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Britain's Establishment Has a New Senior Member

Therese Raphael

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- It seems a bleak time to make the observation that Britain is in good hands. There’s a lot to worry about: the still rising death toll from Covid-19; the strain on the National Health Service; the shortages of personal protective equipment; and the pressure on economic well-being and mental health that a prolonged period of isolation will bring. All of this while Prime Minister Boris Johnson lies in intensive care.

It’s also true, as I noted yesterday, that Britain is not as well set-up constitutionally for such leadership crises as other countries. Still, the stability of the U.K.’s governing system lies in its institutions — among them, Her Majesty’s opposition, the Labour Party, which for a long time has itself been suffering from a bout of ill health. The election of Keir Starmer as Labour leader Saturday, succeeding Jeremy Corbyn, brings the hope that a party torn by factionalism, dominated by ideologues and rendered electorally impotent will again become a constructive force in British politics.

Starmer’s election is a far more important development than it might seem right now. A former human rights lawyer who was a Director of Public Prosecutions, he is liked and respected on both sides of the political aisle. That’s some feat when you consider he was an ardent Remainer in the fairly evenly divided Brexit debate, is an avowed lefty who doesn’t believe in private education or private health care (though he wouldn’t abolish the right of others to such services), and was a loyal servant in Corbyn’s derided shadow cabinet. While Starmer won his constituency seat easily in the December election, his party — whose platform he defended — suffered its worst electoral drubbing since 1935.

It’s too early to say that Labour has a turned a corner as a credible alternative to Johnson’s ruling Conservatives, but Starmer is firmly in the driver’s seat. While his 56.2% of total votes cast by party members, affiliates (such as trade unions) and registered supporters was less than Corbyn’s 59.5% in 2015, it was a resounding victory. His total vote count was higher than his hard-left predecessor.

Equally significant is Starmer’s victory in Labour’s National Executive Committee, the party’s all-powerful governing body. Corbyn managed to keep an iron grip on the Labour Party, despite the opposition of many Labour lawmakers, through his control of the NEC. All three NEC seats contested at the same time as the leadership vote were won by Corbyn skeptics. Starmer now has a mandate from Labour supporters, unions and other affiliates, and a strong position on its executive.

His first challenge is to clean house and restore Labour’s reputation as a tolerant, broad-church party that’s capable of governing. That won’t be possible without rooting out anti-Semitism in the party, and Starmer (a vocal advocate for tougher measures during the Corbyn era) knows it.

On Tuesday, he wrote an opinion piece in London’s Evening Standard and the Jewish Chronicle ahead of the Jewish Passover, restating his apology for Labour anti-Semitism, pledging to examine and investigate all cases of anti-Semitism, to assist an investigation by the Equality and Human Rights Commission, and to bring in Jewish leaders to help train Labour officials in spotting and redressing anti-Semitism. He will, as he noted, be judged on how successfully he follows through on these pledges.

In choosing his shadow cabinet, Starmer has signaled a decisive shift from the Marxist fringes of Corbynism to the soft left, and an elevation of professionalism and competence over ideology. Corbyn-era policies such as nationalizations and tax increases on the wealthy are likely to still be on the menu, but the gap between the new Tories, with their “leveling up” agenda for the English working classes, and Starmer’s Labour will narrow.

A number of senior figures in the new cabinet are untested, including Anneliese Dodds, his shadow chancellor of the exchequer, an academic economist largely unknown by the public. Lisa Nandy, a 40-year-old member of Parliament who surprised many with a savvy leadership campaign and real policy depth, was rewarded with the senior post of shadow foreign secretary. Politicians supported by the powerful pro-Corbyn Unite union have been kicked out of the cabinet. But Starmer retained the services of fellow lawyer and Remain supporter Emily Thornberry, a longtime activist veteran of the Corbyn cabinet, and a sometime Corbyn critic. Starmer also rehabilitated former Labour leader Ed Miliband, whose innovative policy thinking during his time in the wilderness, will prove useful. His message in these changes is more institutional reform than policy overhaul.

After the Corbyn cult of personality, a shadow cabinet that scans as professional, largely moderate and competent is no bad thing. And yet there are few charismatic voices in the new lineup. Starmer, who’s likable but a little dry, appears to have chosen a team in his own image. Still, they have plenty of time to fine-tune their pitch.

Indeed, timing may be on Starmer’s side. In recent years, similar “strong and stable” types haven’t fared well in Western democracies, often losing out to more populist politicians. Perhaps the Covid-19 crisis will change that. Voters may be less inclined to take big risks on populist flamethrowers and will revert to more technocratic types.

Certainly, the coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the central role of government, and of public services, something Labour has long championed as Conservative governments slashed budgets. Starmer is no centrist, but he’s pragmatic, and even Labour policies such as increased wealth taxes may not look so different from the ones that Johnson’s government might need to help pay for the resulting debt.

Britain’s establishment, then, has a new senior member. As leader of the opposition, Starmer will get special briefings, be privy to state secrets and be accorded other privileges. This couldn’t come at a more important time. Writing in the Sunday Times to kick off his period as Labour leader, he promised “strong, effective and responsible” opposition. If he succeeds, that’s not just good news for the party, it’s to the benefit of the country.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Therese Raphael writes editorials on European politics and economics for Bloomberg Opinion. She was editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal Europe.

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