With the prospect of no-deal growing, the moment is coming for the Labour leader to break his Brexit silence, argues AMANDA CHETWYND-COWIESON.
When deciding whether or not Keir Starmer has had a ‘good’ start as Labour leader, it’s important to define what we mean as good, and acknowledge that the bar could barely be any lower.
Taking over a party on the edge of electoral oblivion, with a recent tortuous history of division, appeasement of anti-Semitism, and consistent knee-bending to the flagship Conservative project of Brexit, is no small task. But leading that party back to a place where it can achieve electoral success is an even greater one.
Throw a global pandemic into the mix, and it’s hardly surprising that Starmer and his senior team have focussed almost solely on two things since taking over the reins of the party five months ago this week: holding the government to account over their handling of coronavirus, and starting the dauntingly long journey of rebuilding trust with the Jewish community. You would be hard pressed to find a serious person anywhere who could argue that these were two bad priorities to initially focus on.
So, what does ‘good’ look like when this is the starting point? Well, with a recent Opinium poll showing the two main parties tied for the first time in months, and with Starmer polling at only two points behind Johnson on personal approval ratings, I think we can say in the eyes of the electorate at least, he has done pretty well.
Both these issues – the pandemic and anti-Semitism – will dominate the next few years in different ways for the Labour leader, and with the Covid-19 battleground already pretty well defined – from social care to furlough to education – we know where the government and opposition will be focussing a significant proportion of their time for the next few months.
Yet there is another challenge to all party leaders hurtling round the corner: the return of the Brexit deadline.
Perhaps one of the most awkward aspects for the Starmer when it comes to Brexit is that, frankly, a large proportion of Labour supporters, members and politicians would rather the party continued its silence on the topic for as long as possible.
There’s not much point going over and over the last few years of how Brexit helped pull Labour further apart, but unless Starmer wants a re-run of the toxic combination of leadership silence and strong membership feelings on the issue, he needs to start clarifying his position, fast.
The end of the transition period, December 31, is now less than four months away, and we’ll know even sooner than that whether a trade deal will be agreed or if the government has decided to settle on a no-deal exit.
Parliament returned this week, and its first few weeks back are littered with Brexit legislation, covering everything from fisheries to immigration, so there is plenty of opportunity for Labour to be definitive about where they stand on key issues.
Simultaneously, Starmer has work to do winning round a notable proportion of younger Labour supporters, many of whom aren’t party members and hold quite different views to older generations on what Labour should be prioritising.
Many, for instance, were underwhelmed by the leadership’s lukewarm response to the issues raised by the Black Lives Matter movement and the debate around trans rights, which were often undermined by conflicting statements.
Another example is Britain’s stance on immigration, particularly how we maintain and build on our relationships with our closest neighbours in Europe.
Most 18-24-year-olds remain vastly in favour of being part of the European Union. It would be wrong for Labour to advocate re-joining the EU, but that doesn’t mean you can’t point out that it will be younger generations who will lose out most in the future from a brutal no-deal exit, when that particular piece of legislation returns this month.
Combine the possibility of a no-deal Brexit with the premature end of the furlough scheme and a second wave of Covid-19, and it doesn’t take long before the ‘worst case scenario’ modelled in Whitehall looks scarily like reality.
A savvy leader of the opposition would lead the national conversation by loudly and confidently explaining the obvious benefits to all of a short Brexit extension.
Starmer can’t get to December 31 and still have Labour being described as ‘quiet’ on the issue of Brexit by a majority of the electorate. You don’t win elections by being quiet, and future generations won’t forget an opposition leader who was ‘quiet’ whilst opportunities were removed from our grasp.