Starmer’s efforts to tackle the problem go beyond the personal. As well as talking with Jewish leaders and straightforwardly apologizing to the Jewish community, he has promised to undertake institutional reform of the party. He says he will receive weekly reports on disciplinary cases, create an independent complaints process, and—once the pandemic has receded—provide training on anti-Semitism for all party staff who are based at Labour’s headquarters.
This focus on changing institutional culture is typical of Starmer, as is his earnest and tactical engagement with the problem. A former human-rights lawyer who was once the country’s top prosecutor, he was elected to Parliament in 2015, four months before Corbyn was chosen as Labour’s leader. (Starmer is therefore free of political associations with previous Labour leaders such as Tony Blair, whom many members detest, and did not vote on controversial issues, such as immigration, in the pre-Corbyn era.) As Labour’s Brexit spokesman while the issue crawled through Parliament, he tried to steer a course between the party’s strongly pro-European membership and the reality of an electoral map where many traditional Labour seats were dominated by Brexit voters.
In the leadership race, Starmer positioned himself as the “unity candidate,” promising to end five years of civil war between Labour’s pro- and anti-Corbyn factions. The institutional muscle of the party’s Corbynite machinery, which includes the campaign group Momentum, had a smaller effect on the contest than many initially expected. Starmer easily defeated Corbyn’s preferred candidate. In a separate election for deputy leader, Richard Burgon, the most solidly Corbynite choice, came in a disappointing third. The day after those races, pro-Corbyn candidates also failed to capture the three vacant places on Labour’s national executive committee, a vital body that sets and enforces the party’s rule book. The scale of Starmer’s triumph—he won in the first round of voting, with 56 percent—gives him a secure mandate to contradict his predecessor.
The most common criticism of Labour’s new leader is that no one is quite sure where to place him on his party’s political spectrum, which runs from full-bodied socialism through social democracy and on to Blairism, an ease with capitalism and the privatization of public utilities. As a lawyer, Starmer took on environmental cases when they were still seen as the preserve of hippies and anarchists, and he once edited a socialist journal. Nonetheless, Corbyn’s supporters have never seen him as one of them. “Keir Starmer is not a ghoulish neoliberal, reactionary authoritarian, or a lover of war, but he isn’t a socialist,” James Schneider, Corbyn’s former head of strategic communications, wrote this week. “Hard to place, he appears to be on the progressive end of social reformism, the nicest possible part of the establishment. He has no strong allergy to being near socialist ideas, but they aren’t to his taste or style.”