The UK has an effective Opposition at last

The appointment of Sir Keir Starmer as leader of the Labour party will change the political landscape for the better.

Keir Starmer
Sir Keir Starmer has replaced Jeremy Corbyn as Labour party leader [Hollie Adams/Getty Images]

One of the most unsettling aspects of the ongoing pandemic is the constant cognitive dissonance. Hospitals have become warzones where people die every other minute, yet here we all are, stuck at home, trying to keep ourselves busy.

Similarly, the election of Sir Keir Starmer as leader of the UK’s Labour party on Saturday should have felt cataclysmic, but really, it just happened. Perhaps it was anticlimactic, because none of it could happen “in person”, and it is hard to feel history-changing in real-time when it happens online.

Or maybe it was because we always knew he was going to win. After all, he had been polling head and shoulders above his two competitors since the start, and ended up winning with more than half of all votes.

Still, this does not mean that we should underestimate just how much this will change the British political landscape. For a start, Starmer’s first act as leader was to apologise to the Jewish community on behalf of his party, promising in a video to “tear out the poison” of antisemitism in Labour “by its roots”.

This is significant, as the lingering stain of antisemitism on the UK’s main opposition party has been something it has been unable to shake off under the previous leader, Jeremy Corbyn.

That the chair of the Jewish Labour Movement Mike Katz cautiously responded by insisting that “restoring trust will take effort, time and political will” says a lot about the state that relationship had been left in, but it is a start.

Then there is the fact that Starmer, as is tradition, has entirely reshaped his front bench. Gone are Richard Burgon, Diane Abbott, Ian Lavery and others once considered to be fringe in Labour, and in is a new generation of parliamentarians.

One particularly shrewd appointment is Anneliese Dodds. A former MEP and lecturer in public policy, the new shadow chancellor has already received praise from politicians and pundits from all sides of the Labour party, which is a rare feat in current times.

She may be little-known for now, but that is no bad thing, especially after five years of known but unpopular quantities dominating the party. Another eye-catching move in the reshuffle is Lisa Nandy, who has replaced Emily Thornberry as shadow foreign secretary.

As a fellow leadership contestant, it was never certain that Nandy would be offered a senior position, but the offer was a good one. Of the three candidates, she was the one who spoke about foreign policy the most during the challenge, and the fact that she is the chair of Labour Friends of Palestine should reassure the left of the party.

More broadly, Starmer’s team draws from most corners of Labour, which makes sense given his platform was one of unity, but may become tough to balance out in years to come. 

This does not need to matter now, however. The team will have to hit the ground running. Given that Jeremy Corbyn had left Prime Minister Boris Johnson with the biggest majority in a generation following the December general election, his government has so far been able to steer the country through the pandemic as it wishes.

Learning how to run one of the country’s two main parties while getting to grips with the biggest crisis the world has seen in decades will be no mean feat, but on the bright side for the new team, the bar is currently low.

Not unlike in the US, the Labour leadership contest unfolding over the past few months has meant that the opposition could not speak on anything with a united voice.

It is good to see that one of Starmer’s first actions was to write a piece on the government’s handling of the crisis in the Sunday Times. Though Corbyn’s supporters often argued that engaging with mainstream media that could not be trusted was not worth the effort, Labour’s voice needs to be heard right now, and by as many people as possible.

Echo chambers may be comforting, but reaching out to people beyond them is the only way the party can establish itself on the national stage once more. The road ahead is a tough one; to get into government again, the Labour party has to win more than 100 extra seats at the next election in four years’ time. With Johnson’s approval ratings currently higher than ever, this may just not be possible.

There is also worry in certain quarters that Keir Starmer is, well, a bit dull. A former barrister, he speaks eloquently but rarely passionately. Looking at his record as shadow Brexit secretary, his scrutiny is forensic and rooted in fact, not emotion.

When going up against someone like Boris Johnson, this approach will be all-or-nothing. Will the public be turned off by a slightly dour figure compared with the flamboyant Johnson, or will it be relieved to turn to a serious, grown-up figure?

It would be impossible to predict right now, but perhaps it does not need to matter at this stage. What the UK has been in dire need of for the past few months is an effective opposition: Now it has one. The rest can come later.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.