Image Description: Starmer and Rebecca Long-Bailey at Bristol’s February 2020 Labour Party leadership election hustings, in the Ashton Gate Stadium
Members of political parties are more ideologically extreme than the population as a whole. That is a truism that politicians have exploited in perpetuity. Tony Blair, when running for the leadership of the Labour Party, committed to nationalising the railways, but failed to reverse Major’s sell-off of British Rail during his time in government. Take the example of Chuka Umnunna. When he sought, in 2008, to be Labour’s parliamentary candidate for Streatham, he positioned himself as a left-winger. He aligned himself with Compass, a pressure group set-up to oppose Blair. Nevertheless, Umunna quickly emerged as flag-bearer for the right of the party upon entering the Commons.
The historical pattern is clear. Ambitious Labour candidates pitch to the left to win the support of socialist members before tacking to the right once their dependence on these members ceases. During his successful leadership campaign, Sir Keir Starmer garnered backing from an astonishingly broad cross-section of the Labour Party. A former national coordinator of Momentum – the group established to support Corbyn – was one of his highest-profile supporters. As well as this Starmer won the endorsement of MPs firmly on the right of the party such as Ben Bradshaw.
Therefore, it stands to reason that he will disappoint part of his electoral coalition when fleshing out his policy platform. It seems likely that Starmer will follow former Labour leaders’ historical trajectory. He will likely jettison some of his more leftist pledges made during the leadership election like mass nationalisation. But not to the same extent as some of his predecessors.
The historical pattern is clear. Ambitious Labour candidates pitch to the left to win the support of socialist members before tacking to the right once their dependence on these members ceases. During his successful leadership campaign, Sir Keir Starmer garnered backing from an astonishingly broad cross-section of the Labour Party.”
Shadow Cabinet selection is one of the major decisions that Starmer has made in the first few days of leadership. It’s always a good primary indicator of where he plans to take the party. The appointments were conspicuous in what was lacking; MPs from both the Corbynite and Blairite wings of the Labour Party. Rebecca Long-Bailey, selected as Shadow Education Secretary, is one of a very few Corbyn sympathisers who remains in Starmer’s top team. Though her appointment is likely to ensure he appeared magnanimous in victory. Rachel Reeves, who was selected to shadow Michael Gove, was the only supporter of Jess Philips, the candidate of the party’s right, to be handed a senior role.
What remains is large number of MPs from the traditional centre of the party. Let’s not forget he majority of whom supported most of the ideas in the 2017 and 2019 manifestos. Their grievances with Corbyn were primarily of his and communication style. Oxford’s own Anneliese Dodds, Starmer’s pick for Shadow Chancellor, summed up their view of Cobynism. Dodds stated, “many of those policies are really needed but clearly the British public didn’t trust us to deliver [them]”.
Starmer himself admonished Corbyn for an offering in the 2019 election which he believed amounted to a “policy overload”. Hence it is probable that Labour will abandon some of the policies deemed to be superfluous such as free broadband and nationalisation. Plus, we can expect as well an altering in their media tone, but not any radical policy overhaul.
Shadow Cabinet selection is one of the major decisions that Starmer has made in the first few days of leadership. It’s always a good primary indicator of where he plans to take the party. The appointments were conspicuous in what was lacking; MPs from both the Corbynite and Blairite wings of the Labour Party.”
This change of tone is already evident from the numerous interviews that Starmer has given in the first week of leadership. Corbyn and his inner circle’s tendency for populist rhetoric, attacking the rich and powerful few who supposedly benefit from a system that is rigged against the many. In contrast, Starmer’s style is much more nuanced style. Corbyn would have jumped at the chance to condemn Tesco for paying dividends while receiving taxpayer-funded coronavirus support. Nevertheless, Starmer elected not to excoriate the supermarket chain.
Further, this conciliatory tone extends to the government’s handling of the pandemic. Labour’s new leader neglects to criticise the Prime Minister for failing to ramp up testing earlier, likely due to fear of appearing to play politics during a crisis. Communicating in a more measured way, he eschews Corbyn’s tendency to paint everything on a black and white scale of good or bad with no shades of grey. This is something we will see a lot more of from Labour as they attempt to extend their supporter base.
During the 1997 campaign, New Labour released a pledge card, with five simple promises that Blair would deliver if he won the election. In the next few years, expect Starmer to slowly deal with some of the most toxic aspects of the Corbyn era. Admirably Starmer has first sought to address antisemitism, before, I expect, a move to dispel some of the least popular policies like free broadband and mass nationalisation. Starmer pledged to renationalise rail, mail, energy and water while running for the leadership. Although these ideas tend to be popular, it is a low salience issue meaning it can easily be abandoned without public outcry.
Communicating in a more measured way, he eschews Corbyn’s tendency to paint everything on a black and white scale of good or bad with no shades of grey. This is something we will see a lot more of from Labour as they attempt to extend their supporter base.”
Over time, Starmer will quitely whittle down the jarring concoction of policies that Labour presented to the electorate in 2019. He will fine-tune a few popular and important ones that could fit on a pledge card. Simultaneously, Starmer will attempt to ensure the party’s media operation is professionalised as to appear presentable to the electorate. These policy and tonal changes will undoubtedly ensure the Labour Party looks different at the next election. Make no mistake however, there will be no radical overhaul of the values of the Corbynism. If you’re expecting a Clause IV moment, don’t hold your breath. Starmer won’t take drastic action to suddenly and decisively draw a line under the Corbyn project and ditch its central policies and ideals.
Blair promised railway nationalisation in 1994: https://www.newstatesman.com/politics/labour-leadership-race/2020/01/rebecca-long-bailey-fighting-opponent-who-doesnt-exist
Starmer 10 pledges: https://keirstarmer.com/plans/10-pledges/
Image Credits: Rwendland @ Wikimedia Commons