Sir Keir Starmer’s pandemic politics and the ‘new normal’ Labour Party

by Gaelan Komen

Sir Keir Starmer’s pandemic politics and the ‘new normal’ Labour Party

Sir Keir Starmer’s 30-minute clinical deconstruction of Boris Johnson’s EU Withdrawal Bill in October 2019 not only demonstrated his forensic approach to policy, but helped spur Starmer to spearhead Labour’s call for a second referendum during the 2019 general election. When the subsequent Labour leadership campaign started in 2020, the party’s Brexit position Starmer developed, which proved so unpopular at the ballot box in December, became the crux of his detractors’ criticisms.

Through the leadership campaign, Starmer’s critics held he was too dispassionate and had featured too prominently on the Labour pro-remain wing to lead Labour in post-Brexit Britain. Starmer was cast as the legal technocrat (with a knighthood and Queen’s Counsel status to show for it) without the shine that anyone with aspirations of leading a party to a majority has needed since Tony Blair.

Starmer turned such criticisms around to underpin his coolheaded consensus approach to leading the party, taking the Labour helm on 4 April with 56.2% of the vote. But a grander and more immediate priority than party reconciliation lay ahead – fostering a national, unified response to the mounting COVID-19 crisis. Sensitivity and personability were key, and not only to address the near thousand lives then taken by COVID-19 each day; the world was now watching as the pandemic struck down Starmer’s opposite number Boris Johnson only a day after his election to the Labour leadership.

 

COVID-combatting consensus

Starmer indicated he would make national unity and consensus central to his effort to support the fight against COVID-19. Concurrent with suggestions he would be amenable to forming a national government if the crisis were to deepen, Starmer appointed his shadow team from across the ideological divide in his party. Key to his COVID-19 response, Starmer reappointed Corbyn’s shadow health secretary, Jonathan Ashworth, along with several eager newcomers to the junior shadow health positions. But as the pandemic wore on, the health crisis melded into a full-blown economic and societal crisis. Ministers across the shadow team have been thrust (often by themselves) into the media limelight to chip away at the government’s pandemic strategies.

At times it has felt there was little his shadow team were doing to challenge the government that the press were not doing already. Notable criticism has come from Times and Telegraph journalists in lengthy attacks on government strategy, particularly the initially blasé approach to lockdown and the subsequent logistical failures and ensuing death rate. While the press, and to a lesser extent Sir Keir’s shadow team, have done much of the legwork in criticising the government’s pandemic plan, Starmer has largely avoided the temptation to score political points from the Tories’ handling of the COVID-19 crisis. In the two sessions of Prime Ministers Question time that Johnson and Starmer have faced each other, Starmer has remained ever even-handed, taking a clinical approach to pandemic policy analysis.

Starmer’s core messages on the government’s pandemic response have typically had three thrusts – one to support lockdown measures and urge national unity; another a constructive suggestion to attend to medical supply and logistical difficulties; and one to urge for clarification on the government’s lockdown exit strategy. It is this final point that has struck a chord with the public and resonated with the devolved political administrations.

The Welsh and Scottish First Ministers have both vocally opposed and deviated from the UK government’s recent premature lockdown easing, exacerbating public confusion about lockdown measures across the UK and sowing seeds of discontent among devolved nationalists. And as the government’s lack of clarity has hindered consensus action on COVID-19, so Starmer’s focus has shifted to the importance of devolved coordination on combatting COVID-19.

 

North westerly winds – overtures to old reds

Such discord across the UK elicited by Johnson may be key in Starmer’s electioneering over the coming years. There is little prospect of Labour assuming power without clawing back some of the Scottish seats it has lost over the last ten years; and gains will have to be made in the Welsh constituencies Labour ceded to the Tories in the 2019 election.

Starmer needs to regain the establishment ‘Britishness’ that has allowed the Conservatives to ‘other’ the spectre of Corbynism and cement their majority in Westminster, largely through the dismantling of the ‘red wall’ of former English Labour seats that went blue, a once unthinkable power shift given their reputation as bases of traditional trade union support. As Labour tries to wrestle the British patriot label from the firm grip of the Tories, Starmer will also have to tread a careful pro-Scotland path by supporting further devolution but in a continued United Kingdom.

Starmer has been quick to reach out to Scottish former Labour voters, reserving two of the first online chats in his new ‘Call Keir’ campaign for Glaswegians and Fifers. The initiative, reminiscent of personalisation politics stretching from FD Roosevelt’s fireside chats to Rory Stewart’s buttoned-down ‘Come Kip With Me’ campaign, are designed to allow people to share their experiences of the pandemic and share views on Labour’s performance over the last few years. The ‘open and frank’ conversations will give Keir the chance to build his public image, and will give some early indication of how he interacts with lay members of the public, something which has been the Achilles heel of a number of Labour bigwigs who have at times appeared out of touch.

 

Pandemic policy implications

The calm, conciliatory and consensus-oriented manner that has marked Starmer’s first 40 days as Labour will need to translate into concrete, oppositional policy proposals as the COVID-19 pandemic ebbs and we enter a new normal. Starmer’s consensus approach hints at the potential breadth of his policy portfolio to unify party and country. COVID-19 upheaval has ushered in new modes of healthcare organisation and decision-making; Starmer’s next 40 days will prove critical in elaborating policy through constructively opposing the government as Johnson’s nascent new normal agenda develops.

While public approval of the Conservative government and its pandemic plan persist, there is a sense that Starmer will wait a further 40 days for the unravelling of the Conservative pandemic plan before more overtly capitalising on the government’s weaknesses. And as the pandemic wears on, pressure for the government to hasten its non-COVID political business will mount, not least the UK-EU trade negotiations which may rekindle old remain alliances and buoy the pro-remain Starmer in his opposition to the government.

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