As Keir Starmer navigates his second week as Labour leader, rarely can a politician have found himself thrust into a new, prominent role in such unusual times. As the corona pandemic continues to turn the world upside down, Starmer faces several challenges, both short and long term.
Here’s the Brands2Life Public Affairs team’s thoughts on the five key challenges Sir Keir faces in the coming months.
Keir Starmer has become Leader of the Opposition at an extraordinary time. The current crisis will define our economy and our politics for the next decade, and so it almost feels facile to list it alongside the other challenges below.
But the reality of politics is that Starmer’s immediate response to the pandemic has the potential to define his leadership in the electorate’s eyes.
His first duty is to provide whatever support he can for the national effort to tackle corona. In some cases, that will entail scrutinising and challenging the government approach – asking the questions that we, the public, want the government to answer. In doing so, he must strike the right balance between constructive criticism and support. Just as industry has been forced to find a suitable tone in its communications during the crisis, so too will the Labour Party.
A letter sent last week by Shadow Chancellor Anneliese Dodds to her counterpart Rishi Sunak, suggests that the Labour leadership has quickly got to grips with this particular challenge. It offers support, outlines a desire for collaboration to protect the economy, but also provides a full and detailed list of questions on the economy.
If you thought a three-month leadership election would help ease the frictions within the Labour Party, think again. Events this past weekend, with the leaking of a report into how the Party handled allegations of anti-semitism, reinforce just how difficult it will be for Keir Starmer to unite a party riven by internal division.
His challenge is to unite the hard left, the soft left, and right of the Party, despite all three groups being incredibly suspicious of each other. Crucial to his success as leader will be whether the hard left, who still dominate the membership, represent a significant proportion of the Parliamentary Labour Party, and control much of the Party’s internal machinery, believe that Starmer is a man with whom they can do business.
Sir Keir must also contend with not having the full support of the influential unions – the second largest, UNITE, led by Len McCluskey, did not back him in the leadership contest and will be quick to hold him to account.
Like any new party leader, Starmer needs to use the next few months to create a credible, alternative plan for government. During his leadership campaign, Starmer indicated that he would retain some of the more radical policies from the 2019 Labour Party election manifesto, including public ownership of key industry, an idea which is more relevant than ever given current events. But criticism of that manifesto centered on the sheer volume of pledges, and so his first task will be to refine that offering into a more coherent policy offer.
In parallel to this work, he and his team will need to be agile in responding to changes in policy across a multitude of issues and sectors. This is a challenge which shouldn’t be underestimated. They will look to experts across all parts of society, including the business community, to help shape and inform their thinking on critical issues in the months ahead.
Never far from the surface, unless carefully managed, the way in which Starmer approaches Brexit may end up being a major road bump for his leadership. If he has any hope of becoming Prime Minister, he has to win back the ‘red wall’ seats of northern England that gave Boris Johnson his majority, having deserted Labour over the last leadership’s approach to Brexit.
What is Starmer’s offer to these voters and how can he persuade them to forgive and forget Labour’s, and indeed his, past approach? His contribution to the debate on the potential need to extend the Brexit transition period, at the end of December, will also be closely scrutinised.
Even if Keir Starmer can handle the four issues above, ultimately he needs to create an identity – Brand Starmer if you will – that will resonate with voters, in the way that Boris Johnson resonates with people on a human level. A key part of that is about defining who he is politically, and to date, that has not always been clear.
He’s been keen to position himself as neither Corbynite or Blairite; he’s been accused of being boring by some, but others say he is simply a serious politician; others have questioned how a politician who is seen as part of the Westminster establishment (something which is not helped by having a title) can appeal to northern voters who have lost faith in Labour.
Now he must define his vision, showcase himself as a person that voters want to get to know, and begin to rebuild Labour’s relationship with the business community, at one of the most uncertain economic times for nearly a century.
But all this must be done in a fragmented political theatre and during a national crisis, when Starmer will not have the traditional platforms of Prime Minister’s Questions, press conferences and public meetings to position himself to all of the groups that he needs to convince.
Starmer’s response to all of these challenges will be critical in the months ahead, and will ultimately, determine the success or otherwise of his party at the ballot box in years to come.
Written by Jamie Slavin, Senior Account Director, Public Affairs