If anyone needs reminding how much the political world has changed in a few weeks, it is useful to recall that Labour’s leadership campaign was timed to finish this weekend so that a new leader could carry the contest’s momentum into May’s local elections.
The leadership contest has gained little coverage as the NHS struggles with demand for intensive care beds. With Labour’s support, civil liberties have been curtailed as Boris Johnson’s government tries to eradicate the coronavirus and stem the spiralling number of deaths.
If, as expected, Keir Starmer wins the contest on Saturday, he will lead the party in a world where he will be expected to hold ministers to account as they make momentous decisions about Treasury spending, NHS services, logistics, mass surveillance and food supplies.
Far from being cowed by the challenge, Starmer’s supporters believe his background as a former director of public prosecutions makes him an ideal potential leader at a time of national crisis.
Angela Eagle, the MP for Wallasey and a former minister, said this was a moment made for a serious politician such as Starmer. “There are pivot points in history where leaders can remake the political weather and set the agenda. This is one of them. And I think Keir has the personal and moral authority and a strategic vision to rise to the occasion,” she said.
Andrew Fisher, a former head of policy for Jeremy Corbyn, said the next Labour leader would have to keep their focus on who the government will expect to pay for the £350bn of support for the economy in the face of the pandemic.
“Whenever this coronavirus crisis ends, the country is going to be in huge debt, spending will have gone up, there will be a lot more people claiming benefits, the Tories’ economic plans will be ripped up and they will be looking for someone to pay,” he said.
“Labour has got to be very strong at making sure it’s not the most vulnerable who pay the price. We were quite weak on that in the five years after the financial crash.”
Fisher said it was important that if Starmer won he ensured the shadow cabinet reflected views across the party and not within a single faction. “He is obviously going to change the shadow cabinet … but he does need to find a balance, a broad church in a Wilsonian way, so he does have a range of opinion in there,” he said.
He added that a new leader would have to react to the Conservatives’ recent conversion to approving the partial nationalisation of transport. “The new leader will have to look at the measures put in place temporarily and work out which they want to continue and campaigning for those where appropriate.”
Society will have changed after the coronavirus, Fisher said, which may increase a Labour government’s appeal as long as the party sets a radical economic agenda.
“People’s values, people’s experiences have shifted. We don’t know what the level of unemployment will be or the level of people on reduced hours will be at the end of this crisis but it’s clearly going to be substantially up,” he said.
“Labour can tap into that at the right time. Trying to be too sharply political at this time when people are very anxious about their security, housing and income and their health would be wrong and I think Labour has got the tone right.”