LONDON (Reuters) – Keir Starmer was elected as the leader of Britain’s main opposition Labour Party on Saturday, pledging to bring an end to years of bitter infighting and to work with the government to contain the raging coronavirus pandemic.
Starmer, a former director of public prosecutions who was known for a forensic attention to detail when opposing the country’s exit from the European Union, won with 56% of the vote.
The comprehensive defeat of an ally of the outgoing leader Jeremy Corbyn, and the election of Angela Rayner as Starmer’s deputy, heralds the end of the party leadership’s embrace of a radical socialism that was crushed in the December election.
Starmer, who takes over immediately, said he would work constructively with government when it was the right thing to do, while testing Conservative Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s arguments and challenging the failures.
“Our purpose when we do that is the same as the government’s, to save lives,” he said in a statement that was pre-recorded due to the pandemic.
Starmer added that once the country emerges on the other side, once the hospital wards have emptied and the threat subsided, it would need to build a fairer society, where key workers on the front line receive decent salaries and better chances in life.
“In their courage and their sacrifice and their bravery, we can see a better future. This crisis has brought out the resilience and human spirit in all of us,” he said.
Johnson said on Twitter he had congratulated Starmer and the two agreed on the importance of working together.
The party of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown endured its worst election performance since 1935 in December, when infighting over strategy, a confused policy over Brexit and allegations of unchecked anti-Semitism turned traditional voters away.
Starmer pushed for a second Brexit referendum but said the election result had “blown away” that argument.
Corbyn ally Rebecca Long-Bailey came second in the party’s vote with 28% and Lisa Nandy was third with 16%.
Many centrist Labour politicians celebrated the result as a sign that the government would finally face proper scrutiny.
“A fresh Labour leader will challenge the Tories where necessary and give the party the chance to renew itself in time for the next election,” Alf Dubs, an opposition Labour lord who fled to Britain as a child to escape the Nazis, told Reuters.
Starmer acknowledged the scale of the task ahead.
Well ahead in opinion polls, Johnson’s Conservatives have also occupied much of traditional Labour territory, with the coronavirus crisis prompting the ruling party to deliver unprecedented state support to workers and businesses.
“This is my pledge to the British people. I will do my utmost to guide us through these difficult times, to serve all of our communities and to strive for the good of our country,” Starmer said.
“I will lead this great party into a new era, with confidence and with hope.”
Additional reporting by Elizabeth Piper; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Frances Kerry