Britain’s main opposition Labour Party on Saturday elected former human rights lawyer Keir Starmer as its new leader, after a contest thrown into turmoil by the coronavirus outbreak.
A special conference to announce the winner was scrapped, and the news came on Saturday in a press release accompanied by a pre-recorded acceptance speech.
He won with 56.2 per cent of the vote by Labour’s 500,000 members and supporters. Angela Rayner was voted as deputy leader.
“It is the honour and the privilege of my life to be elected as leader of the Labour Party. It comes at a moment like none other in our lifetime,” Starmer said.
“Under my leadership, we will engage constructively with the government, not opposition for opposition’s sake. Not scoring party political points or making impossible demands. But with the courage to support where that’s the right thing to do.
“But we will test the arguments that are put forward. We will shine a torch on critical issues and where we see mistakes or faltering government or things not happening as quickly as they should, we’ll challenge that and call that out.”
Starmer, 57, who comes from the party’s centre-left wing, replaces Jeremy Corbyn, who has led Labour since 2015.
Corbyn, a veteran socialist who was elected on a wave of grassroots enthusiasm, took the party sharply to the left, proposing the nationalisation of major industries and a huge increase in public spending.
Corbyn drew thousands of new activists to the party, but lost two successive elections in 2017 and 2019. In December’s election, Labour suffered its worst result since 1935, as the Conservatives won in working-class areas that had voted Labour for decades.
Labour has now been out of office for a decade that has brought the country three Conservative prime ministers — David Cameron, Theresa May and Boris Johnson.
Starmer has been the party’s spokesman on Brexit, the issue that has consumed British politics for four years. But the country’s departure from the European Union, which became official Jan. 31, has been pushed into the background by the pandemic sweeping the globe.
Like many other countries, Britain is in effective lockdown, with schools, bars, restaurants and many businesses shut to help slow the spread of the new coronavirus.
A December 31 deadline set by the government to forge a new relationship with the EU on trade and a host of other issues looks increasingly hard to meet.
The rules of politics have been upended. Many policies that Conservatives dismissed as socialist follies have been introduced, if only temporarily, by Johnson’s government in an effort to keep people and businesses afloat until the pandemic is over. The government is handing out cash to small businesses and made many more people eligible for welfare benefits.
Meanwhile, Parliament is currently on an extended recess, and it is unclear when lawmakers will return.
Starmer faces a delicate challenge: How to hold the government to account during a national emergency while also supporting the fight against the virus.
Johnson announced Saturday that he was inviting leaders of opposition parties to a briefing with the government’s top medical and scientific advisers, saying: “I want to listen to your views and update you on the measures we have taken so far.”
“As party leaders, we have a duty to work together at this time of national emergency,” Johnson wrote.