UK Labour Party picks centrist leader

UK Labour Party picks centrist leader

Choice of Keir Starmer seen as repudiation of radical socialism pushed by Corbyn faction

Keir Starmer makes a statement via video link following his election as leader of the Labour Party on Saturday. (AFP Photo)
Keir Starmer makes a statement via video link following his election as leader of the Labour Party on Saturday. (AFP Photo)

LONDON: Keir Starmer was elected as the leader of Britain’s main opposition Labour Party on Saturday, pledging to bring an end to years of bitter infighting and to work with the government to contain the raging coronavirus pandemic.

Starmer, a former director of public prosecutions who was known for a forensic attention to detail when opposing the country’s exit from the European Union, won with 56% of the vote.

The comprehensive defeat of an ally of outgoing leader Jeremy Corbyn, and the election of Angela Rayner as Starmer’s deputy, heralds the end of the party leadership’s embrace of a radical socialism that was crushed in the December election.

Starmer, who takes over immediately, said he would work constructively with the government when it was the right thing to do, while testing Conservative Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s arguments and challenging the failures.

“Our purpose when we do that is the same as the government’s, to save lives,” he said in a video statement that was pre-recorded due to the pandemic.

Starmer added that once the country emerges from the Covid-19 crisis, once the hospital wards have emptied and the threat subsided, it would need to build a fairer society, where key workers on the front line receive decent salaries and better chances in life.

“In their courage and their sacrifice and their bravery, we can see a better future. This crisis has brought out the resilience and human spirit in all of us,” he said.

Johnson said on Twitter that he had congratulated Starmer and the two agreed on the importance of working together.

The party that had thrived under moderates Tony Blair and Gordon Brown endured its worst election performance since 1935 last December, when infighting over strategy, a confused policy over Brexit and allegations of unchecked anti-Semitism turned traditional voters away.

Starmer pushed for a second Brexit referendum but said the election result had “blown away” that argument.

Corbyn ally Rebecca Long-Bailey came second in the party’s vote with 28% and Lisa Nandy was third with 16%.

Many centrist Labour politicians celebrated the result as a sign that the government would finally face proper scrutiny.

“A fresh Labour leader will challenge the Tories where necessary and give the party the chance to renew itself in time for the next election,” Alf Dubs, an opposition Labour lord who fled to Britain as a child to escape the Nazis, told Reuters.

Starmer acknowledged the scale of the task ahead.

Well ahead in opinion polls, Johnson’s Conservatives have also occupied much of traditional Labour territory, with the coronavirus crisis prompting the ruling party to deliver unprecedented state support to workers and businesses.

While Johnson’s approval ratings have jumped in recent weeks, the government has been criticised for being too slow to test people for the virus and for failing to equip healthcare workers properly. If the public mood turns against Johnson over his management of the crisis, Starmer could quickly become a credible next occupant of 10 Downing Street.

“This is my pledge to the British people. I will do my utmost to guide us through these difficult times, to serve all of our communities and to strive for the good of our country,” Starmer said.

“I will lead this great party into a new era, with confidence and with hope.” 

There has been speculation that Starmer could enter a wartime-style government of national unity with Johnson. On Saturday, the premier wrote to all opposition leaders inviting them to a briefing with his top medical advisers to outline the efforts being made to defeat the coronavirus.

“Whether we voted for this government or not, we all rely on it to get this right — that’s why in the national interest the Labour Party will play its full part,” Starmer said in his victory statement.

Responding to the virus crisis is Starmer’s urgent task but his long-term job is to win power for Labour after a decade in opposition. He needs to heal deep divisions within the party, which has been plagued by splits between the hard-left Corbyn-supporting faction and the more centrist supporters of Blair.

Starmer has tried to cast himself as a unity candidate, and has promised to retain much of Corbyn’s programme, including commitments to re-nationalise railways and increase income tax on the top 5% of earners.

He accepted the task facing Labour is huge as it seeks to regain support in the former industrial heartlands that Corbyn lost to Johnson last year.

“We’ve got a mountain to climb,” he said. “Where that requires change, we will change. Where that requires us to rethink, we will rethink. Our mission has to be to restore trust in our party as a force for good and a force for change.”

The son of a toolmaker and a nurse, Starmer was named after Keir Hardie, the first leader of the Labour Party. Before being elected to parliament in 2015, he worked as a barrister and served as Director of Public Prosecutions between 2008 and 2013.

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