Glasgow, United Kingdom – Jeremy Corbyn’s chequered leadership of the British Labour Party has officially come to an end after Keir Starmer was elected to replace him following a protracted four-month contest.
Corbyn, a staunch socialist who presided over Labour for nearly five years, stood down in the aftermath of last December’s general election, which saw him lead his party to one of its most disastrous general election results in living memory.
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Starmer, a knighted barrister and former director of public prosecutions, took 56.2 percent of the vote on Saturday, fending off a challenge from two of his rivals in the party: Rebecca Long-Bailey, a Corbyn loyalist, and Lisa Nandy.
Angela Rayner was also elected as a deputy to Starmer, who made a pre-recorded victory speech online where he described his election as an “honour and privilege”.
The coronavirus pandemic saw Labour cancel the leadership special conference that would have publicly unveiled its new chief, who will now have the daunting task of challenging the dominance of the ruling Conservative Party government, which holds an 80-seat parliamentary majority.
“Starmer was the most experienced candidate,” Simon Pia, a former Scottish Labour Party press adviser, told Al Jazeera. “He’s an intelligent man, has his [legal] background … comes across as balanced and has gravitas.”
— The Labour Party (@UKLabour) April 4, 2020
Named after Labour’s first member of Parliament, Scotsman Keir Hardie, Starmer, 57, graduated from Oxford in 1986 and became a barrister, focusing on human rights laws.
His legal work saw him endeavour to eradicate the death penalty in some Caribbean and African countries.
In 2008, he became the head of the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) and director of Public Prosecutions. He stood down from that role in 2013.
Two years later, Starmer won a seat in Parliament with a majority of more than 17,000 votes.
Starmer, an ardent Europhile, resigned from his Corbyn-appointed role as shadow immigration minister in 2016, citing the need to change the Labour Party leader following the UK’s “catastrophic” Brexit vote.
He rejoined as shadow Brexit secretary later that year as the UK began the process to leave the European Union.
Pledge to fight anti-Semitism
Starmer, who is taking over the opposition party during an unprecedented global peacetime crisis, will seek to steer Labour away from the scandal-hit Corbyn years towards a more credible claim to power.
Corbyn – a committed pro-Palestine campaigner – sensationally secured the Labour top job from the political backbenches in September 2015, but faced anti-Semitism allegations and party resignations during his tenure as he fought and lost two UK general elections and successfully repelled one challenge to his leadership.
Critics accused him of being too hard left – even Marxist – but where does Starmer, who once called for a more “human rights approach to foreign policy”, stand?
“Corbyn is identifiably on the left of the Labour Party,” political author Francis Beckett, whose forthcoming play on post-second world war Labour Prime Minister Clement Attlee – A Modest Little Man – is scheduled to run in London this November, told Al Jazeera.
“There used to be two traditions of the right and the left, but since the 1980s, there’s really been three – the centre-left – and that’s where Starmer stands.”
It’s the honour and privilege of my life to be elected as Leader of the Labour Party.
I will lead this great party into a new era, with confidence and hope, so that when the time comes, we can serve our country again – in government. pic.twitter.com/F4X088FTYY
— Keir Starmer (@Keir_Starmer) April 4, 2020
Yet, for Starmer, assuming the leadership of the UK’s official opposition amid the coronavirus crisis is likely to be a muted occasion.
The new Labour leader used his victory speech to describe Labour’s alleged anti-Semitism as a “stain on our party”, pledging to “tear out this poison by its roots”.
Tim Bale, a professor of politics at London’s Queen Mary University, told Al Jazeera the “downside [of winning the Labour leadership] is that Starmer probably won’t see the immediate boost in the polls that many new leaders experience” during to the pandemic.
“The upside is that journalists won’t be scrutinising his each and every move, watching and waiting for – and pouncing on – every misstep,” he added.
As UK’s Conservative Prime Minister Boris Johnson remains in self-isolation having been diagnosed with the coronavirus late last month, Bale said the “key to leadership at this time of crisis is to become an expert in the art of constructive opposition”.
Indeed, while untested in a top political leadership role, many commentators agreed that Starmer’s grasp of detail could see him challenge Johnson’s more bombastic approach to politics.
“Maybe he will provide a good contrast to Johnson,” said Pia. “Starmer has a respected legal brain, which, against Johnson, could be quite effective.”
Long road ahead for Labour
But, as even loyal Labour supporters concede, the party has a long road ahead. Since 2005, when Tony Blair led the party to victory, the Labour has not won a general election as it lost working-class votes to the right-wing Conservatives.
Scotland, which almost voted for statehood six years ago, remains a thorn in the side of the party. Today, the former Labour heartland is dominated by the ruling pro-independence Scottish National Party (SNP), which has led Scotland’s devolved government at the Scottish Parliament since 2007.
The narrow Brexit vote to quit the EU in 2016, which divided the four-nation UK like no other issue, is another minefield that requires navigation once the coronavirus crisis is over.
Until the UK officially left the bloc on January 31, Europhiles and Eurosceptics had faced off in a bitter propaganda war that has only recently been replaced by a battle to save lives during the pandemic.
But the UK that would emerge from the health crisis remains shrouded in uncertainty, and so does Starmer’s role within it.
“In normal times, you’d have to be a brave man to bet on Labour coming anywhere near the government at the next election given the beating it took last year,” said Bale. “But, these are not normal times.”
Bale said the “wash-up from this [coronavirus] crisis could prove devastating for this government and the Conservative Party’s enthusiasm for austerity” over the last decade.
“Add to that an already volatile, less tribal electorate and nothing perhaps is impossible. In any case, if Starmer even comes close in 2024 – if that’s the date of the next election – he will have a pretty good claim.”
Follow Alasdair Soussi on Twitter: @AlasdairSoussi