The long-drawn-out process of electing a new leader for Britain’s Labour party reached its climax on April 4, when the result of the membership ballot was announced. Sir Keir Starmer won on the first count, with well over 50% of the vote, and is now Leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition.
The contest had been triggered by the resignation of Jeremy Corbyn who, in December 2019, had led his party to its worst general election defeat since 1935. By the time the membership vote for leader was held, the original five contestants had been whittled down to three, and in a curious way they represented – in much of the public’s mind, at least – the three strands that made up the post-Corbyn Labour party.
Rebecca Long-Bailey was widely seen as the hard-left “Corbyn continuity” candidate. She made no secret of the fact that she was the main author of the Labour manifesto that had led to the party’s disastrous general election result, but stoutly maintained throughout her campaign that she stood by its policies which, she declared, were popular with a large sector of the public, maintaining that the Labour rout had been due to a variety of other factors. If elected leader, she vowed to continue to promote them.
Defending what might be called the center ground during the leadership campaign was Lisa Nandy. She could best be described as a principled left-leaning social democrat, who became so disenchanted with Corbyn’s leadership that she resigned from his shadow Cabinet in 2016, and supported a rival in the subsequent leadership contest. Later she became Chair of the Labour Friends of Palestine and the Middle East, a parliamentary organization supporting Palestinian rights and lobbying for the UK to recognize a State of Palestine. In her bid for the votes of the party membership, which is strongly pro-Corbyn, Nandy – like her two rivals – had to stand by most of the policies contained in the Labour manifesto. Nandy gave the impression that she would actually seek to implement many of them.
Sir Keir Starmer, who has emerged as the winner of the contest, while never disowning the batch of policies which had so failed to impress the British electorate, never denied that he would seek to lead Labour in a new direction. He insisted throughout that if elected he would seek to leave his own stamp on the party. While Starmer never uttered a word against the hard-left clique known as Momentum – the group that had projected Corbyn into the leadership and then seized the reins of power within the party – there was a widespread belief that he would seek to loosen their grip, and eventually replace them.
The one matter on which all three candidates agreed was the urgent need to tighten the party’s handling of antisemitism within its ranks. Nandy waxed truly eloquent during the campaign on her solidarity with Britain’s Jewish community, and the need to cleanse Labour’s Augean stable of its antisemitism. Her most powerful speech, perhaps, was made to the Jewish Labour Movement, which went on to endorse her candidacy. She had already unveiled her own strategy for dealing with the problem – a document titled ‘Tackling Antisemitism: An action plan for our party’. The Equality and Human Rights Commission is currently conducting a prolonged investigation into antisemitism within the Labour party, and Nandy said that as leader she would accept any recommendations it made. She would also set up a new, independent process for handling antisemitism complaints. In a direct swipe at Corbyn and those around him, Nandy said there had been a “failure or refusal to grapple with this at the highest levels in the party over the last four years.”
Sir Keir Starmer’s affiliations with Britain’s Jewish community are close. He married into a Jewish family and has a son and a daughter who may therefore be halachically Jewish. Whenever possible he participates in Friday-night dinners at which his Jewish father-in-law recites the blessings. Family relationships are close. He participates in barmitzvahs, weddings and funerals, and attends synagogue for family occasions.
When asked point-blank at one hustings if he was a Zionist, Starmer demurred, but said: “I believe in the state of Israel, and as a secure homeland for its people. If the definition of Zionist is someone who believes in the state of Israel, in that sense I’m a Zionist.” He has a number of extended family members living in Tel Aviv.
Starmer has vowed to restore what he describes as Labour’s “important relationship” with the UK’s Chief Rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis. Just ahead of the general election ballot last December, Mirvis issued an unprecedented statement on behalf of Britain’s Jews, asserting that “a new poison” had taken hold in Labour, “sanctioned from the very top”, and that Jeremy Corbyn was “unfit for public office”. He virtually urged the Jewish community not to vote Labour.
“I certainly would not want that to happen ever again,” said Starmer.
Starmer believes there is still a massive problem with antisemites within Labour. “They have to be dealt with robustly and swiftly,” he has said, “and there’s no reason they can’t be.” He advocates removing anyone swiftly from the Labour Party ”for being clearly antisemitic.”
He has said that one giant test of his ability to lead Labour will be how he goes about rebuilding trust with Britain’s Jewish community. He promised to be “on the front foot” over the issue from the very start.
“I will be wanting those reports on my desk regularly,” he said. “And by that I don’t mean every six months, I mean every week. My experience leading the Crown Prosecution Service and as Director of Public Prosecutions is if you want to demonstrate your values and cultural change within the organization, you have to model it. And I think the leader of the Labour party has a personal duty to rebuild that faith, that trust with the Jewish community.”
As an earnest sign of the importance he places on the issue, he made a point of mentioning it in the first speech he gave after his election as leader.
“Antisemitism has been a stain on our party,” he said. “I have seen the grief that it’s brought to so many Jewish communities. On behalf of the Labour Party, I am sorry. And I will tear out this poison by its roots, and judge success by the return of Jewish members and those who felt that they could no longer support us.”
Keir Starmer, who is 58, was born in London and was named after the first Labour member of parliament, Keir Hardie. At university he graduated with a first class law degree, and then undertook postgraduate studies at Oxford, graduating in1986.
The following year he became a barrister (the US equivalent is attorney or counsel), and worked mainly on human rights issues. In 2002 he was appointed Queen’s Counsel (QC), and in 2007 was named “QC of the Year”. In July 2008 he was appointed Head of the Crown Prosecution Service and Director of Public Prosecutions, and was awarded a knighthood in 2014 for “services to law and criminal justice”.
Elected to the House of Commons in 2015, Starmer was immediately brought into the shadow Cabinet by Corbyn as shadow Immigration Minister. Like Lisa Nandy, he resigned the following year in protest at Corbyn’s leadership, but unlike Nandy, once Corbyn had won his second leadership contest, Starmer agreed to serve under him, and accepted appointment as shadow Brexit Secretary.
During the course of the campaign Long-Bailey and Nandy indicated that, if asked, they would be happy to serve under the leadership of any of the other candidates. Starmer was more equivocal, though in the event both Long-Bailey and Nandy were offered places in his Shadow Cabinet. One startling possibility did, however, emerge. On 20 February Jeremy Corbyn was reported as saying that he would be happy to serve in any future shadow Cabinet if the new Labour leader asked him to do so.
The one contender to take up the offer was, unsurprisingly, Rebecca Long-Bailey, who suggested that she would offer Corbyn a post if she became leader. One “Corbynista” contender for deputy leader had already said he would like Corbyn to be shadow foreign secretary. The very idea of Jeremy Corbyn remaining in the shadow cabinet would have been hugely controversial, especially within the Jewish community. It would have incensed those who believed Corbyn was one of the main reasons for the party’s shattering defeat. The likelihood of Starmer taking up Corbyn’s offer at any time seems remote in the extreme.
Now Keir Starmer sets out on the difficult uphill path of reshaping Labour into a political party capable of winning back the trust of the British electorate. Given Boris Johnson’s overwhelming victory at the last general election, and the public confidence he has gained for the way he and his government have been handling the coronavirus emergency, it seems unlikely that Labour will succeed before the next general election, which is less than five years away. Keir Starmer is probably in for a long haul.