership election, has tipped the balance away from the far left towards a more moderate composition. Starmer will be able to exercise control over the party machine more easily as a result of these internal elections.

 

Big Choices

COVID-19

The implications of COVID-19 for the economy and society are profound. The same can be said of its consequences for Starmer and the Labour movement. Starmer has faced criticism for what some perceive to be his uninspiring approach. However, the COVID-19 outbreak has the potential to change politics and makes the electoral future more difficult to predict, so Starmer’s distinctly forensic, measured and serious approach could be well-timed. Indeed, he has already said that Labour under his leadership will engage constructively with government but test their arguments. Such an approach will ensure the opposition is once again performing its most basic of functions, that of holding the government to account. For the public, it may also provide a clean and welcome break both from Boris Johnson’s lack of attention to detail and from Corbyn’s ineffectual approach.

The unprecedented nature of the Conservative government’s response to the pandemic, with its programme of government-backed loans, grants and worker support packages, is perhaps more interventionist than even Corbyn could have ever hoped to implement had he won an election. Politics-as-usual is therefore on hold and could well be for some time to come. Starmer recognises that this presents challenges and opportunities for Labour; he set out in his acceptance speech that it will not be “business as usual” after the crisis. That said, central elements of Labour policy to date will likely remain in place even after the current crisis has passed, including its renationalisation agenda which is possibly aided further by the government’s response to COVID-19.

 

Looking further ahead

Labour’s political strategy ahead of the next election will need to go far beyond just presenting Starmer as a moderate, modern and competent leader. Some in the Labour movement hope that this could be enough on its own but rebuilding trust with the public in the wake of four consecutive election defeats will require policy change too. Starmer has acknowledged that Labour has a “mountain to climb” which will require the party to change and rethink. Politically contentious policy areas for Labour, such as public service modernisation and welfare reform, could therefore be on the table even though the party remains committed to its renationalisation agenda which is now considered to be mainstream and non-controversial. Starmer will have to tackle the defining issues of the day and not rigidly apply solutions offered up and rejected by the public previously if Labour is to even begin to demonstrate any degree of relevance.

Navigating this path will be no easy task. The left of the party that Starmer defeated in this election will be unlikely to go quietly, they will arguably be better organised and resourced on the backbenches with Corbyn also promising to remain active. It will be made even more difficult for Starmer given he professes to be neither Corbynite nor Blairite but is yet to fully define his own approach. The dramatically changed composition of the Labour membership since 2015 makes this harder still, even before you try to reconcile this with the commitment made by Starmer during the campaign not to change course too drastically from the December 2019 election manifesto. That said, as Starmer himself has demonstrated through the gradual ratchetting and evolution of Labour’s Brexit position, such change is possible. His mission now is therefore to begin to restore trust in Labour as a force for good and change so the party can be a government in-waiting. He has already made major inroads in his first 24 hours as leader, his fulsome apology to the Jewish community for the “poisonous stain” of antisemitism within the party is something his predecessor did not manage.

 

Engaging with Labour

There has been an understandable reluctance by business to engage with the Labour frontbench over recent years. There was a genuine fear that a meeting with the previous leadership team could make a policy situation worse rather than better. Many have opted instead to engage where possible with moderate Labour MPs on Select Committees, All-Party Parliamentary Groups or those with closely aligned interests.

The election of Starmer as leader and Angela Rayner as deputy leader alongside the new-look Shadow Cabinet provides a more moderate and welcoming public face of Labour to businesses. It provides a timely opportunity for businesses to step up their engagement. Although we would expect Labour to use COVID-19 as an opportunity to criticise businesses which have behaved poorly with employees and customers, generally Starmer and his team will be more open to engagement and more professional in their conduct with the private sector than under Corbyn, not least because such engagement benefits them too.  The lack of resources for opposition parties means businesses are a great source of advice and intelligence which will aid them in holding the government to account.