On the 4th of April 2020, Keir Starmer succeeded Jeremy Corbyn as Leader of the Labour Party and Leader of the Opposition. Since then he has moved from strength to strength, smashing records and winning the hearts and minds of the British public. In this article, I will be taking a closer look at Sir Keir, his life, reflections on his leadership thus far, and where he has the potential to take Labour in the future.
Born in the Borough of Southwark, Central London, in 1962, Starmer was given the name Keir in honour of the founder of the Labour Party, Keir Hardie. As the son of a nurse and a toolmaker, he came from humble beginnings. He went on to study law in Leeds, graduating with a First in Law in the mid-Eighties, at the height of Thatcherism. He continued his education in law at Oxford University, undertaking a post-graduate course, whilst at the same time editing the magazine Socialist Alternatives.
He became a Barrister in 1987, during which he worked on the famous McLibel case, which involved two environmental activists who were sued by McDonald’s for the publication of a factsheet which was critical of the company. After losing the initial case, it was taken to the European Court of Human Rights, which found in favour of the activists and ordered the UK Government pay them £57,000 for infringement on their freedom of speech and for laws that unduly restricted the right for activist groups to criticise big business freely. In 2008, Starmer was appointed Director of Public Prosecutions for England and Wales a role he served in for 5 years, before leaving to enter frontline politics.
After selection by the Labour Party in 2015 to stand for the safe seat of Holborn and St. Pancras, in north-central London, Starmer won by an overwhelming majority, giving him a seat in the House of Commons. He was also encouraged to stand for the Labour Leadership that same year but opted against to stay as a backbencher, to gain experience as an MP before considering moving into any frontbench roles. The 2015 Leadership Election saw Jeremy Corbyn appointed Leader of the Labour Party, who appointed Starmer Shadow Minister for Immigration. After only 7 months in the role, however, Starmer resigned in protest over Corbyn’s leadership of the party. He was later appointed Shadow Brexit Secretary, a role he carried out until he became the party leader in April 2020.
Starmer was elected Labour Leader in the first round of voting after winning a majority (56.2%) of the votes, defeating Corbyn ally Rebecca Long-Bailey and ‘bridge’ candidate Lisa Nandy in the contest. Of course, his taking of the reigns from Corbyn came at a time in which the UK was locked down due to the Coronavirus pandemic, meaning that politics was not its usual self (although there are arguments out there to say it hasn’t been that way since the Brexit vote). Nevertheless, Starmer stated a desire to work constructively with the government to produce solutions for the British people in a time of national crisis.
He appointed a strong Shadow Cabinet, signalling a shift away from Corbyn allies and towards more moderate and bridge members of the party. Individuals like former Labour leader Ed Miliband (Shadow Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Anneliese Dodds (Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, the first female to occupy the role in either a formal or shadow capacity), as well as his former opponents in the Leadership contest, Rebecca Long-Bailey (Shadow Secretary of State for Education) and Lisa Nandy (Shadow Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs). Although, the Shadow Cabinet would soon be shaken up once more.
Throughout the Corbyn era, accusations of the tacit endorsement of antisemitism in the Labour Party were made by various members of the media, as well as by some groups in the Jewish community. The general consensus is that there is an issue with some factions of the party surrounding antisemitism, but that Corbyn was not himself an anti-Semite (contrary to what some reporters claimed in the run-up to the most recent election). Nevertheless, Starmer’s pledge was to take a zero-tolerance approach to antisemitism within the party.
Because the issue of antisemitism was linked to the Corbyn regime and the more left-wing factions of the party, the former Corbyn allies were, perhaps fairly, under increased scrutiny. It then left Starmer absolutely no option when on the 25th of June 2020, Rebecca Long-Bailey retweeted an article containing an interview by actress Maxine Peake, in which Peake argued that the technique used by U.S. police in the killing of George Floyd was taught by Israeli Special Forces. A baseless conspiracy theory with absolutely zero evidence to back it up. Long-Bailey did not outline the specific claim, instead, praising Peake for being an “absolute diamond”.
It is worth noting that Peake is a constituent of Long-Bailey’s Salford and Eccles seat, and a fervent Labour Party activist. Nonetheless, Starmer saw it as containing clear antisemitic content, which it certainly did, and when Long-Bailey hesitated to retract her comments and make a formal apology, he sacked her from the Shadow Cabinet, after just 81 days in her role.
Starmer’s quick and decisive action polarised the party – revealing the only factional disputed that have ravaged the party since the Ed Miliband years. The left-wing of the party (consisting of democratic socialists and everything further left of that), seemingly still bitter that Corbyn resigned in disgrace after the 2019 General Election, found that Starmer had treated Long-Bailey unfairly and that there are other racists in the party who need to be sacked as well. The (unhelpfully named) right-wing of the party (meaning liberals and social democrats), tended to see Starmer’s decisive action as a positive step towards eradicating the scourge of antisemitic racism from within our party.
My stance on it, as a Labour Party member who no longer identifies with either faction, is that Starmer was spot on by removing Long-Bailey from the Shadow Cabinet. I do not believe she is an anti-Semite, far from it. Having seen the original tweet and read the article, I genuinely don’t think she even read it, I think she retweeted it after seeing Peake’s name. Is that ridiculously irresponsible for a member of the Shadow Cabinet to do? Absolutely. Does it make her a racist? No, just a bit of a lightweight.
If the recent election has taught me anything at all, it is that the ongoings in the Labour Party and the factional disputes are only as important to the general public as they are bitterly fought in internal party discourse. If both factions got along nicely, no one outside of the Labour Party would care one bit that there is an Anarcho-Syndicalist sub-faction within the Labour Party. Only when it becomes a bitter dispute, fought on the forums of Twitter and Facebook, in full public view, does it concern the media and thus, the public.
That said, and putting aside petty internal factionalism, Starmer’s Labour has experienced the bounce-back of all bounce-backs. Support for Keir Starmer is as high as it was for Tony Blair when he was elected Prime Minister in 1997, as outlined in a previous article on TPIN. Furthermore, more British voters would like Starmer as Prime Minister than Boris Johnson, a recent Opinium poll found.
Starmer has been a big success so far, and he hasn’t even unveiled any major plans for a potential Labour government. For many Labour members, he is too close to the centre, but for most of the voting public, he is far closer to them than Corbyn was. Ultimately, the left-wing of the British public, which is a small minority of voters anyway, will have to decide in the next election whether to begrudgingly vote for Starmer, or vote for somebody else closer to the centre.
Maybe the Green Party? That’s the only other option really.
In my estimation, Starmer is a far smarter, more capable and more politically savvy operator than Johnson could ever hope to be. Johnson is a showman, who likes to play up to his audience, whether that be during PMQs, or zip-line stunts, he’s a clown. Starmer is a very well-educated man, who has risen from humble beginnings to the leader of the party his parents supported. He has enjoyed a wonderful start to a difficult job in exceptionally strange circumstances, and now we’ve got the Tories looking over their shoulders, for the first time in a decade – a prospect which in March, seemed unlikely to happen for a decade. The irony is that the Labour left are the only ones incapable of seeing what an excellent leader the party has – the British public are beginning to see it, the question is, when will they?