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31 March 2020

Labour's long road back to power - Update on the leadership election

A lot has happened since Jeremy Corbyn decided to stand down as Leader of the Labour Party in December. However, it looks like we are set to continue having a Labour leader representing a north London seat, with leadership frontrunner Sir Keir Starmer streets ahead of rivals Rebecca Long-Bailey and Lisa Nandy in the polls. 

Although bearing few ideological similarities (apart from sharing a knighthood), Sir Keir Starmer will be confronted with similar political challenges to former Conservative Leader, Sir Iain Duncan Smith when he wins the Labour Leadership contest this Saturday. As Duncan Smith arrived at the Despatch Box of the House of Commons shortly after the 9/11 attacks, Sir Keir will have to show Labour are a relevant political force in the wake of a global pandemic.

COVID-19 has had implications for each household and business in the country, and the Labour leadership election is no exception. As one Labour MP likened to something out of the X-Factor, all the candidates have had to video record their victory speeches in advance of Saturday. Rather than a grand coronation in front of the party faithful, the results will be announced via a press release and an email to the 500,000 eligible members and registered supporters who voted. 

The bookies’ favourite to become the leader is Shadow Brexit Secretary and Holborn and St Pancras MP, Sir Keir Starmer. From the outset, Sir Keir has pitched himself as the unity candidate and has expressed his frustrations with the factionalism that has embroiled the party in recent years. However, many commentators saw Sir Keir’s launch video as a carefully-crafted way of winning over the left, with the video showing the various causes he has championed over the last 30 years, including his activism in the 1984-85 miners' strike and standing in solidarity with the printers in Wapping. However, despite this Sir Keir has refused to engage in criticising the Blair and Brown premierships and has made his desire clear to see former Labour MPs such as Luciana Berger return to the fold. 

Reports surfacing over the last few days indicate that Sir Keir is set to dismiss some of the most enthusiastic and intense Corbyn supporters, such as General Secretary Jennie Formby and Executive Director of the Leader’s Office, Karie Murphy. Sir Keir has been scathing of the party’s failures to tackle anti-Semitism and the party’s General Election strategy, areas which Formby and Murphy presided over. 

What are the implications of a Starmer leadership for planning and devolution?

Although Sir Keir has said little on the subject of housing, one of his ten pledges is to radically devolve power away from Whitehall. He has called for a move towards a federal system, through regional investment banks, as well as the abolition of the House of Lords to make way for regional assemblies. 

In the Borough of Camden, where Sir Keir’s parliamentary seat falls under, their flagship Community Investment Programme is delivering 3,050 homes, including 1,100 council homes through the cross-subsidy from the private sale of residential properties and long-term leasing of commercial spaces. This is a policy that is proving popular locally and something Sir Keir could look to roll-out nationally. 

What will a Starmer Shadow Cabinet look like?

Sir Keir’s team have repeatedly said he wouldn’t begin making or discussing appointments until after the contest has ended. However, in recent days, numerous sources have reported that Sir Keir is set to promote several unknown moderates, as well as bring back MPs who were shunned during the Corbyn years. 

Rachel Reeves, a former Bank of England Economist has been tipped to take the key role of Shadow Chancellor. Reeves raised eyebrows in 2013 when as Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, she remarked that Labour would be tougher than the Conservatives in cutting the welfare bill, with the long-term unemployed having to take a guaranteed job offer or lose benefits. Although we are in different political times now, there is a sense of irony that her potential Conservative counterpart, Rishi Sunak, has adopted a more left-wing stance. 

Others that are set to benefit from Sir Keir’s coronation as the leader include Greater Manchester MP, Jim McMahon. As a former Council Leader, McMahon is trusted by Sir Keir’s camp, having been asked to stand in for Starmer at a local government leadership hustings, when Sir Keir’s mother-in-law fell unwell.

Although less likely, we could also see shadow ministerial positions for ardent Blairites, such as Ilford North MP, Wes Streeting. Although the nation is rightly fixated on the spread of COVID-19, the election of a new Labour leader on Saturday is an important moment in the party’s history. Labour has a long way to go to get back into power but Saturday could mark the start of a much-needed rebuild of the party.

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