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24 February 2020updated 09 Sep 2021 4:02pm

Keir Starmer has the values and decency to lead a socialist Labour Party into government

The party needs a leader who can unify it and form an effective, credible opposition. 

By Chi Onwurah Chi Onwurah

This week voting papers drop in what is the fourth Labour leadership contest since I entered parliament in May 2010. Of the 21 candidates I have considered in that time, not one has served as prime minister. That needs to change.   

As I said in January, I want a leader who can unite the party, deliver structural economic change which redistributes wealth creation, rather than simply public spending, who is rooted in our communities, reflects the diversity of our country, sees business as a partner, and who has a sense of humour.

I have huge admiration for all three leadership candidates on the ballot paper and they all score highly, if differently, on my criteria. I look forward to working with whoever is elected. But like any member, I need to make a choice. I believe Lisa Nandy is our most effective media performer and that Rebecca Long-Bailey has been a global leader on the Green Industrial Revolution that the country, and indeed the planet, needs.

But I believe Keir Starmer is the most likely candidate to lead a socialist Labour Party into government in 2024. This is for a number of reasons: firstly, Keir is inherently a decent person. That has been the abiding quality of his politics and his work outside and inside parliament. That will make him a very different type of leader from the one he will be facing at Prime Minister’s Questions. The contrast between Boris Johnson’s privilege-based bluster and Keir’s principle-based knowledge will make us a more effective opposition and enhance our credibility. That is critical to achieving Labour’s first and most important task – to be heard.

Secondly, Keir has always lived and breathed his Labour values, not in theory but in practice. Practice that has been put to the test during a lifetime of personal and professional challenges inside and outside of Westminster. As politics changes, our values should not.

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Thirdly, Keir showed throughout the Brexit negotiations that he could talk to, and perhaps most importantly, listen to everyone in our party. I believe he can do that for the party as we recover from our greatest election defeat since 1935. But more importantly he can do it for our country. Amid all the shouting and lying of the last three years, there was not one moment when Keir was anything other than decent, honest and truthful. These are important qualities.

A leader who unifies the party and turns it into an effective, credible opposition rooted in our Labour values is what we need now. Because these are confusing, tempestuous times for our party. We have been out of power for a decade and face the possibility of another. There are siren calls from different directions: some calling for radical change, some saying we must go back to our “traditional” voters. Some saying we must find new voters. Some saying we are obsolete. There are those who say nationalism has replaced class. There are those who say party politics is dead.

I thought of this as I watched David Copperfield recently. That film, criminally overlooked by the Baftas, shows Britain as it is – multicultural, vibrant, flawed. It is most definitely a film of the 21st century and yet in its energy and morality it reflects Dickens’ intentions better than any “traditional” adaptation I have seen.

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It showed, brutally, the challenges of Dickens’ age – housing, as private landlords crowded families into unsanitary and dangerous homes; access to education with schooling fragmented and exclusive; and precarious working conditions, with the vulnerable, the young and the poor exploited and unable to unionise effectively.

These are all today’s challenges. The nature of work has changed. The level of education has changed. The housing need has changed as the average household size has halved but numbers have risen fivefold. The boom industries have changed – Amazon and the other tech giants rather than railways and textiles. The means of exploitation have changed – algorithmic management at Sports Direct rather than corporal punishment on the factory floor.

And yet the fundamental moral challenges of political and economic life remain what they always have been – will ordinary people have a voice in the decisions that shape our lives, and will we share in the wealth we work so hard to create?  

Just as in the 19th century, the answer has to lie in the Labour movement. When people argue that Labour is obsolete, I think of the 48 per cent of children in Newcastle Central who grow up in poverty, I think of the parents who come to see me in tears because working as hard as they can they still cannot pay for a roof over their head. Yes, the NHS, Labour’s crowning achievement, means that illness is no longer defined by expense but the fact remains that a baby born in Newcastle today will die on average 10 years younger than one born in South Kensington.

Hundreds of thousands of people whose parents and grandparents voted Labour because we were on their side, voted Conservative in December 2020. They voted for change. And we need a Labour leader with the decency, values, and leadership to make Labour the party of their change. I believe Keir Starmer is that leader and he will have my vote.