The coronavirus crisis is all all-consuming and will be Starmer’s immediate focus. When to criticise the government, and how hard, will be a delicate political judgment – calls for a change of course, or an inquiry, will need to be carefully timed. The Brexit debate showed Starmer was at his lawyerly best when putting ministers under pressure over the fine detail of their plans – a quality now greatly needed. Yet there are competing pressures. Elsewhere in the world, opposition figures have struggled to make any impact as the outbreak has developed, which will create pressure for bolder interventions. A balancing act.
After years of disagreements since 2010, most in Labour had become united on a broad rejection of austerity and a demand on the rich to pay more tax. Starmer had accepted key Corbyn tax pledges from the 2019 manifesto. However, the costs of the coronavirus will shake up the debate and force Starmer into difficult decisions. How to pay for the fallout is not a topic of great discussion now, but it will cause problems for both main parties. The degree and speed with which Starmer proposes to repair the public finances will be highly contentious and risks opening up tensions with Labour’s left.
During the current leader’s reign, the party’s left has been successful in occupying key posts and winning a majority on its powerful national executive committee. Control of the party machinery has always been critical in Labour’s internal politics, and many Labour MPs are keen to see Starmer clear out the party’s HQ, including the current general secretary Jennie Formby, a close ally of Corbyn and Unite union boss, Len McCluskey. However, any immediate clearout would be seen as an act of war by the left and undermine Starmer’s plea for unity.
Starmer will need to work out a response to the antisemitism inquiry undertaken by the Equality and Human Rights Commission. The issue has seriously damaged Labour’s reputation among Jewish voters and beyond. While it will be a difficult moment for the party, Starmer’s initial response will be quite simple – accept the report and its recommendations. He has already pledged to toughen party rules on antisemitism. The more difficult issue will be to what extent he reprimands anyone singled out in the inquiry and still employed by Labour.
Starmer’s first shadow cabinet will be a key early decision and reveal the extent to which he wants to change course or carry on with Corbyn’s team. John McDonnell and Diana Abbott are both stepping down, but what of other Corbyn allies such as Ian Lavery and Richard Burgon? And will Starmer opt to bring back big hitters like Yvette Cooper and Rachel Reeves, or leave them overseeing select committees? Will Corbyn be offered a new post, perhaps party president? A demonstration of unity seems to be Starmer’s priority in appointing a team, so a clearout seems unlikely.