This week Labour members received their ballots to vote in the leadership contest. They have until 2 April to cast their vote but all the polling suggests it’s a done deal. After a YouGov/Sky News LabourList poll this week predicted Sir Keir Starmer to win in the first round with more than 50 per cent of the vote, a Survation/LabourList survey puts Starmer on 45 per cent – his closest rival Rebecca Long Bailey is on 34 per cent. That survey also found that respondents believe Starmer as leader will position the party ‘further to the centre’.
With all the signs so far pointing to a Starmer victory, conversation both in the parliamentary Labour party and the membership has turned to what Starmer will actually do as Labour leader. As I say in this week’s magazine, throughout the campaign, Starmer has been at pains not to say. He has instead attempted a balancing act to unite both sides of the party. He has paraded a reputation for pragmatism to win support from the centre, while using selective cases from his legal career to present himself as a champion of left-wing causes. His campaign team has tried to balance the various Labour tribes. It includes Simon Fletcher, who has made a career working for socialist politicians, such as Ken Livingstone at City Hall. From the right of the party he has Matt Pound — formerly of Labour First, a Corbynsceptic group that has clashed with Momentum.
This has led to an unlikely coalition of backers from across the party. Among them, there’s a sense that sooner or later, he’ll have to favour one faction at the expense of the other. ‘Keir is a blank page,’ admits one MP backing him. ‘No one knows what he will really do. We’re all just hoping it will be close to our own politics.’
So, what will he do as Labour leader? Those hoping for early clarification may be left disappointed: Sir Keir and his team see his leadership as a five-year project. Expect some strategic ambiguity in the early stages. But there are some changes that are expected to be made quickly.
The first involves his shadow cabinet. He has already promised to give roles to his leadership rivals Lisa Nandy and Rebecca Long-Bailey (although he has drawn the line at Jeremy Corbyn). ‘How many of the old shadow cabinet stay in depends on the size of his lead,’ says a party source. ‘The bigger the lead, the bigger the change.’ Expect fresh faces to be included as part of a bid to show the party is moving forward. Bringing back those who wouldn’t serve under Corbyn would also be a way of signalling that the party has changed.
Next: party organisation. There will be a move to oust members and supporters guilty of anti-Semitism. In theory, this ought to be uncontroversial, but given how high tensions run in the party, there’s a view that the EHRC investigation into allegations of anti-Semitism within Labour could offer Starmer the necessary cover to take drastic action. The results of this are expected after the May local elections.
Finally, Starmer’s team hope to make hay from the Tories’ current media strategy. They plan to establish an efficient media operation and potential broadcast rota to take advantage of the Tory policy of boycotting certain programmes. When, for instance, Priti Patel was under pressure this week, a sharp Labour machine would have been quick to attack and make hay. Since the 8.10 a.m. slot on the Today programme seems to be up for grabs for the foreseeable future, it’s an open goal. It’s also viewed internally as crucial, given that the 80-strong Tory majority makes Labour victories in the Commons unlikely. In parliament, Sir Keir will try putting forensic lawyerly pressure on a Prime Minister who dislikes it.
But what of the issues Starmer will be pressing in these interventions? It’s thought he will position himself to the left of Ed Miliband. Ten pledges he made this month included a vow to keep Corbyn’s policy to abolish tuition fees — as well as a programme of mass nationalisation and a ‘Prevention of Military Intervention Act’ to end illegal wars. ‘He didn’t need to do it,’ says one concerned supporter. ‘We’d been told he wasn’t going to do policy because he didn’t want to be wedded to anything.’ Others complain that it was a very Gordon Brown thing to do: make a rash decision in response to something your rivals are doing.
Brown might not be far away. The two men are still close (it was Brown who hired Starmer as Director of Public Prosecutions) and often speak in private. Starmer has also sought advice from Sadiq Khan, Labour’s most senior elected representative. It’s this appetite for winning that supporters insist separates him clearly from what came before. Those who have worked closely with him say he takes an interest in polling in a way that Corbyn never did. ‘Keir wants to be prime minister,’ says a Labour source. ‘He’s focused on that in a way Corbyn and even Miliband weren’t. He will react to the country and its needs, rather than just going on ideology.’ Starmer’s appetite for power will define his radicalism.