The Corbyn Project has arguably been the Labour Party’s greatest asset in uniting a large cross-section of voters. Will this momentum continue with a new leader at the helm?


Keir Starmer’s resounding win in the Labour Party leadership contest came as a shock to no one. The much discussed trigger word ‘electability’ epitomised by a sharp suit and tie became an ongoing criticism of Jeremy Corbyn and a key factor in Starmer’s first round win from a membership desperate for a Labour government — who were, incidentally, quick to ignore Starmer’s role as architect of Labour’s disastrous Brexit policy which led to to the fall of Labour’s ‘red wall’.

There will have been 14 years of Conservative rule by the time of the next general election (almost a lifetime for many of Labour’s young activists), and it will be hoped that Brexit will no longer be an issue by 2024. Corbyn’s leadership saw individual Labour Party membership rise by over 300,000, making it the largest political party in Western Europe in terms of paid up members. With Labour’s membership fees now its greatest source of income over trade union contributions, Starmer must not take these supporters who presumably joined Labour because of Corbyn for granted.

Starmer’s first act as leader was to form his shadow cabinet thereby defining the direction of the party over the next four years. Despite claiming that he was ‘Proud to have appointed a shadow cabinet that showcases the breadth, depth and talents of the Labour Party’, a purge of Corbyn’s key allies in the shadow cabinet — which included barring leadership runner-up Rebecca Long Bailey — was a clear sign of a new direction back towards the centre. The most notable scalps were Ian Lavery (Party Chairman), Richard Burgon (Justice Secretary), Barry Gardiner (International Trade Secretary) and Shami Chakrabarti (Attorney General).

Starmer’s appointments were not particularly controversial, mostly coming from the dead centre of the party and overlooking senior factional leaders such as Yvette Cooper and Hilary Benn — although longstanding Corbyn critics from the right of the party, Jess Phillips and Wes Streeting, have been awarded junior roles. Former leader Ed Milliband’s return to the front bench raised many eyebrows however, and could be the most telling signpost of the direction Starmer looks to take the party in.

The Corbyn Project was a revolution in the Labour Party and British politics as a whole. ‘Corbynism’ has became an ideology in itself and the Socialist Campaign Group will become a more influential faction in the PLP, bolstered by popular young MPs from the 2019 intake such as Zara Sultana and Nadia Whittome. Starmer’s decision not to keep Corbynites close by in the cabinet could present real problems for him from the grouping on the back-benches if he looks to move the party back towards the centre.

Starmer’s 10-point plan for leadership reveals a commitment to retaining key policies from the 2017 and 2019 manifestos. Most notably, an end to tuition fees, higher taxes on the top 5 per cent of earners and public ownership of rail, mail, energy and water, giving a glimmer of hope for supporters of ‘continuity Corbyn’ candidate Rebecca Long-Bailey. Chasing electability as defined by the mass media may mean sacrificing more radical policy for favourable press coverage and is a dangerous game which Corbyn refused to play — and so must Starmer if he wants to please Corbynite MPs and most importantly keep young voters onside and enthusiastic about politics delivering real change.

Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell and Diane Abbot are back in their natural habitat on the back-benches and it would be optimistic for Keir Starmer to expect an easy ride from the grouping who were a thorn in the side for Blair, Brown and Milliband from both the back-benches and the voting lobbies.

Corbyn’s final words in his last PMQs: ‘My voice will not be stilled, I’ll be around, I’ll be campaigning, I’ll be arguing, and I’ll be demanding justice for the people of this country and, indeed, the rest of the world’, confirmed that he and his allies will not fade into obscurity off the front bench.

Starmer’s overarching pledge of unity to the membership will not be easy. Avoiding a paradigm shift to the right on policy issues will keep Corbyn’s faction on side for now, and the sacking of figures such as Burgon and Chakrabarti should similarly keep the right of the party quiet.

The honeymoon period for the new leadership will only last as long as the coronavirus pandemic though, and it won’t be long before the B-word returns to the headlines and Boris Johnson is back on familiar territory. Arch-Remainer Starmer will need to finally embrace Brexit if he wants to win back voters that Labour lost and use this to his advantage by reviving classical left-wing arguments against the EU formerly espoused by Corbyn and his mentor Tony Benn, stressing the importance of democracy and internationalism in favour of ‘positives’ such as free movement celebrated by centrists in the Labour Party (Starmer included) who used this issue to portray Brexit as a nationalist endeavour and as a strategy for undermining the Corbyn project.

Starmer will undoubtedly get an easier ride from the media than his predecessor without the ‘historical baggage’ and as a knight of the realm, but it is worth questioning why the media are so fond of Starmer, who even received an endorsement from George Osborne in an Evening Standard editorial prior to his victory.

Whether Europhile ‘Sir Keir’, another Labour leader from a North London constituency, can speak to working-class, Eurosceptic former Labour voters in the North and the Midlands (while maintaining Corbyn’s key policies), remains to be seen. But the ongoing support of Labour’s left will be paramount to his success, and that might mean keeping the Corbyn Project alive in some form.