Andrew's Column: Remind you of anywhere?
Keir Starmer is a class political act. He's a lawyer, and, before entering politics, held the very senior post of Director of Public Prosecutions. He's also a credible prime minister - which is not something you could really say of anyone who has led the Labour party over the past ten years.
Something important happened - largely unnoticed by the world - over the past weekend. The British Labour Party got a new leader. He's called Keir Starmer. Sir Keir Starmer, to be precise, though he's not at all posh - he can't be, he lives just down the road from me in North London.
Haven't heard of him? You will!
So to explain why you should care, let me provide a bit of context. It's been a tough decade for the Labour party. Once, under Tony Blair, it looked as if they were Britain's natural party of government. Remind you of any party perhaps a little closer to home? But Labour has been out of power for the past ten years and has been defeated in four successive general elections.
In Britain's last election, not all that long ago, Labour lost catastrophically to a right-of-centre party with a charismatic, populist leader. Part of the problem was that Labour was then led by a guy, Jeremy Corbyn, who didn't convince the electorate that he was up to being prime minister. He wasn't a great orator; he didn't pick the right campaign issues; he was surrounded by a coterie of flunkeys and froze out most of the party's most able politicians. Remind you of anyone?
The parallels go further still. After the last election, Jeremy Corbyn decided he had had enough. It was his second time leading Labour into a general election. Although there had been moments when it seemed as if things were turning his way, Corbyn recognised that there was no way back from another defeat. It was best to stand aside and let someone else pick up the torch and lead the party forward.
Now, this is where the parallels run out. Jeremy Corbyn wasn't born into a political dynasty and he didn't inherit the Labour leadership but won it fair-and-square in a ballot of party members. So when he announced "I'm quitting", the party establishment didn't stand around in a daze wondering what to do, or see if they could prevail upon his sister to step forward or demand that his mother keep the party afloat.
They did what any modern, social-democratic political party should do - and organised an election for a new party leader. That's the contest which Keir Starmer has now won.
It's a hell of a time to take on the job of leader of the opposition: when the world is facing its most profound crisis for a generation, and when even convening a meeting of party leaders or addressing a rally of supporters is out of the question. At times of national emergency, all eyes are on the government: the people in power monopolise media attention and so control the narrative. If opposition leaders say the government is making a mess of things, they risk being seen as divisive at a time when national unity is the need of the hour. If they simply go along with the government's response to the virus, then they fail to meet the key requirement of any major opposition party - to challenge and probe the government's policies, actions, and motives.
Across the democratic world, oppositions are having a very difficult time. In Britain, Labour has - until now - been leaderless and rudderless. In the US, Donald Trump has been broadcasting daily from the Oval Office - a lot of sound if not a lot of sense - while his likely challenger in November, Joe Biden, is holed up in the basement of his home in Delaware. In France and Germany, I'm not sure where to look for an effective opposition. And in India ... well!
Keir Starmer, by the way, is a class political act. He's a lawyer, and, before entering politics, held the very senior post of Director of Public Prosecutions. He's also a credible prime minister - which is not something you could really say of anyone who has led the Labour party over the past ten years. He's putting together a team of all the talents and harnessing the Labour party's best people whether left or right, determined socialist or pragmatic centrist.
He has one huge advantage. Across the world, COVID-19 is pushing governments towards an agenda which is much more in tune with socialism than conservatism: huge state spending; unprecedented public intervention in the economy; vast expansion of health provision; an urgent emphasis on social welfare; a call for social cohesion and mutual care. Once this crisis is over, the voters may well decide they want to be governed by people who by conviction want more investment in health and social care and who will ensure not only that any recession is brief, but that the benefits of recovery are enjoyed first by those most in need.
Politics in Britain is going to get a lot more lively. And even some of the government's supporters say that it's no bad thing to have a strong and effectively-led opposition. Remind you of anywhere?