LONDON (AFP) — UK opposition leader Keir Starmer launched a digital edition of his Labour party’s annual conference Sunday, promising to move on from years of bitter ideological infighting and stinging electoral failure.
The three-day “Labour Connected” event, held in place of the traditional conference because of the coronavirus, is the first major gathering of members since the former chief state prosecutor and human rights lawyer took over in April.
Starmer, 58, is trying to turn Labour around after its worst election defeat since the 1930s in December, when Conservative Prime Minister Boris Johnson swept to office on a promise to get Britain out of the European Union.
Under his hard-left predecessor Jeremy Corbyn, the party of former prime minister Tony Blair was plagued by splits over policy, particularly on Brexit, as well as claims of widespread anti-Semitism.
Starmer said Sunday the election defeat was “devastating” for the entire Labour movement, and promised “new leadership” focused on winning power at the next scheduled election in 2024.
“I’ve spent the last six months listening and asking for conversations with people that are difficult rather than easy, and changing and focusing on the future,” he told Sky News television.
Starmer has won plaudits for trying to win back Jewish members who left in droves as Corbyn and his top team turned a blind eye to anti-Semitism that was rampant in the party.
Jewish groups accused Corbyn of allowing a massive rise in anti-Semitism within the ranks of the party that was once considered the natural home of British Jewry. Thousands of cases of alleged hate speech against Jews have been recorded within Labour since 2015, when Corbyn was elected to lead the party.
Corby has denied any wrongdoing, saying he dealt with the issue appropriately.
Starmer has also seen a surge in popularity for his efforts to hold Johnson to account for his response to the coronavirus outbreak, which has killed almost 42,000 people in Britain — the worst toll in Europe.
A new YouGov poll for The Times put Labour level with the Tories for the first time since Johnson took over last summer.
Starmer said Sunday he backed government efforts to tackle a new surge in cases of Covid-19, including new fines of up to £10,000 (11,000 euros, $13,000) for people who failed to self-isolate when told to do so.
But he condemned the lack of mass testing, saying Johnson should apologize for failing to anticipate a surge in demand for tests this month as schools reopened.
“The government’s now effectively lost control of testing, it doesn’t necessarily know where the virus is,” he said.
Starmer’s forensic attacks on the government appear so far to have won over non-Labour voters and helped unite his party.
“He’s not particularly charismatic. His authority comes from looking like a competent person,” Professor Simon Usherwood at the University of Surrey told AFP.
But Professor Steven Fielding of the University of Nottingham warned many Corbyn supporters were still uneasy about what exactly Starmer stands for.
“He’s managed to unify the party only because he hasn’t tackled any of the big issues in the party,” he told AFP.
As well as quelling dissent in its own ranks, Labour needs to tackle the skepticism of voters in its former “Red Wall” heartland in northern England, who backed the Conservatives over Brexit.
Their support helped give Johnson an 80-strong majority in the House of Commons and allowed him to break years of parliamentary deadlock to take Britain out of the EU in January.
Starmer opposed Brexit, but has not focused on the issue, except again on the issue of competence.
Trade talks with the EU are moving painfully slowly towards a mid-October deadline, while the government has sparked outrage in Brussels by trying to unpick part of last year’s Brexit agreement.
“The prime minister said he had got an oven-ready deal, he has to get on and he needs to deliver it. if he fails to do so, he needs to own that failure,” Starmer told BBC television Sunday.
Labour said more than 26,000 people had signed up to its digital event, which is mainly members-only meetings, but includes a few keynote addresses including Starmer’s big speech on Tuesday.
Blair was Labour’s most successful leader with three general election victories. Corbyn’s appointment as leader in 2015 led to a surge in party membership, but he lost elections in 2017 and 2019.
Times of Israel Staff contributed to this report