Before the ballot opens next month, the Labour leadership election is a contest for endorsements. Keir Starmer has won the support of Unison, the UK’s largest trade union; Rebecca Long-Bailey has the backing of Momentum and is also expected to win the Unite nomination.
But what of Labour’s most senior elected representative, Sadiq Khan? The Mayor of London, who is on course to be comfortably re-elected this May, voted for Andy Burnham in 2015 (having nominated Jeremy Corbyn) and endorsed Owen Smith in 2016.
Team Khan’s current position is that the mayor won’t endorse any candidate this time around. But there is reason to believe this could change – and Starmer is the most likely beneficiary.
The two men both hail from Labour’s soft left and have known each other for more than 20 years as fellow human rights lawyers (Khan was a solicitor at Christian Khan and Starmer a barrister at Doughty Street). The pair worked together on cases including one challenging the first use of kettling by the Metropolitan Police at the 2001 May Day demonstrations.
When Starmer became a Labour MP in 2015, it was Khan whom he endorsed for the party’s London mayoral nomination, writing in the New Statesman: “As a dynamic human rights lawyer, Sadiq made his name rooting out injustice and righting wrongs. He was never afraid to take on powerful vested interests in the government, the police or the prison service. This is precisely what we need in a mayor.
“I first came across Sadiq as a young lawyer when I was a barrister. Even then, I could see that Sadiq went the extra mile for his clients. He could have taken the easy option of working in the City but instead he opted for the unglamorous world of human rights, choosing to stand up for the vulnerable, the abused and the marginalised.”
During the Corbyn era, the pair’s political positions were often aligned: they both backed Owen Smith during the 2016 leadership election – while intermittently praising Corbyn – and later championed the cause of a second Brexit referendum.
Starmer’s campaign team includes Ellie Robinson, a former senior City Hall adviser to Khan, as director of stakeholder engagement, and Kat Fletcher, who worked closely with Khan’s team as Labour’s deputy London director, as head of field operations. Ed Miliband, whose 2010 leadership campaign was managed by Khan, is among the many soft-left MPs and Khan allies to have backed Starmer.
Back in 2016, Khan waited until the contest’s closing month – two days before voting began – to endorse Smith. Starmer will be hoping that history repeats itself.