Keir Starmer: what’s not to like? Critics of the early favourite for the Labour leadership – almost all of them on the left of the party – already have a sizeable list. Despite the tone and content of his early interventions in the race, they argue that he is not really a candidate of the left but rather a standard-bearer for unreconstructed Corbynscepticism who can only deepen the party’s malaise.
Starmer’s detractors point to his abstention on the second reading of the Welfare Reform Bill in the summer of 2015 – a crucial milestone on Corbyn’s road to the leadership – his resignation from the frontbench in June 2016, and his support for Owen Smith in the leadership election that followed. They also argue, as optimistic Tories do, that one of the chief architects of Labour’s second referendum policy – and a millionaire lawyer from a North London constituency to boot – cannot and will not reconnect with voters in Leave constituencies in the North and Midlands. There has also been criticism of his record as Director of Public Prosecutions, in particular a 2013 decision to increase the maximum sentence for benefit fraud to 10 years.
Starmer’s campaign thus far has been an exercise in dispelling these criticisms. Yes, he has criticised Corbyn, albeit implicitly, on anti-Semitism and the leadership’s factional way of doing business. But soft-launching in an interview with the Guardian last month, the shadow Brexit secretary criticised the Labour governments of 1997 to 2010 made clear there would be no drastic ideological shift should he win – his insistence that Labour should not “oversteer” on policy has become the watchword of his leadership bid.
Significantly, he has also admitted that the argument for a second referendum had been lost, while Jenny Chapman, the shadow Brexit minister who lost her seat in Brexit-backing Darlington last month, is making the case for his leadership in the media. Jo Platt, who lost her seat in Leigh, starred in a recent campaign video. The message to the Labour selectorate is simple: the only thing a vote for Starmer changes about Labour is its ability to win elections. It is hammered home in some length in his official launch video, released tonight.
I believe another future is possible – but we have to fight for it.
That’s why I’m standing to be leader of the Labour Party.
— Keir Starmer (@Keir_Starmer) January 4, 2020
As with every one of his interventions thus far, it tackles popular criticisms of Starmer with force but without acknowledging them directly. The opening monologue, delivered by a former miner in a thick Yorkshire accent, offers a lengthy testimony of his work defending trade union interests – partly a play for the nominations needed to make the ballot. Environmental bona fides are also stressed and Doreen Lawrence, mother of murdered teenager Stephen, gives a heartfelt personal endorsement. As well as highlighting his opposition to the Iraq War, he recalls suing the last Labour government over its denial of welfare payments to asylum seekers, and launching prosecutions over the expenses and phone hacking scandals.
The subtext is that Starmer is the real continuity candidate – in this selective and well-crafted telling, at least, he was to New Labour in the courts what Jeremy Corbyn was in the division lobbies – and that he really means it when he says, as he does when he finally appears after three minutes of archive footage, that he wants an alternative to free-market economics, a Green New Deal, and a human-rights based foreign policy.
Will it ensure his clear lead in the first YouGov poll of the contest holds up? Labour MPs think so. The consensus among them is that it is by far the best opening pitch yet. One describes it as “red meat” for the membership. “It’s the best because he’s by far the best candidate,” is the gushing verdict of another frontbencher. Several more who nominated Andy Burnham (Bill Esterson, Alex Cunningham, Carolyn Harris and Wayne David) and Yvette Cooper (Marie Rimmer) in 2015 have taken their endorsements public in response. It is as promising a start as Starmer could have asked for ahead of a week that will make or break candidates’ chances of meeting the 21 MP threshold for nomination: the parliamentary Labour party will host hustings on Monday and Tuesday.
That isn’t to say that challenges don’t remain. Will the combination of loyalism and conviction convince against the Corbynite candidates? Can he win over at least some trade unions? Will his five years as DPP prove a net liability? The answers to these questions won’t be clear until the contest begins in earnest. But Starmer has moved early to seize control of the narrative.