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20 January 2020

Usdaw puts Keir Starmer onto the Labour leadership ballot – but at whose cost?

The shopworkers’ union’s nomination highlights the narrow path facing Jess Phillips, Emily Thornberry – and even Lisa Nandy – to the final stage of the contest. 

By Patrick Maguire

Keir Starmer is through to the final stage of the Labour leadership election after securing the nomination of Usdaw, the shopworkers’ union and the party’s fourth-largest affiliate, his second trade union and third affiliate endorsement.

As one of the more generally Corbynsceptic members of the Big Five trade unions, there had been some speculation that Usdaw – who have also backed Angela Rayner for deputy leader – might have nominated Jess Phillips rather than the shadow Brexit secretary, who already boasts nominations from Unison and the Socialist Environment and Resources Association.

But the reality is that Phillips, whose media profile obscures her lack of viable paths to the ballot, was never likely to succeed via the affiliate route anyway. It is only a blow to her insofar as Unite’s expected failure to endorse her this Friday will also be a blow: something that wasn’t going to happen anyway has indeed failed to happen.

One contender who might be smarting, however, is Emily Thornberry, who on Friday urged the unions not to “keep the gates closed” to second-tier candidates. At this stage, however, there is little factional incentive for broadly Corbynsceptic affiliates from the party’s right that might, if one squinted, have at one stage been chalked up as possible backers of candidates whose names were neither Keir Starmer nor Rebecca Long-Bailey – like Usdaw, Community, and the Labour Party Irish Society – to back anyone but a winner.

Just as the likes of the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union, the Fire Brigades Union and Aslef will likely nominate Long-Bailey, the reverse is true of non-Corbynite unions, whose natural home at this point is very clearly Starmer. That he has qualified via the affiliate route with several weeks to spare now raises a more interesting question: will Constituency Labour Parties continue to nominate him at a clip? Of the 14 to have declared so far, Starmer has won the backing of 11 – and now needs no more.

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On current evidence, he will continue to rack up nominations: CLPs, like the unions, are using their power of endorsement to indicate a preference regardless of how close, or not, a given candidate is to reaching the ballot. That’s why Starmer and Rayner, whose nomination by Usdaw also saw her qualify for the next round, are on 11 and nine nominations respectively, while Thornberry and Phillips are on none. It’s in this respect that Usdaw’s decision, expected though it is, hurts them: in clarifying that there are, when push comes to shove, only two potential winners in Starmer and Long-Bailey.

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Nor does Starmer intend to take it easy: in an email to supporters this evening, he stressed that he will keep pushing for CLP nominations. Whereas in previous elections frontrunners have leant gatekeeping nominations to no-hopers, it is clear there will be no repeat this time

And that raises an uncomfortable question for the fifth contender: Lisa Nandy. Though it has long been assumed that the GMB will tomorrow hand her a second union endorsement, some senior figures on its executive favour Starmer. With the other swing union, Unison, having swung behind one of the two frontrunners, and Usdaw having joined them, it is easy to see how their hand is strengthened and that of the union’s Nandyites weakened.