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Are Labour heading in a new direction under Keir Starmer's leadership?

After the disastrous 2019 General Election for the Labour Party, it was clear that the party required a new direction, agenda and leader. But how far has Keir Starmer, the unity candidate in the 2020 Labour Leadership contest, ushered in a new phase for the party?

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Sir Keir is a drastically different leader and politician to the radical, rebellious Jeremy Corbyn. As a former human rights lawyer and head of Public Prosecutions, Starmer faces the challenge of reclaiming Labour’s voters in the northern ‘red wall’ seats and moving the party away from only appealing to parts of the electorate that are predominantly young, middle class, liberal and metropolitan in their outlook.

As an ardent Remainer, it is difficult for Sir Keir to resonate with new tory northern voters regarding Brexit. In The Spectator, Nick Tyrone has highlighted Keir Starmer’s noteworthy ‘silence’ on the issue of Brexit since Labour’s defeat. It is important that the architect of Labour’s policy for another referendum moves the party away from its opposition to Brexit and allows the Tories’ to own any pitfalls that arise from the UK’s breakaway from Europe.
 He has cleared the muddy water Jeremy Corbyn left concerning the party’s position on Brexit by wanting a closer deal with the EU, rather than the Canada-esque deal Mr Johnson desires. Though he is in danger of alienating those in the old “red wall” if he seeks a trade deal that panders only to big corporations and financial services, rather than manufacturing supply-chains. Former Labour Foreign Secretary Lord David Owen neatly summed up the problem caused by Starmer in 2019 as "He did great damage to the Labour stance by forcing the London view to be the majority view.” Ultimately, for Starmer the devil is in the detail as he recognises Brexit is an endless bout of negotiation, therefore his initial position may change in the coming years. What should be remembered is that the Tory majority was the result of the Tories’ winning the argument about getting ‘Brexit Done’ to coin  their campaign slogan, rather than the Tories’ winning the argument about why Brexit was better than remaining in the EU. Theresa May had provided Johnson with the pretext for a People vs Parliament election due to her unsuccessful attempts to deliver on the will of the people. If Stamer has political guile then he will recognise that the old arguments of the Brexit debate shouldn’t be revisited; instead he needs to recognise that the UK is in the midst of a cultural war and that winning back these voters is a question of values, rather than specific policies as such.

It has been difficult for the Labour Leader to find a balance between putting party politics aside to supporting the government and providing effective opposition of policy during the pandemic. However in recent weeks, Sir Keir’s patience has worn thin with Boris Johnson’s government. On 31st July he tweeted “No one would argue with putting in place local action to reduce the transmission of coronavirus. But announcing measures affecting potentially millions of people late at night on Twitter is a new low for the government’s communications during this crisis” after the government introduced stricter measures for Greater Manchester banning people from two different households meeting at home. The opposition leader suggested the cause of such poor communication was due to the inadequate track and trace system described by the PM as “world beating.” Still, The Spectator reports that the pandemic has scuppered Sir Keir’s plans for a meeting with President Trump as well as a tour of the G7 countries. Despite impressive showings at PMQs, the near-empty chamber has dampened the fiery nature of what is usually an opposition leader’s most important time of the week. Covid has provided little opportunity for publicity, however, Sir Keir may be thankful that he is not having to deal with the worst health crisis in history; and if the government continues to frustrate the public, their opinion may favour red once more. The greatest issue the pandemic poses for Starmer’s electability chances is that the Tory party can no longer be criticised for turning off the spending taps or for not intervening enough in the market to help both small and big businesses. The rollout of the furlough scheme and the deliverance of a series of sector targeted stimulus packages means that the party no longer looks like what Theresa May once described as the ‘nasty party’. Criticising the Tories for austerity won’t be a line of attack that Starmer will be able to fall back on to; meaning that he is better targeting lucksture attempts at deliverance and a Covid-19 battleplan that has been full of u-turns and seemingly uncoordinated at times.

Public’s perception.
The New European revealed that polling taken at the end of July showed 77% support Starmer in his leadership role, compared to just 6% that disapprove. This is in comparison to a 69% approval rating for Jeremy Corbyn with 9% of Labour voters disapproving at the time of the 2019 election. Even Lib Dem supporters appear more satisfied with Keir Starmer (65%) than their own leader Ed Davey (55% approval rating). Meanwhile, the Tories view the new Labour leader as a serious threat to their party with 39% saying he is competent vs 20% for incompetent. These are impressive numbers, but polling numbers must always be put in context. Ipsis Mori, a market research company, emphasise that by their 2nd month as Labour leader, Ed Milliband and Jeremy Corbyn had overall ratings of +9 and +8 respectively, Sir Keir’s is +9. A positive early start and honeymoon period is nothing new for a  new Labour leader. Starmer’s greatest challenge is ensuring that these levels of support aren’t only a hiatus but mark the start of a change in the party’s fortunes.

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