When Keir Starmer took over as leader of Britain’s opposition Labour party in April he inherited a party that had just endured its worst election defeat for 80 years and was embroiled in a bitter civil war.
As he marks his first three months in office, Sir Keir still has an electoral mountain to climb — he needs to gain 123 MPs to form a one-seat majority in 2024 — but he has reshaped the party more rapidly than anyone predicted.
Within hours of taking over the leadership, the former director of public prosecutions demoted a dozen supporters of his predecessor, Jeremy Corbyn, from the shadow cabinet; later he installed a centrist general secretary. Last week he further enraged some leftwing party members by swiftly sacking his previous leadership rival, Rebecca Long Bailey, for endorsing what he called an anti-Semitic article.
Sir Keir’s use of his weekly face-off with Boris Johnson at prime minister’s questions to probe the government’s handling of the Covid-19 crisis has also garnered attention. The polling gap between Labour and the Tories has narrowed from over 20 percentage points to about 4 since February. Research firm Opinium recently gave him a 37-35 lead over Mr Johnson as best prime minister.
Allies say Sir Keir’s strategy is to seek the “right to be heard” before rushing to churn out new policies. They add that he is also trying to decontaminate the party’s position on five key issues to make Labour more palatable to swing voters in the 59 constituencies it lost in December.
Keir Starmer is trying to woo swing voters to regain lost constituencies © Jessica Taylor//UK ParliamentThe most acute dilemma for the new Labour leader is how to shape a bold economic policy during a brutal downturn. Instinctively he wants to take a more radical economic approach than the Conservative government, with fairer taxes and a low carbon overhaul of the economy, dubbed a Green New Deal.
But he is expected to water down some of the more controversial policies from Labour’s 2019 manifesto, such as the pledge to seize £300bn of shareholder assets and transfer them to workers and the nationalisation of half a dozen industries. His team believes the party offered too many big policies at the last election and appeared to have a spendthrift approach. “We don’t want to repeat the 2019 kitchen-sink strategy,” said one senior figure.
But their calculations have been upended by the Tory government’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic. With chancellor Rishi Sunak announcing huge interventions — including the furlough scheme, which is paying the wages of more than 8.4m people — some of Sir Keir’s allies believe he could be more proactive. “We have Rishi Sunak gobbling down our lunch at the moment,” said one.
Shadow chancellor Anneliese Dodds is trying to get ahead by calling for the government’s summer economic update next week to be upgraded to a full fiscal Budget with a focus on jobs. But the shadow cabinet remains divided on when to roll out major policy announcements.
Sir Keir won the leadership partly by convincing Europhile party members that he was a committed Remain voice. As shadow Brexit secretary in the last Parliament he shifted Labour’s policy towards a second referendum.
But voters might not guess this from his current position. Sir Keir has not joined those pushing for the UK government to extend the Brexit transition period, which is due to finish at the end of this year. When asked about the issue in May, he told LBC radio: “The government says it’s going to get [a deal] done by the end of the year. So let’s see how they get on.”
This ambivalence reflects Sir Keir’s biggest priority for the next general election: winning back Leave-voting seats. He has told interviewers: “The Leave-Remain divide is over”.
The leader’s office is trying to repair the damage to Labour’s reputation in working class manufacturing heartlands — where large numbers of Labour voters switched to the Tories in December. Many believed Mr Corbyn was unpatriotic, fraternised with unsavoury characters — he once hailed Hamas as “friends” — and was a pacifist.
Sir Keir is emphasising a more “patriotic” message. For example, he wrote to Daily Telegraph readers on VE Day to praise second world war veterans as “the greatest generation that ever lived”.
Last weekend he also announced the revamp of a group called “Labour Friends of the Forces”, saying he no longer wanted to hear voters say they “don’t think the Labour party values the armed forces”.
Sir Keir and his wife Victoria take part in a national ‘clap for carers’ in April © Justin Tallis/AFP/GettySir Keir, whose wife is Jewish, has vowed to endthe “stain” of anti-Semitism, which dogged Labour under Mr Corbyn. The leadership is braced for a report by the Equality and Human Rights Commission into hostility to Jewish people within the party.
The sacking last Friday of former shadow education secretary Rebecca Long Bailey — a standard bearer for the hard left — showed he will not tolerate the use of anti-Semitic tropes by party members.
Ms Long Bailey had used Twitter to praise an interview with an actress who claimed wrongly that the killing of George Floyd by a policeman in the US was connected to Israel. Her refusal to take down the tweet, despite pressure from Sir Keir, led him to fire her within hours.
Sir Keir is trying to sidestep attempts by the Tories to force him on to the wrong side of public opinion over issues such as the destruction of the statue of 18th century slaver Edward Colston during Black Lives Matter protests in Bristol last month.
Sir Keir trod a cautious path when questioned on the toppling of Edward Colston’s statue © Ben Birchall/PAIn a cautious response, Sir Keir condemned the statue’s toppling but added that it should have been taken down years ago. He subsequently backed government proposals for harsh prison sentences for those who desecrate war memorials and has described proposals to defund the police as “nonsense”.
He took a similarly careful approach to diversity issues after the Tory government scrapped plans to allow people to self-identify as a different gender without a medical diagnosis, in a move that antagonised left-wingers.
Sir Keir’s spokesman said that while the party was committed to trans rights “we want to work with all sides of . . . this nuanced debate.” One ally said: “We don’t want to look like we care much more about trans rights than about the state of people’s jobs.”