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The challenges ahead for Keir Starmer

Words by:
Senior Account Director
April 9, 2020

Keir Starmer was elected Leader of the Labour Party on Saturday with a large majority and an overwhelming mandate for change.

His platform was clear and simple: he was the ‘unity’ candidate ready to rebuild the party and take it into power at the next election. His pitch was aimed at Labour’s ‘soft left’ and more closely resembled that of his predecessor’s than some might have imagined, with early pledges to abolish tuition fees, nationalise core industries and introduce a Prevention of Military Intervention Act.

Now that Starmer has won the election, what sort of leader will he be? And, importantly, what does it mean for the business community?

Unity and the path to power

Political parties are rarely successful and rarely win elections when they are divided. Starmer is fully aware that the disunity and infighting that plagued the party under Jeremy Corbyn had a negative contribution to its electoral success, and so he has taken on the difficult task of trying to unify different groups within the party.

His Shadow Cabinet reflects this commitment and is an early indicator that his rhetoric around ‘unity’ is serious. He offered key roles to his two leadership rivals and kept some of Corbyn’s allies in the Shadow Cabinet, including Andy McDonald and Cat Smith, in addition to Rebecca Long-Bailey.

He promoted some ‘moderate’ MPs too, such as Rachel Reeves, Jonny Reynolds and Ian Murray, and maintained some element of continuity by re-appointing Jonathan Ashworth, Luke Pollard, Nick Brown, and Baroness Smith to their roles.

However, most of his appointments were from the ‘soft left’ and were MPs that had served as junior members of Corbyn’s frontbench both quietly and effectively.

Starmer has struck a clever balance here, appointing MPs that had worked under Corbyn, but not necessarily supported him, and that the majority of Labour MPs will be happy to get behind.

The appointment of Anneliese Dodds as Shadow Chancellor is the perfect example here. Starmer could have promoted a more high-profile MP to the role, such as Reeves or Yvette Cooper, but both are more economically centrist than Starmer and could have been divisive appointments.

Instead the new leader chose the comparatively less well-known Dodds for the role, who had quietly built up a reputation for herself as a talented Shadow Financial Secretary. Indeed, John McDonnell was quick to give his successor his “full support” and praise the work she did in his team.

Other notable examples include promotions for Preet Gill, Louise Haigh and Marsha de Cordova.

Policy platform

Although we are only days into Starmer’s premiership, he has thus far tried to make good on his ‘unity’ pledge as well as his promise to work to eradicate anti-Semitism ‘from day one’. His first act as leader was to write an apology letter to the Jewish Board of Deputies, and later in the week he held a follow up call with Jewish leaders, both of which were welcomed by the Jewish community.

In fact, the only candidates for Leader or Deputy Leader not given a role in his Shadow Cabinet were those that didn’t sign the Board of Deputies’ pledge.

While Starmer will inevitably have to navigate coronavirus-related challenges over the next few months, we do expect that the policy pledges that he set out during his leadership campaign will form the basis of his early policy platform.

He has been true to his word thus far.

A Corbyn-lite approach

Starmer wants to focus on economic justice through increased taxes, social justice through the abolition of universal credit and climate justice through the support of a Green New Deal. He believes that “public services should be in public hands, not making profits for shareholders” and supports common ownership of rail, mail, energy and water, he wants to strengthen the trade union movement and workplace rights, and he wants to devolve power to the regions.

In foreign policy, in an indirect attack on Tony Blair, his firm commitment is “no more illegal wars”. He wants to introduce a Prevention of Military Intervention Act, put human rights at the heart of foreign policy, and review all UK arms sales.

These policies reflect many of his predecessor’s manifesto commitments and would not have looked out of place as Long-Bailey’s pledges.

He has also largely kept the structure of the Shadow Cabinet that Corbyn created, even maintaining the position of Shadow Employment Rights and Protections Secretary as a senior frontbench role.

Essentially, Starmer is adopting a Corbyn-lite approach; he is not a return to New Labour.

Therefore businesses looking to engage with the Labour leader and his team will need to be recognise this and tailor their approaches accordingly.

We expect he will be much more open to meeting with businesses than Corbyn was, who only engaged with a trusted select few.

To be successful in engaging with him, businesses will need to demonstrate their commitment to Starmer’s core values; by paying their full share of tax, by having clear net zero goals, and by treating their workforce fairly.

Only then are they likely to be able to influence Labour’s agenda.

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