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20 November 2019updated 08 Jun 2021 11:25am

Keir Starmer’s Labour leadership rivals have reason to fear him

By Stephen Bush

He’s running: Keir Starmer has told the Guardian he is “seriously considering” running for the Labour leadership (this is code for “yes, I am running, but I don’t want to look like I’m jumping the gun”) in a wide-ranging interview.

His pitch: that Labour should have done more to tackle anti-Semitism and been a broader church (this is a polite way of saying “wow, there was a lot of dead wood in the shadow cabinet”), but that the party “shouldn’t oversteer”, adding that “the case for a bold and radical Labour government is as strong now as it was last Thursday”. This is code for: “don’t worry, I’m not going to abandon the platform”. And he’s said that the case for a second referendum has been “swept away” by the referendum result. He’s talked about his background, something he has been reluctant to do publicly, saying, yes, in the year 2019 he is a high-powered lawyer and MP for a safe seat in godless north London, but his father was a toolmaker and his mother a nurse.

That’s exactly where, if you’re Starmer, you want the leadership race to be fought: a contest about the qualities of the candidate rather than about the party platform. You can see the argument: what Labour needs is a strong leader who can expose the contradictions in the Tory programme, rather than to uproot its own programme. And who better than a former director of public prosecutions?

The argument isn’t guaranteed to work but if you asked me to script the ideal roll-out for Starmer, you couldn’t do better than this interview, which comes after two northern Labour women – Jenny Chapman, who lost her seat on Thursday, and Bridget Philipson, who saw her majority fall – both published versions of the same argument: that what happened last week wasn’t because Jeremy Corbyn was a man with a north London constituency.

It’s possible to overdose on cynicism on that part: as I wrote at the time, Labour’s 2015 intake was pretty left wing, with not just its big names like Rebecca Long-Bailey, Angela Rayner and Clive Lewis, but the likes of Louise Haigh, Rachael Maskell, and Justin Madders. Just because pitching to the left is in Starmer’s interests doesn’t mean he’s putting on an act. And north London contains multitudes: Islington was the home of Jeremy Corbyn and Tony Blair and Boris Johnson for that matter. Hackney is the home of Diane Abbott and the home of Yvette Cooper. Hampstead is the home of Tulip Siddiq and the home of Ed Milib-ok, that one’s less of a contrast, but you get the point. The Chapman-Philipson argument has more than a grain of truth.

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That said, Starmer’s argument and roll-out is exactly where he needs to be pitching himself if he has any hope of winning this contest. His rivals have reason to fear him.