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Is Keir Starmer doing enough?

Keir Starmer has now been Labour leader for over four months. As he became leader under lockdown, it hardly feels like it’s been that long – and there are still plenty of relatively unusual unknowns for a leader whose been in charge that long. However, from the outside it does seem that he has started to make his mark on the party already.

Antisemitism

Under Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour party became institutionally Antisemitic. This does not mean that Jeremy Corbyn was himself a racist, or that the majority of members were – or even that Jeremy Corbyn should hold all of the blame. Institutional racism means that a form of racism has become embedded within the party’s structure and culture to such an extent that it has become normal practice. In Labour’s case, this meant that a significant number of Antisemitic incidents were accepted or justified by party organisations and racists allowed to keep positions of influence. 

Ridding the party of this menace is Starmer’s most important job as leader. This goes well beyond electability; this is important for society as a whole. He has certainly said all of the right things over the first few months.

Starmer has officially apologised for Antisemitism in the party, committed to following the EHRC report into racism in the party’s recommendations, and settled the ongoing court case with Labour’s Antisemitism whistle-blowers. All of these are positive steps.

When he first became leader, he explicitly refused to appoint Dawn Butler or Richard Burgon to the shadow cabinet as they had refused to sign a pledge against Antisemitism during their respective deputy leadership campaigns. This certainly looked like immediate progress.

There have been two significant instances of Antisemitism amongst the parliamentary party since Starmer took office. The first came courtesy of former shadow minister Rebecca Long-Baily, who tweeted an editorial from actor Maxine Peake. This editorial included an Antisemitic slur, that the actress later apologised for. Long-Bailey was asked to take the tweet down and apologise in a proscribed manner, but refused to do so. Starmer then sacked her from the shadow cabinet.

In this instance, there was a clear difference between Corbyn’s Labour and Starmer’s Labour. Decisive action taken quickly, and racism was clearly condemned by the leader. It also exposed just how widespread the problem is – a shadow cabinet not only tweeting an article including a racist trope, but one refusing to apologise for it when told it was racist. For several hours, even refusing to take the tweet down.

There was also a second instance. Social media posts made by Lloyd Russell-Moyle on Facebook in 2017 were unearthed, in which he used explicitly Antisemitic language. This highlighted the structural problem Labour has – Russell-Moyle has a history of defending and excusing the Antisemitism crisis in Labour, defending members who had been suspended for making racist statements, leaking an unredacted version of a Corbyn-era report into Antisemitism that whitewashed the problem, initially defending Chris Williamson before backtracking, and claiming that complaints of institutional racism constituted a personal vendetta against Jeremy Corbyn.

Russell-Moyle’s case exposes both the mountain Labour needs to climb to rid itself of institutional racism, and that Starmer needs to do more to ensure the institutions he has direct control are free of members with a questionable history on racism. Russell-Moyle was appointed to a shadow minister post under Starmer despite his history of questionable statements on Antisemitism, and was not sacked when more evidence emerged. In fact, he was allowed to resign – and cite a ‘campaign by the right-wing media’.

Starmer has made a good start on Antisemitism, but he clearly needs to do more. The task is huge, and will require going up against powerful factions within the party. However, he has committed to following the recommendations of the EHRC report into the party which will likely spark greater action.

Justice

A former Director of Public Prosecutions might be expected to have a keen interest in crime, but it is not an easy subject for a Labour leader right now. There are serious, longstanding problems with our criminal justice system – permeating through from the police to the court system. Much of this stems from historic underfunding, but there are also structural issues.

Criminal court cases were being delayed by years well before COVID-19. As part of cost cutting measures, courts have closed. This has left victims waiting years for justice, and the accused waiting in limbo. In some cases, cases have collapsed while waiting – especially impacting vulnerable abuse victims.

Yet court funding is not politically sexy. Most voters will rarely notice if a court case is delayed but will notice judgements that sound – at least when published in a tabloid headline – unreasonable. This is the political cover that has allowed for the slow decline of our system.

Under Starmer, Labour appears to have taken a stand on this. Under him, the party has already spoken clearly about the government’s failures in the justice system. It is yet to be seen if Starmer will attempt to get any solid policy proposals through conference, of if he will use this as an attack line.  

The other failure in our criminal justice system may be even harder to deal with – but is a clear vote winner. Police funding is popular across virtually all key segments that Labour needs to win. Merely a year ago, Jeremy Corbyn was calling for increased police funding. As police numbers and resources have fallen, there has been a tangible negative impact on law and order in this country – and Corbyn was right to call for a better funded police service. Things are not so simple today, as an incredibly loud minority of Labour members and councillors are calling for them to be ‘defunded’.

Of course, actually defunding the police would disproportionately harm BAME people and poor communities, while there are also serious structural issues with our police forces that need addressing. To be clear, many of those campaigners calling to ‘defund’ the police will explain that they actually want these structural changes. But ‘defunding’ means to cut funds, and increasing funding instead would be undeniably controversial.

We are yet to see Starmer put forward a coherent vision on this. It is perhaps too early for us to expect him to, but creating a message as well rounded as ‘tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime’ is becoming increasingly difficult and may be one of his biggest tests.

Public perception

It may be too early for polls to tell us if Starmer is on course to win the next election, and what holds him back. Partly this is because he is a new leader, and partly this is because his leadership started during a lockdown that hasn’t yet finished.

We may no longer have virtual parliament, but with social distancing measures Starmer has not faced a traditional PMQs yet. As a former barrister, it seems likely that he will thrive. But we still do not know for sure – and there are a lot of other peculiar unknowns about his premiership.

Boris Johnson’s poll numbers seem to be moving based on his own successes and failures, and they probably will not give a true picture of where we stand until this crisis is over and we reach some level of stability.

One thing is clear, though. Keir Starmer is the first Labour leader in over a decade who is consistently seeing high personal approval numbers. He in a recent poll, he overtook Boris Johnson as the choice for Prime Minister – the first time a Labour leader has beaten the Prime Minister by this metric since 2017, when Jeremy Corbyn briefly headed Theresa May.

Unusually in recent British politics, he has enjoyed large positive approval ratings in polls since he became leader. Despite the normal spin form leaders who do not receive this public approval, it is historically a key indicator of future electoral success. However, this has not translated into a Labour lead.

There are plenty of reasons to be sceptical about the polls right now. They only measure a snapshot of time, and the current snapshot is during a lockdown – and a lockdown in which the government is spending an unprecedented amount of money to ensure people keep jobs. But there will be some concern in the Labour leader’s camp, as the Labour brand needs further detoxification to become electable again.

Detoxifying the Labour brand will require creating a good and well-reasoned policy platform with clearly explained aims, that can show voters what the party’s actual goals are. This will need to cover areas like justice, but also Europe and the economy. It will also require the party to fully recognise the damage that Antisemitism and the hard left did across all levels of its structure, purge the racists and extremists from positions of power, and start re-building as an institution that has far more robust measures to prevent the kind of incident that we’ve seen consistently over the past years.

It is yet to be seen in Starmer is up to the task. But, overall, he has made a good start. 

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