Britain’s main opposition Labour party on Saturday announced that Keir Starmer had been elected as its new leader, replacing Jeremy Corbyn who resigned after its crushing December election defeat.
The 57-year-old former chief state prosecutor defeated Corbyn loyalist Rebecca Long-Bailey and backbencher Lisa Nandy for the top job.
Angela Rayner becomes the new deputy leader, Labour announced on Twitter, after it was forced to cancel a special conference because of the coronavirus outbreak.
Starmer, who was Labour’s Brexit spokesman, thanked supporters and his opponents in the three-month campaign that followed Corbyn’s election defeat to Boris Johnson’s Conservatives.
He called it “the honour and privilege” of his life and vowed to “engage constructively” with Johnson’s government, particularly in the fight-back against Covid-19.
But he also vowed to reunite the party, after deep divisions caused by veteran socialist Corbyn’s hard-left ideals that clashed with advocates of a more centrist approach, and Brexit.
And he immediately addressed the issue of anti-Semitism that Corbyn was accused of failing to tackle, which tarnished the party’s reputation and caused Jewish members to leave in droves.
“Anti-Semitism has been a stain on our party. I have seen the grief that it’s brought to so many Jewish communities,” Starmer said. “On behalf of the Labour Party, I am sorry.
“And I will tear out this poison by its roots and judge success by the return of Jewish members and those who felt that they could no longer support us.”
Starmer, who won 56.2% of the vote of more than 500,000 Labour members, acknowledged the party had “a mountain to climb”, after four straight general election defeats.
But he vowed: “We will climb it.”
‘Bad blood and mistrust’
Labour grew out of the trade union movement but moved to the political center under former prime minister Tony Blair, who was in office between 1997 and 2007.
Corbyn spent a lifetime on the sidelines because of his left-wing views, and his election as leader in 2015, on the back of a huge surge in party membership, was a shock.
MPs and party members have been locked in an ideological battle ever since.
“There’s really a lot of bad blood and mistrust,” said Steven Fielding, a political expert at the University of Nottingham.
“The first challenge (of the new leader) will be to put a team together that at least looks like it has the ability to unify the party.”
Winning back voters who defected to the Conservatives is also top of Starmer’s “to do” list if Labour has any hope of victory at the next election, currently scheduled for 2024.
Brexit was a toxic issue for the party, torn between eurosceptic supporters in many northern English towns and pro-EU voters in the big cities such as London.
Starmer was opposed to Brexit and played a key role in moving Labour to support a second referendum on leaving the European Union.
However, voters were not convinced and Johnson took Britain out of the bloc on January 31.
The coronavirus outbreak has brought a more immediate challenge.
Johnson’s government has imposed draconian curbs on public movement to try to stop the spread — measures backed by Labour, although it successfully pressed for more parliamentary scrutiny of new police powers.
The Conservatives have also promised eye-watering sums to keep businesses and individuals afloat, wading into traditional Labour territory.
In response, Johnson’s popularity ratings have shot up.
A YouGov survey last week found that 55% of the public had a favorable opinion of him, up from 43% a week earlier.
Some 72% thought the government was doing well — including a majority of Labour voters.
Ministers have been on the back foot in recent days, however, over the lack of testing for coronavirus and the protection equipment for healthcare staff.
Labour has been pressing the issues, and Starmer said this would continue.
“My instinct will be to be constructive but to ask the difficult questions,” he told the Guardian podcast this week.