Coronavirus has changed everything. Make sense of it all with the Waugh Zone, our evening politics briefing. Sign up now.Singing socialist anthem The Red Flag, Jeremy Corbyn celebrated becoming Labour leader in 2015 at the pub, mobbed, as ever, by a posse of faithful fans. When the big moment came for Keir Starmer - who has marked 100 days at the helm of HM Opposition - the occasion was markedly more sober. The former director of public prosecutions filmed his victory speech practically alone, as the coronavirus pandemic tightened its grip on the UK. And with Labour facing allegations of institutional anti-Semitism, cash woes and the humiliation of its worst defeat since 1935, he was arguably taking the toughest job in British politics. While many predicted Labour’s surge to the far left would end in electoral disaster, few doubted the direction Corbyn would take. The same cannot be said of the former shadow Brexit secretary. “He’s an enigma,” said one Labour MP. “Nobody is quite sure where he stands.” He has yet to unequivocally commit to policies, but early signs suggest he is plotting a route back to the centre. Be it stepping away from a hard 2030 net zero carbon target, refusing to call for an extension to the Brexit transition period or toughening the party’s stance on China, the signals are that Starmer will opt for the middle ground. “Right now, it’s about three things: ‘competence, competence, competence’,” said one insider. They added: “Keir will actually read the brief and think about what we are doing and, almost to a fault, he doesn’t wing it.”Labour is inviting the public to contrast “forensic” Starmer with “bumbling” Boris Johnson - and there is evidence that strategy is working. Starmer is beating Johnson in most polls for ‘best PM’ and has the best ratings of any opposition leader since Tony Blair in 1994.But given the only way was up for Labour are things really getting better? Or is it a blip?“There are good signs. It was like ‘amateur hour’ under Corbyn where you basically had activists running the show,” said one left-winger. “Now, it is so slick and so fast. “Keir mentions an issue to Boris at PMQs and the leader’s office has a letter ready and typed up to go to Number 10 straightaway.” Rosie Duffield, Labour MP for Canterbury, said: “Keir is letting Boris make a fool of himself and the PM does not need any help with that.” She said Starmer is “steering a steady ship” and, unlike Corbyn, is not viewed as “down on Britain”, instead talking up businesses and backing the armed forces. Tomorrow’s Telegraph front page: “Starmer: 'We owe it to VE Day generation to protect them from virus in care homes' ”#TomorrowsPapersTodaypic.twitter.com/AlE9EYL2B9— The Telegraph (@Telegraph) May 7, 2020Starmer’s biggest achievement as a political leader so far may be to have survived his first 100 days unscathed by the press. In fact, he secured what many of his predecessors could only dream of: positive front page coverage by the Daily Telegraph on VE Day.“It may not have been electorally useful, because so few people who read the Telegraph would vote Labour - but it was signalling,” said one source, adding that it countered the “Tory tanks on Labour’s lawn in red wall seats”. That he has not yet been “put in a box” is success to some. “The press did a number on Ed Miliband, and he never really recovered,” said one insider. It may be a long wait before Starmer nails his colours to the mast, however, with sources saying most policies may not be decided until 2024 to avoid them being “out of date” at the next election. “It is a four-year marathon, not a short sprint,” one said. “The main thing is to build up a sense of trust and to advertise ourselves as a competent, principled and decent team of people that can form an alternative government.” Those close to Starmer describe his politics as “close to Gordon Brown” and his shadow cabinet as “mainstream”, aiming to build a case for Scandinavian-style social democracy.One source drew a different comparison, saying Starmer has the same appeal as John Smith, like “a Scottish bank manager you could trust with your mortgage”. He added: “He is a lawyer and we don’t get rhetorical fireworks - but you feel you can trust him.” Some moderates criticise the “slightly odd appointment” of Ed Miliband as shadow business secretary, saying a former leader at the top table could be distracting.“It’s not the role I would have given him,” said one key activist. “I would have given him something that plays to his strengths.” Labour MP Wes Streeting, meanwhile, believes the move demonstrated Starmer’s “confidence”, and underlined Miliband has grown in popularity since losing in 2015. Another MP added: “They’re friends. Ed was leader when Keir first became an MP. He encouraged him to stand.” Other divisions suggest policy wars may be coming down the track. Anneliese Dodds, Starmer’s choice for shadow chancellor, who previously worked for John McDonnell, last week backed a wealth tax, only for Labour to later ask Rishi Sunak to impose no tax rises at all in his mini-budget.The focus will be “jobs jobs jobs, better jobs, more secure jobs, more meaningful jobs, better paid jobs” in