Labour's acting leader Harriet Harman speaks at the party's HQ in Brewer's Green. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Has Harriet Harman just come out against Andy Burnham?

Labour's acting leader warns the party not to choose "somebody who we can feel comfortable with" but who can "command the confidence of the country". 

Harriet Harman is determined to use her time as Labour's acting leader to do more than merely mind the shop. She wants to move the party to what she regards as a more politically and economically credible position. This is causing tensions with others at the top of Labour. At the most recent shadow cabinet meeting, Andy Burnham warned against offering too little opposition to austerity, prompting Harman to reply: "But Andy, we lost that argument. You may have noticed that we lost the election." Burnham, in the words of one shadow cabinet member, "winced" in response and was not defended by any of his supporters. 

When asked about the exchange on The Sunday Politics, Harman's response was revealing: "I do say to all those people who are going to be voting in the leadership election, think not who you like and who makes you feel comfortable - think who actually will be able to reach out to the public and actually listen to the public and give them confidence, so that we can have a better result next time than we did last time. The point is not to have somebody who we can feel comfortable with, the point is to have somebody who can command the confidence of the country and that's what they should have in their mind. There's no point doing choice in a disappointed rage, we've got to be doing choice for the future."

Her answer sounded like a rejection of Burnham, the frontrunner, who has frequently been attacked as "the comfort zone" candidate and as "continuity Miliband". It could even be interpreted as an endorsement of Liz Kendall ("not to have somebody who we can feel comfortable with"), who is trailing in fourth place having adopted the toughest line of any of the contenders on the deficit and welfare. Harman will not formally endorse any candidate but by making her views so clear, she has intervened decisively in the debate. 

Labour's acting leader also used the interview to announce that the party would not oppose the reduced household benefit cap (£23,000 in London and £20,000 elsewhere) or the two-child limit on tax credits. "We won't oppose the welfare bill, we won't oppose the household benefit cap, I mean, for example, what they've brought forward in relation to restricting benefits and tax credits for people with three or more children. What we've got to do is listen to what people round the country said to us and recognise that we didn't get elected - again ... They want us to listen to their concerns and we've got to recognise why it is that the Tories are in government and not us, not because people love the Tories particularly but because they didn't trust us on the economy and benefits. We have to listen to that and respond." 

Update: An aide to Harman emphasises that she made the same points in her speech at the outset of the leadership contest and that her words should not be interpreted as favourable or disfavourable to any candidate.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Keir Starmer MP: Choosing ideological purity before power is a dereliction of duty

The former director of public prosecutions believes getting involved with Brexit negotiations is crucial. 

 

Three weeks after Brexit, Keir Starmer held a public meeting in his London constituency of Holborn and St Pancras. “We had hundreds turning up,” he remembered. “The town hall was absolutely packed - it was standing room only and we had to turn people away. We haven’t had a public meeting of that size for some time.”

When it comes to Brexit, Starmer is an obvious Labour asset. Director of public prosecutions from 2008 to 2013, he has the legal background to properly scrutinise an EU deal. His time spent as a shadow immigration minister means he understands some of the thorniest problems facing negotiators.

But instead, the MP finds himself on the shadow back benches.

“My decision to resign was driven by Jeremy’s decision on the referendum,” he told The Staggers. “I was particularly troubled by his suggestion that we should invoke Article 50 straight away, and start the exit process [Corbyn has since backtracked on this suggestion]. 

“That is not for me a question of left-right politics. When he said that, I felt he was in fundamentally a different place from me in terms of how we fight for the future of our country.”

Starmer is not a man to enjoy life in opposition, and he has little time for airy promises. “Jeremy talks of dealing with inequality and housing projects, and a fairer society - all of which I would agree,” he said. “What I haven’t seen is the emergence of detailed policy that would get us to these places.”

He also gives purists in the party short shrift. “I would reject wholeheartedly any notion of a Labour Party that is not committed to returning to power at the first opportunity,” he said. “Of course that needs to be principled power. But standing on the sidelines looking for the purest ideology is a dereliction of the duty for any Labour member.”

Starmer believes Labour should be joining Scottish and Northern Irish leaders in trying to influence Brexit negotiations. He sees the time before invoking Article 50, the EU exit button, as crucial. 

Nevertheless, the man named after the Scottish founder of Labour, Keir Hardie, is pessimistic about the future of the UK. 

“It is going to be increasingly difficult to resist a further referendum in Scotland,” he said. “It will be increasingly difficult to keep Scotland as a part of the UK. I hope that doesn’t happen, but everyone knows David Cameron has put that at risk.”

Starmer may be a London MP, but he follows events in the rest of the country closely. While still in his shadow cabinet post, he embarked on a countrywide tour to learn more about attitudes to immigration.  

He condemns the increase in racist attacks post-Brexit as “despicable”, but insists there is “a world of difference” between these and genuine concerns about resources. “If you lose your job because there has been an influx of labour from another country, that is a legitimate cause for concern.”

He is equally scathing about the Government’s net migration cap. “If immigration is simply seen as a numbers game, nobody will ever win that debate,” he said. “The question should be: what is it we want to achieve?

“What do we expect of those who are arriving? What is the basic deal?”

In January, Starmer visited the informal camps in Calais and Dunkirk. “What I saw in Calais was appalling,” he said. “It is an hour from London. 

“To see families and children in freezing, squalid conditions without any real hope of a positive outcome was enough to make anybody think: ‘This is not the way to solve the refugee crisis.’”

The new PM, Theresa May, built her reputation on a rigid asylum policy, but Starmer believes a strong opposition can still force change. “If you take the Syrian resettlement scheme, that started life as a scheme for victims of sexual violence,” he said. “When pushed, it became a scheme for 20,000 Syrians but not if they reached Europe. When pushed, the Government accepted the case for some unaccompanied children in Europe to come to this country. 

“Labour needs to keep pushing.”

For now, though, Labour is divided. Starmer has been tipped as a future leader before, in 2015, but declined to run because of a lack of political experience. One year and a Brexit on, he certainly has some of that under his belt. But he rules himself out of the current leadership challenge: “I am 100 per cent behind Owen.” What will he do if Jeremy Corbyn wins? “Let’s cross each bridge when we come to it.”

Starmer is clear, though, that Labour can only win an election if it comes up with a more ambitious project, an economy with purpose. And the Brexit negotiations provide an opportunity. “We have to ask ourselves,” he said. “Do we simply want a series of trade agreements, the more the merrier? Or do we want deals that achieve certain ends? It is a moment to recast the future.”