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13 December 2016updated 07 Jun 2021 8:03am

Keir Starmer: National interest more important than by-elections

By Julia Rampen

Politicians who try to capitalise on the deep divides exposed by Brexit “don’t deserve” to govern, the shadow Brexit minister has said. 

Keir Starmer made the comments when The Staggers asked about the rise of the Liberal Democrats in recent by-elections, and Labour’s electoral prospects.

Starmer said: “This is a time for grown-up politics where political parties think about the national interest and not short-term party interests. 

“Any party that wants to govern this country cannot do so by only speaking to half a nation. It won’t do so, and it doesn’t deserve to do so.”

Society, he said, is “more divided than at any time in my life” and that divide can be deep and bitter. The Tories are appealing only to the 52 per cent, he argued, while the Lib Dems are focused squarely on the 48 per cent. 

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Starmer acknowledged that “Labour’s position is more difficult” in aiming for “the 100 per cent” but he said it was better to have a “mature reflection of what is in the national interest” rather than being driven by “a by-election that might happen in a month or two”. 

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He added: “We don’t want to take advantage of the political fracture that has emerged.”

Labour’s candidates in two recent by-elections have lost their deposits, while the Lib Dems have enjoyed a surge in support. 

Questioned about the party’s leadership, Starmer said the biggest challenge was the Leave-Remain divide.

He said: “We have MPs who represent Remain-voting constituencies, and we have MPs who represent Leave areas. That is the make-up of the Labour party, and that is actually nothing to do with the leader of the Labour party .”

Starmer made the comments after a major speech on Brexit, where he laid out Labour’s strategy for holding the government to account, and described the negotiations as “the battle of our times”.

He said that although the Opposition will not block Article 50, and is not calling for a second referendum, it does not intend to hand the government “a blank cheque” and instead could propose amendments if the deal is not satisfactory. 

Labour could also join in cross-party talks, he indicated.

Asked about the party’s divided opinion on immigration, he said it must “accept that freedom of movement can be negotiated” and that the “direction of travel needs to be downwards”.

Nevertheless, he slammed the government’s migration target as “completely discredited”. 

What we learnt about Labour’s Brexit strategy

Side-step the immigration vs free trade debate

Starmer repeatedly tried to distinguish between the EU in theory and what could be achieved in practice through negotiation. He has also tried to unpick both concepts, saying the most important thing for businesses is compatible regulation and tariff-free trade, while voters are worried about specific migration pressures. He said he believed the best solution would be a “bespoke” deal. 

Support the government – up to a point

Last week, Starmer scored a victory when he managed to get the government to support a motion in favour of a Brexit plan. He believes a significant number of Tory MPs are also worried about a hard Brexit, and there is a majority against this in the House of Commons. For now, at least, he doesn’t see the point of deliberately obstructing the path to Brexit. 

Use “tests” to amend the Brexit plan

Rather than opposing the government’s plan for the sake of it, Starmer said the Opposition would consider it against a series of tests, such as transparency and whether it allows bodies like the Office for Budget Responsibility and parliamentary select committees to hold the government to account.