Keir Starmer is good news for the Labour Party. And right now, more than ever, that means he’s good news for the country as well. It is no time for democracy to take a holiday. The slow, sclerotic decision-making of the UK Government in recent days has been matched only by the media’s inability to effectively scrutinise the Prime Minister and his team. A responsible, grown-up opposition is long overdue to add ballast to a political system flailing in response to the coronavirus crisis. A good opposition is still unlikely to make the weather in the immediate future, but they can at least point out when it’s raining.
Starmer’s leadership is also set to have a big impact on our politics in Wales. Here’s a leader who gets Wales, who gets devolution. And here’s a leader who needs no convincing about the need to create a more sustainable and equitable relationship between the four nations. During the early stages of the Brexit negotiations, Starmer and his team listened to Welsh Government concerns about Labour’s approach could impact on Wales and worked constructively on solutions that made sense in a devolved context. Not just that, but the opinions of Welsh Ministers about the overall UK approach were also taken seriously and acted upon. The joint working was effective and showed a level of mutual respect not always apparent in these bilateral discussions.
When working and campaigning in Wales, it was clear that Starmer did not require the back-to-basics style briefing about the country and devolved politics. He’s comfortable here. The overwhelming backing of Welsh MPs and constituency parties didn’t just reflect a strong ground campaign, it showed support for a unifying message that worked in a Welsh context. Given her ongoing righteous war with online betting companies, Carolyn Harris won’t necessarily thank me for the following comparison. And yet it was something of a gamble for the Deputy Leader of the party in Wales to take such a prominent role in running the Starmer campaign. But, it worked brilliantly. She is just one of a handful of Welsh MPs who can expect to have a big role to play on the opposition frontbench.
The Welsh First Minister, Mark Drakeford, was an early supporter of Jeremy Corbyn and I’m sure on one level he will be deeply disappointed by the failures of the Corbyn project. You could hear the genuine hurt in the First Minister’s voice in the hours after the 2019 General Election defeat. But, in Keir Starmer he will find a leader who matches him in intellect, rigour and an ability to filter passionately held values into pragmatic solutions. They have already worked together closely and effectively on Brexit, and the existing relationships between their teams will also make communication so much easier.
That strong Welsh connection brings big Welsh issues closer to the surface as the new opposition develops its identity. Rail electrification, tidal lagoons, the future of Wylfa — these are issues that all need strong advocates at the top table. And surely there will be space in the future to rethink the entire policy approach for the Labour Party. It is difficult to see how the much-debated 2019 manifesto can be anything other than a footnote in political history. That has nothing to do with its merits or otherwise. The current crisis, and the massive state response to it, has simply blown away old assumptions. Everyone must surely start with a blank sheet of paper when the dust settles.
Sadly the coronavirus crisis has many more months to run before such discussions can start in earnest. The immediate task for the new opposition is find the right balance between being constructive and critical at the right times — and matching forensic questioning with giving strong voice to public sentiment. Keir Starmer can definitely rise to that challenge. His election is a good thing for our politics, and a good thing for Wales.