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A New Left Leader, Making The Right Moves – OpEd

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By Yossi Mekelberg*

One of this year’s most important events in British politics, the election of Sir Keir Starmer as leader of the Labour Party, has naturally been overshadowed by the coronavirus crisis that has swept the UK, afflicting even Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Nevertheless, Starmer’s leadership of his party and thereby of Her Majesty’s Opposition gives Labour, for the first time since they lost power to the Conservatives a decade ago, a fighting chance of winning a general election.

Starmer’s decisive victory is a sign of Labour members’ longing for a unifying figure, one whose charisma and leadership qualities have been understated. His election is an acknowledgment that modern political leadership requires authority without being authoritarian, an adherence to social-democratic values rather than old-fashioned utopian dogmas from a time gone by, and constructive, well measured policies instead of inflammatory and alienating rhetoric. If Starmer’s first task is to end sectarianism within the party and keep it united until the next election, his immediate challenge as leader of the opposition is to navigate the treacherous waters of the coronavirus crisis responsibly and constructively, particularly with the prime minister out of action.

It is for the new shadow government to be supportive of the government in dealing with the pandemic, but at the same time to put on record when and where it disagrees without being seen as disloyal, or aiming to gain cheap shots when there is so much suffering around and more hardship ahead. Thus far Starmer has struck the right note in his first appearances since his victory, criticizing the government for not providing enough testing capacity and failing to acquire sufficient ventilators and personal protective equipment, but doing so without appearing partisan.

The conditions for reconstructing the Labour Party and leading it back into government are favorable. Starmer has inherited a party that only four months ago suffered its worst defeat since 1935. On the one hand this creates an uphill struggle to regain sufficient seats in the next general election, particularly those in Labour’s traditional heartlands, where people lost faith in the party’s leadership and its direction. However, it allows him time and space to rebuild the party in his image, and — for the foreseeable future at least — with little disruption from Labour’s more radical wing. His party will be expected to make steady improvements in local elections and by-elections as they come, but there are no expectations of miracles or any instant reversal in its fortunes.

Furthermore, Johnson’s convincing victory in last December’s general election granted the governing Conservatives a stable majority that should allow it a full five-year term in office, during which it should see off the pandemic and, dare I mention, complete the Brexit negotiations. For Starmer it means a long wait, but also the necessary time to heal the party and build a team around him that is competent, inclusive and fresh, ready for the post-coronavirus and post-Brexit era.

It is also the case that the consequences of the coronavirus pandemic wholly justify Labour’s constant warnings over many years of the danger of not prioritising the National Health Service (NHS). The heroic battle by NHS personnel, particularly those on the front line, to save lives and ease the pain of many thousands of people will reverberate for many years with the British people, as will the fact that they were left with woefully inadequate resources to engage in this battle. Successive Conservative governments ignored countless warnings from the opposition and from the medical profession, while making regular cuts to NHS funding. It is for Labour to convince the electorate not only that they can run a modern health service free at the point of delivery, which is fit for purpose in the 21st century and on a par with those of  Germany or the Scandinavian countries, but also that they will spend public money responsibly and efficiently.

One of the first moves that Keir Starmer made, and rightly so, was to reach out to the Jewish community. Both morally and politically, this distinguishes him from his predecessor and some of his allies. The past failure to eradicate any sign of antisemitism in the party was inexcusable and demonstrated a complete eclipse of judgment, one that cost the party dearly at the ballot box. Starmer’s sensitive and responsible approach to the issue from day one has already attracted praise from inside and outside the Jewish community, which gives hope that he genuinely intends to make the party inclusive, and intolerant of any form of discrimination. A prosperous Labour party will be one that can address this most contentious of issues, without being tainted by prejudice against any individual or group.

It is challenging to contemplate the world in the aftermath of COVID-19, but when it is finally contained and defeated, the role of a social democratic party with a progressive outlook and values, which sees an important role for government and society in advancing the human condition without disincentivising enterprise, will be more important than ever. The pandemic has demonstrated the fragility, and in many cases the heartlessness, of free market forces, and the need for a responsible and skilled government that looks after its people in times of crisis as well as in times of prosperity. A modern Labour movement must tread the fine line between not perceiving business as inherently evil and at the same time not seeing unregulated free market forces as the be all and end all. The Labour Party, which has always aspired to build a fairer society, professes to encourage innovation, creativity and enterprise for the benefit of the many, not the few.

In the first week of his new role, Starmer has made promising first strides in the right direction. He has assembled an impressive team that includes all wings of the party, with women and representatives from minority communities in key positions, but at the same time this new shadow cabinet is a clear departure from the past. It is their new leader’s task to galvanize this team, hone his leadership skills, and set a new agenda that will make Labour a genuine contender for government.

  • Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg

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