Labour Under Starmer: What’s Changed?

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Since Sir Keir Starmer became Leader of the Labour Party in April, his direction for the Party has been a matter of debate, but after 7 months at the helm, we are beginning to see some clear indications. 

His first conference speech was largely addressing what was seen as deficient in the Corbyn years: patriotism. “I want this to be the best country to grow up in […]”; “A country in which we put family first.”; and Conservatives are “holding Britain back”. Starmer was determined to convince the public the Labour Party is not only proud to be British, but also espouses ‘British values’ of family, community and being celebratory of our national history. This is clearly trying to break with Corbyn, who was at least in the media seen as anti-Britain for his alleged sympathy with groups like the IRA. 

In terms of helping Labour in the polls, the strategy appears to be working. The latest polls from Ipsos Mori have placed Labour ahead of the Tories by the biggest lead since April 2018. Perhaps more significantly, Progress, an internal faction to Labour and one of the largest among Labour MPs, praised his attitude of prioritising electoral success. Yet, Momentum, a left-wing faction within Labour, criticised the speech as a “missed opportunity” to show policy substance, and to win back the ‘Red Wall’, he needed to show “solidarity with the working class”. 

Starmer’s new agenda has begun to influence foreign policy- Starmer’s Foreign Secretary appointee, Lisa Nandy, has promised to maintain defence spending above the NATO requirement of 2% of GDP, and in her own leadership campaign, like Starmer, said she would press the nuclear button and was committed to renewing Trident, the UK’s advanced nuclear system costing an estimated £205bn. On the EU, Starmer has been eager to put the issue behind Labour and pressure the Government to deliver its policy, likely to move on from Labour’s unpopular 2019 position he architected and resolve internal disputes, but according to theyworkforyou.com, he has ‘generally voted for’ EU Membership, and could be expected to continue that if the issue became a serious debate again.

Within the party, Starmer’s style and early policies seem to have gained an asset of widespread popularity in the Parliamentary Labour Party and proven popular by returning to mainstream thought like the condemnation of Russia, which Corbyn resisted, but this has come at the cost of some of the mass membership support offered by factions like Momentum, which had 40,000 members as of September. This has important consequences for Labour’s path back to power: Len McCluskey, General Secretary of Unite the Union, has questioned how successful Labour can be with less enthusiastic members who may not campaign in elections. But the strategy seems to be popular among the public, which will likely encourage Starmer to continue with it.

Perhaps the clearest image of where Starmer is taking the party is in his picks for the Shadow Cabinet, which upon his ascension to leadership saw the widespread removal of Corbynites like Richard Burgon from his post as Shadow Justice Minister. This symbolises a general shift towards the centre in policy terms. The appointment of Annaliese Dodds as Shadow Chancellor reflects a desire to return to more centrist economic policies: Starmer has rejected proposals to increase tax rates on businesses “at a time of economic crisis”, suggesting he will use borrowing to fund proposals like an extended furlough scheme. 

Beyond this, Starmer has resisted specifying many economic policies, but we can expect a more reserved version of Corbyn’s manifestos. This will likely see plans for nationalised broadband dropped due to poor public reception in the 2019 election, it was seen as ‘undeliverable’, but keep significant policies like nationalising rail, given its high popularity, and the Conservatives already showing a movement towards it in promising to nationalise Northern Rail in 2021. 

This will be popular with voters who left Labour in 2019 citing the party as ‘too far left’, an idea highlighted by former MP Anna Turley in a post-election interview, and will seek to win over some Conservative voters feeling alienated by the harder stance on Brexit taken by the Johnson Government. However, from parts of the membership. Last week’s elections to Labour’s National Executive Committee saw 5 of the 6 candidates of the left-wing ‘Grassroots Voice’ campaign elected, seemingly to check Starmer’s move to the right. Between an oppositional NEC and criticism from union leaders like McCluskey, who cut Unite’s funding to Labour by 10% in October, Starmer’s strategy runs the risk of Labour continuing to appear divided to the public.  

If this return to the centre is a long-term goal, Starmer’s boldest moves have been attempting to de-Corbynise the party, assessing him as a source of unpopularity for the party. This began in earnest with the 2020 Conference tagline of “A New Leadership”, and has recently come to a head in the suspension of Corbyn from Labour at the end of October over questioning the EHRC investigation into anti-Semitism under his leadership. Suspension of a former leader is an unprecedented move, but the new NEC quickly reinstated him on 17th, though Starmer refused to allow him back into the Parliamentary Labour Party. 

Starmer’s hard line against anti-Semitism and Corbyn has won support among MPs and groups Corbyn alienated like the Jewish Labour Movement but has seen backlash from the left of the party. Momentum founder Jon Lansman and former Shadow Ministers like Abbott led the “#ReinstateJeremyCorbyn” campaign and then criticised Starmer for not including him in the PLP. Starmer’s strategy has proved publicly popular, with a YouGov poll suggesting 58% support his decision but could bring the party to civil war.

Starmer, after just 7 months in office, seems to have forged a strong position. Public opinion has seemed to settle on him as more competent than Johnson, with polls consistently if narrowly showing Starmer ahead of Johnson personally, and from late October, party polling has shown a similar lead for Labour over the Conservatives. These achievements in recovering from the worst Labour defeat since 1935 in December will be celebrated in the Starmer camp, but such achievements have come at a cost. In alienating large parts of the membership, influential factions and unions like Momentum and Unite, Starmer risks Labour looking like an unconvincing option to the public if it is racked with the division. It will take much longer before we can determine if Starmerism, Starmer’s strategy to put Labour in government, will be a long-term success, but depending on the source, it has so far proved both a dramatic success and pushed the party to near civil war. Which consequence will prevail will be watched anxiously on all sides of politics.

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