As expected, Keir Starmer was declared the winner on Saturday of the British Labour Party’s leadership election, with his preferred running-mate Angela Rayner as his deputy. (Read my preview of the poll from a few weeks ago.)
Starmer won convincingly, recording 56.2% of the vote to 27.6% for Rebecca Long-Bailey and 16.2% for Lisa Nandy. Turnout was 62.6%: well down from the 77.6% that voted in 2016 when Jeremy Corbyn was re-elected, but nonetheless credible for an optional postal ballot conducted during a health crisis.
Unfortunately, because Starmer had an absolute majority the party didn’t bother distributing Nandy’s preferences, so we don’t know what his final margin would have been. Since Nandy was thought to be ideologically situated between the Corbynite Long-Bailey and the more moderate Starmer, her votes are unlikely to have flowed strongly either way (voting is optional preferential).
We know, however, that the left did badly, because in the deputy’s ballot the most strongly Corbynite candidate, Richard Burgon, could only manage 17.3%. That put him in second place on primaries, narrowly ahead of Rosena Allin-Khan but a long way behind Rayner’s 41.7%. Preferences from two eliminated candidates, while taking Rayner to 52.6%, also made Allin-Khan the runner-up with 26.1% to Burgon’s 21.3%.
All in all, it’s a sea change in the Labour party in the three and a half years since Corbyn won re-election with 61.8% of the vote. For all the suggestions that his supporters were impervious to electoral realities, it looks as if last December’s election loss persuaded at least a fair number of them that a new direction was necessary.
Starmer has so far played his cards close to his chest. He is clearly both more pro-European and less committed to the left (despite a youthful background as a Trotskyist) than Corbyn was, but he has avoided any promise to abandon the Corbynite elements of the party’s platform.
Corbynism, however, was always a matter of style as much as substance. Independent of any particular policies, Starmer’s task is to bring Labour back to the mainstream; to make it look like a normal part of British politics rather than an eccentric outlier (if occasionally an endearing one). Temperamentally he seems well suited to the task.
The BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg put it well on Saturday:
In truth, many in the Labour Party tonight, at least, may not care that much, that for now his particular personal politics are something of a mystery – relieved at least that there has been an overwhelming victory for a politician they consider a principled pragmatist.
Firm ideologies have been the source of many Labour woes in the last few years, so competence and internal calm seem like real prizes.
In normal times Starmer would spend the next few months carefully staking out his ground, working to reconcile both the party’s left and those who are demanding a more radical break with the last few years. These, however, are not normal times.
Oppositions worldwide are having to walk a very fine line, holding governments to account while showing solidarity in the crisis. It’s a task that it’s hard to imagine Corbyn performing well; for Starmer it is a risk but also an opportunity.
One day, perhaps, there will have to be a more explicit reckoning with Corbynism and with the party’s failures of recent years. But that time has not yet come.