the months ahead, but Starmer is unlikely to back a universal basic income (UBI) – something which will be seen as another blow for the Left. A shadow minister told HuffPost UK: “I don’t think he will move towards UBI because in his heart of hearts he knows that it doesn’t work. It takes away the incentive to work.” It also means a softer message on the 2030 climate change target, said one key player: “We can’t push to destroy jobs.” Critics say Labour is failing to get the all-important “cut-through” on key issues, with headlines dominated by Sunak and Johnson during the Covid-19 crisis.Starmer allies insist the leader is content to fly beneath the radar for now. “It will be a slow build up of the case, brick by brick by brick,” said a shadow minister. Where Corbyn may have demanded an inquiry, for example, Starmer will offer gentler criticism. And after years of political turmoil, referendums and division, the party’s hope is that the public will find that reassuring. “Keir will show he cares about keeping the country safe and ensuring people have stability in their lives, jobs and futures,” said one former adviser. “It will be a ‘things will be alright’ and ‘you and your kids will be alright’ message. “That means steady as she goes, no fireworks, no bulldozers going through fake walls, give people a break from the endless drama - make politics boring again.” As Labour needs to outdo its 1997 landslide to win power, ‘Brand Starmer’ is not likely to be enough Warrington North MP Charlotte Nichols, who describes herself as on the party’s Left, said: “In the Corbyn years, a lot of people felt posting things on Twitter would win people over. Keir is getting out of the echo chamber and that is really important. “He has avoided some of the traps set for Labour, particularly around extending the transition period.” Though he “keeps his cards very close to his chest”, she says: “A lot of people project on to him something that they wanted to see reflected back and there is a lot of expectation on him now from all different parts of the party.” Starmer has landed blows at PMQs she said, before adding: “It feels like a courtroom but when we have full PMQs, without social distancing, it is more like theatre and there is going to have to be a change in tone. Keir is going to have to adapt his style.” Another insider complained: “Our hope is that he will grow into the role. If you want to be PM, show me then. I would give him a B-minus so far.” Not everyone is feeling so lukewarm about the new leader, however. “Businesses are absolutely relieved,” one advisor said. “There is a lot of people in the business community who are deeply frustrated at the current government. It strikes me that we will have a lot more support from businesses than we had in previous elections.” The biggest signpost of a change in direction from Starmer came when Rebecca Long-Bailey, his former rival for the leadership, was sacked as shadow education secretary over the sharing of an article that contained an anti-Semitic trope. Depending on who you ask, Long-Bailey was either forced out or refused to apologise and left Starmer with no choice. “She was the only Left-wing member of the shadow cabinet,” said Matt Zarb-Cousin, a former advisor to Corbyn who also worked for Long-Bailey. “I think a lot of people were happy to get on board when we had a seat at the table. “A lot of people think that the general direction of travel will just accelerate now. “I think they just want the Left to get demoralised and leave. Local government is where the Left will deploy most of its energy over the next few years.” Another former advisor says the decision was win-win for Starmer. “If she refused to apologise, I think he showed a level of decisiveness that people weren’t expecting and an understanding of the threat that anti-Semitism poses to the soul of the Labour Party,” he said. “If she wanted to apologise, it shows a level of decisiveness that we haven’t seen since the ’90s. “Conflict clarifies for the public where a leader stands.” With Momentum regrouping and Labour needing both ideas and activists for next year’s local metro mayors elections, it would be a mistake to isolate the Left, some warn.“The Left needs more skin in the game,” one staff member said. “Dennis Skinner used to go and see Tony Blair every week.” Local elections will be “Keir’s first big test”, said Duffield, adding “we cannot simply assume we will do well”. Target number one is the West Midlands metro mayor seat, currently occupied by Conservative Andy Street. “If we had terrible local elections, given the way Boris has run the country, I would be worried if I was Keir,” said one left-winger. “I think there will definitely be a leadership challenge at some stage - maybe Richard Burgon or Ian Lavery - but I don’t know if anyone will take any notice.” Hinting at a broader electoral strategy, Rosie Duffield says ‘blue wall’ seats in the Midlands and North “will be harder to gain” than many three-way marginals held by moderate Tories, further south and in Scotland, where Lib Dems may also be in contention. “To win, we have to do better than we did in 1997,” she said. “We need some traditional Tory seats, including in Kent and the South, as well as winning back in the North.