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The Labour Party is back in the serious game of politics

Thomas Messenger

Keir Starmer and Angela Rayner were not triumphantly, but almost surreptitiously, unveiled as the new Leader and Deputy Leader of the Labour Party this weekend, ending one of the most tumultuous eras in the Labour Party’s history. MHP Account Director, Thomas Messenger explores

It was a decisive victory. Receiving more votes than Jeremy Corbyn in 2015, and winning handily on the first round of voting, there is little doubt over Keir Starmer’s mandate to reshape and reform the party in his own image.

He is faced with a daunting in-tray.

Most likely, Starmer expected his biggest immediate challenge would be to pick up the pieces from Labour’s historic election defeat in December. Instead, he is faced with the need to be a critical friend to Government during this time of national crisis, all while finding ways to resonate with the public when the public’s attention is, understandably, elsewhere.

The former Director of Public Prosecutions made clear early in his leadership (within the first hour to be precise) that he would tackle these challenges methodically, forensically, perhaps a little technocratically, with a newfound professional Labour Party.

By immediately accepting Boris Johnson’s invitation to play a role in the national response to the coronavirus pandemic, Starmer decisively broke ranks with his predecessor. His first op-ed as Leader was offered to the Sunday Times. An interesting choice over the Observer or Mirror, and a further indication his priority will be to speak to the wider country, not just party supporters.

Starmer’s watchword during his campaign was ‘unity’. It was the thread that ran through his public speeches and was often the word emblazoned across materials distributed to campaign activists. Many thought it a canny attempt to appeal to as many across Labour’s broad-church as possible. But it also reflects his quite sincere belief that divided parties are of no interest to the public.

Expect this ‘unity’ to be Starmer’s priority. What this looks like in practice is harder to discern. He was, after all, supported by both many on the Momentum left, who believe he will be a more credible face for Corbynism, and those in the Blairite centre, who anticipate that he will return the party to so-called sensible positions.

There is a danger that by trying to appeal to all, he ends up frustrating both wings of the party; a fate which befell Ed Miliband. His initial Shadow Cabinet appointments however, indicate he is trying to achieve this in the short term with a ‘blank page’ strategy: appointing those who are rising stars within the party to grow into their new roles and develop fresh policy accordingly, hopefully drawing a line under what went before.

Anneliese Dodds and Nick Thomas-Symonds, Shadow Chancellor and Shadow Home Secretary respectively, both served under Jeremy Corbyn in junior shadow ministerial positions but won plaudits from across the party for their forensic understandings of their briefs.

Lisa Nandy’s appointment as Shadow Foreign Secretary shows a desire to draw a line under the leadership election and bring those who, arguably, represent different wings of the party together. Emily Thornberry and Rebecca Long-Bailey are widely expected to be appointed to positions today.

Rachel Reeves, meanwhile, returns from chairing the Business Committee in the House of Commons to shadow Michael Gove as the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. Many immediately suggested that this was an odd choice of position to give up a fabled Committee chairmanship for. But Reeves will be, in effect, responsible for holding the Government to account on Brexit negotiations: a significant role and one for which she is well prepared from her time on Committee.

It is hard to imagine a more challenging set of circumstances with which to commence a tenure as Leader of the Opposition. A saving grace for Starmer is that he is secure in his leadership. There are no immediate electoral tests, and he will be forgiven for any failure to impact the Government’s opinion poll ratings given the ongoing crisis.

However, despite this, the next few months will be critical in determining the type of leader that Starmer will be. Watch the formation of his Shadow Cabinet and their respective political advisers closely. This is the moment in which new ideas will be sought and future policy directions determined. For the first time in many years, the Labour Party is back in the serious game of politics.