UK Politics

Keir Starmer: will Labour’s new leader unite a divided party and country?

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As the Labour Party’s shiny new leader, Keir Starmer has got an unenviable task at hand.

Since their unexpected and fairly disastrous general election loss in December of last year, Labour have undergone extensive soul searching about how and why the electorate, including many once safe seats in the so-called ‘red wall’, rejected them.

Centrists pointed the finger at Jeremy Corbyn: his lacklustre leadership and quixotically socialist manifesto, they say, were behind Labour’s failure. Corbyn loyalists and others on the left cite the surge in party membership under Corbyn as evidence of his success, and laud Labour’s socialist roots as the key to its future.

Part one of Starmer’s upcoming battle, then, will be to unite the factions in his own party. For some, his recent conflict with Rebecca Long-Bailey and her dismissal from the shadow cabinet were indicative of the new leader’s hostility to the Labour-left.

In June, Long-Bailey shared an article on Twitter in which actor Maxine Peake endorsed the unfounded theory that American police responsible for the killing of George Floyd learnt their tactics from Israeli secret services. After she refused to delete the tweet, Starmer requested Long-Bailey stand down from her role as shadow education secretary.

Long-Bailey’s sacking was something of a litmus test for the new Labour leader, who upon his election as leader publicly apologised to the Jewish community in recognition of the accusations of antisemitism which dogged the party under his predecessor. In seeking to fulfil his promise on decisive action against antisemitism, Starmer upset some on the left who saw it as an excuse to sack Long-Bailey, a supposed standard-bearer of the socialism promoted by Corbyn.

A divided party is far from the only arena Starmer is having to navigate. The recent waves of Black Lives Matter protests and ensuing debate over the legacy of Britain’s colonial and slave-trading history also raised probing questions, Starmer’s answers to which were taken as evidence of his ideology and leadership.

Earlier this month, Keir Starmer came under fire for his response to the Black Lives Matter movement. Asked in a TV interview about growing calls to defund the police – an increasingly prominent rallying cry in light of the killing of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis – Starmer dismissed it as ‘nonsense’, going on the call the Black Lives Matter movement a ‘moment’.

Starmer’s remarks garnered substantial criticism, including from Labour MPs and anti-racism campaigners. He later issued an apology, qualifying his choice of language by identifying the protests as a ‘defining moment’ in the fight against racial injustice.

The dismayed reaction to Keir Starmer’s remarks on defunding the police and Black Lives Matter, shortly preceded by the skirmish with Rebecca Long-Bailey, are part of a broader debate – no doubt weighing on Starmer’s mind at all times – over the future of the Labour Party. Starmer is likely still working out how best to navigate the most pressing contemporary issues in order to remain loyal to the Labour Party’s roots, but also appeal to the more traditional middle-ground voter.

Labour have historically been the party of equality and social justice, in the past introducing landmark equality legislation. For some, his recent remarks on defunding the police will represent a betrayal of this tradition.

In sheer numbers terms, Starmer stands to gain electorally by keeping the Black community and allies of the Black Lives Matter movement on side. Black and minority ethnic Britons have traditionally been predominantly Labour-voting, with consistently over three quarters of Black-Caribbean and Black-African Brits voting for Labour in the 2010, 2015 and 2017 elections.

It’s possible, then, that Keir Starmer has alienated a loyal voter base – and a core component of left-wing ideology – in his dismissal of defunding the police, an institution with a frequently troubling record on racism in the UK. Indeed, even before Starmer’s most recent controversy, HuffPost revealed that many Black Labour members were leaving or considering leaving the party, citing a failure to address anti-Black racism. His recent comments on defunding the police will surely not have helped.

Yet Starmer will also be keen to appeal to so-called ‘middle England’: often white swing voters who opted for the Conservatives in 2019. Though a majority of Brits surveyed support the ‘stated aims’ of the Black Lives Matter movement, to the average voter campaigns to defund the police may appear an alien and even fearful prospect. Polling on defunding the police in the UK is lacking, but data from the US suggest a majority of Americans are against or, at the very least, wary about the concept.

It is within this context – of hoping to please socially progressive voters as well as more traditional communities in the political middle ground – that Starmer’s recent blundered interview ought to be understood.

In other words, Starmer is seeking to establish himself as a credible leader – of the Labour Party and the country. Appearing strong on ‘law and order’ – and flexing his credentials in this regard, having been Director of Public Prosecutions before his election to Parliament – is likely to be a part of this persona.

Engaging with the debate on police funding is further complicated by Labour’s track record on the issue. Nearly ten years of austerity under the Conservatives saw police numbers cut by over 20,000; Corbyn and other Labour MPs lamented the fact, pledging to put 10,00 more officers on the street in their 2017 manifesto.

A middle ground may be possible on defunding police forces. Polling has shown that when framed as a diversion of funds away from policing and towards alternative services such as mental health and housing support, more people supported the policy. It may be that Starmer warms to the idea, but framing will be key to appeal to middle-ground voters.

Just three months in the role, Keir Starmer is still finding his feet as Leader of the Opposition. He so far seems to be curating a favourable impression among the general public: polling puts Starmer ahead of Boris Johnson on competency, strong leadership and likeability, among other measures.

But as the furore over Starmer’s comments on Black Lives Matter shows, he is continually treading a fine line. Contention over how best to deal with Britain’s historically problematic relationship with race is just one area he will have to navigate carefully in order to please socially progressive as well as more traditional voters. Meanwhile, his swift dismissal of Rebecca Long-Bailey brought to the surface rifts in Starmer’s own party he will also need to resolve.

Uniting both a party and a country with an uncertain future is no mean feat: Starmer will need to tread carefully but decisively if he wishes to be the next resident of 10 Downing Street.

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