“Moderate Tories find Boris Johnson’s government really embarrassing, and they are going Labour or Lib Dem – certainly in my area.” Duffield, chair of the Women’s Parliamentary Labour Party, added abuse of MPs had significantly subsided.She said: “There have been some teething problems but on the whole I feel much safer with Keir as leader.” While the party remains exposed to criticism it has never had a female leader, supporters say northern woman Angela Rayner serving as Starmer’s deputy “balances the ticket” for voters. “Keir has real respect for Angela and not just her feel for the wider labour movement but her ability to speak to some of the voters Labour has lost touch with over recent elections,” said one advisor. Matt Zarb-Cousin says what Starmer’s team has failed to recognise is that economy has made voters less loyal to parties. “He is obviously conscious of the fact that they need to win seats back in the red wall and there is a definite emphasis on appealing to older, more socially conservative voters, in terms of policy and rhetoric,” he said. “The risk of that is that it is informed by the view that we can rebuild the coalition of voters that we had in ’97, but given the context that we are in now – most people under 40 don’t have property, for example, and we have lost Scotland – we have to remember that the working class is less tribal now.”He said Starmer must prove he can “shift the narrative”. He said: “When Jeremy Corbyn was leader of the opposition, yes we lost two elections, but the government was influenced by the opposition.” Starmer replaced general secretary and Corbyn ally Jennie Formby – the party’s failure to deal with anti-Semitism was often laid at her door – with moderate David Evans. He has also succeeded in pushing through voting changes which, it is claimed, will see more moderates secure places on the party’s ruling National Executive Committee. But, the source added, he has been “quite slow” in removing what they called “partisan influence” from other sections of the party’s staff. While most in the party broadly are happy with Labour’s apparent change in fortunes, there have been missteps. Starmer is blind to the fact that many voters have not left Brexit behind, even if Westminster had. One MP, with a Leave constituency, said Brexit voters deserved an apology from Labour. The Labour Party needs to make some kind of apology to the communities that weren’t listened to and acknowledge the hurt caused by some people in our party.Labour MP“It isn’t enough for Keir to say that Brexit is over and done with,” she said. “The Labour Party needs to make some kind of apology to the communities that weren’t listened to and acknowledge the hurt caused by some people in our party.“He needs to say sorry and that we got it wrong before we can properly move on.” Deep concerns have also been raised over how Starmer has handled questions about the Black Lives Matter movement. Some mark a “lack of empathy” in statements about the fall of slaver Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol. He also dismissed as “nonsense” calls to “defund the police”, which call for more money to be pumped into health, education and other support services. While Starmer has appointed a number of BAME MPs as shadow ministers, the lack of diversity in his staff is a “five alarm fire”, said one insider. “It is 2020. You can’t have an all-white team,” he said. “And that isn’t just about the optics – though they are terrible – it’s about having people around the table with lived experience who can say ‘we are missing something here’.” We kneel with all those opposing anti-Black racism. #BlackLivesMatterpic.twitter.com/ZvjBndwqKk— Keir Starmer (@Keir_Starmer) June 9, 2020He added a failure to engage meaningfully with BAME communities would lose the party votes: “It is similar to what is happening with Joe Biden right now. A lot of BAME people are saying: you have had our support for 20 years and what have you done with it.” One shadow frontbencher, however, defended Starmer, saying: “It was an instinctive reaction [to reject the phrase ‘defund the police’] and would be aligned to what average voters think.” While the first 100 days are important for any leader, it is perhaps the next 100 that could be the real measure of Labour’s new leader. The Equality and Human Rights Commission is expected to publish its investigation into anti-Semitism in the party within weeks. “He feels strongly about the Labour Party rebuilding its moral authority,” said one advisor. “People underestimate how strongly he feels about anti-Semitism festering in the party. His wife’s family is Jewish.”Another source added: “There will be expulsions, it will be a big moment and we hope to see Labour recover its moral authority,” said one insider. While that reckoning has yet to arrive, most are satisfied with the state of play. Or, as one shadow minister, put it: “I think the great British public has so far picked up that he is not Jeremy Corbyn, and that is a great start.” Related...
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