Testing times for new Labour leader Keir Starmer
THESE are testing times for everyone - and new Labour leader Keir Starmer is no exception. Taking over the helm of the party in the wake of last year’s devastating defeat was always going to be a challenge, but coronavirus has changed the political landscape so dramatically that many of the issues which were top of the agenda when the leadership contest began four months ago are now on the back burner.
It is difficult for the party to set a clear direction on the way forward while it and everyone else must focus primarily on the health crisis which has engulfed the whole country.
Labour left wingers think Mr Starmer will inevitably shift the party more to the centre.
But it is important to recognise that many policies once regarded as left-wing - such as rail nationalisation and higher taxes on the richest in society - are now accepted as mainstream and were key planks in the manifesto which are popular with the public and which none of the candidates signalled they wanted to abandon.
Keir Starmer’s victory was not a surprise - but he was not always expected to win. Rebecca Long-Bailey’s loyalty to Jeremy Corbyn made her look the most likely to get the support of a membership which had backed him in such large numbers. But polls taken among the membership found Mr Starmer in the lead. Despite his more centrist reputation he was careful not to rubbish the Corbyn era and talked repeatedly about bringing the party together.
And the shadow cabinet he has appointed has a mixture of new faces and old hands.
Edinburgh South MP Ian Murray makes a natural return as Shadow Scottish Secretary. He did hold the post initially under Jeremy Corbyn until he resigned in 2016. Having English MPs in the role and Labour’s only Scottish MP on the backbenches underlined the party’s divisions and did it no good north of the border.
Ed Miliband is also back, replacing Rebecca Long-Bailey as shadow business and energy secretary, but he strongly supports the Green Energy Deal she promoted. And she has been kept in the shadow cabinet with the education portfolio.
Lisa Nandy, the other leadership contender, an impressive performer during the contest, has been given one of the top jobs as shadow foreign secretary.
The new shadow chancellor is Scots-born Anneliese Dodds who is said to be extremely capable and good on TV and radio. Despite not being on the Corbyn wing of the party, she has been highly praised by her predecessor John McDonnell with whom she worked as shadow treasury minister
Nick Thomas-Symonds, the new shadow home secretary, has not had a high public profile but is said to be a strong parliamentary performer.
Former shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry, who failed to get enough nominations to get on the ballot in the leadership contest, had been tipped for the axe but has been kept on to cover international trade. Jon Ashworth stays on at health. And Nick Brown - chief whip under Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and Jeremy Corbyn - also remains in post.
There is no place however for strong Labour figures Yvette Cooper and Hilary Benn.
While the coronavirus crisis lasts the concerns of all the shadow cabinet will be focused on that. But when life begins to return to “normal” Mr Starmer will want to chart a clear direction for the party in the hope of building a way back to power.
Those will be equally testing times for Labour.