Of the three candidates still in the running to become the next leader of the Labour Party, it is Sir Keir Starmer who is predicted to claim victory on April 4. He has secured the most nominations from MPs and local Labour groups, as well as the backing of several major unions and former prime minister Gordon Brown. With promises that he will retain Labour’s ‘radical socialist tradition’, while bringing members together from across the political spectrum, Starmer is widely considered to be someone who is ‘electable’: someone who can win like Tony Blair while still retaining the most appealing parts of Jeremy Corbyn’s legacy.
But how exactly Starmer plans to win cross-party support has raised some questions within the party. Labour’s membership increased from under 200,000 to over half a million under Corbyn and it is feared that a move away from his politics would undermine the very reasons that inspired people to join the party. In his ten pledges, Starmer has made some concessions to the 2019 manifesto, laying out support for ‘economic justice’, ‘climate justice’, and ‘common ownership’, policies which have also been popular outside of the Labour membership. Starmer is keen to create his own political identity as neither a Blairite nor a ‘Corbynista’, instead opting for a message of ‘unity’ in his campaign, which he argues will be essential for Labour to win the next election.
Starmer’s decision to bring Simon Fletcher – who helped to run Corbyn’s leadership bid – onto his team, is a clear attempt to win over the so-called ‘left’ of the party: but other choices of staff tell a different story. These include Matt Pound, who headed the Corbynsceptic group Labour First and Ben Nunn, who has lobbied in favour of the private health sector. For many, Starmer’s version of unity risks compromising the socialist values that he claims to hold dear.
A recent survey of Labour members found that supporters of Starmer, along with Lisa Nandy and Jess Phillips (who is no longer in the race) were most likely to compromise on some Labour values if this meant making Labour more electable. This points to what many of the concerns about a Starmer leadership are centred on – that his willingness to compromise could simply mean a return to Blairite policies and give a greater platform to the right of the party. Given that almost a third of current Labour members left under Blair and Brown and then returned under Corbyn, fears over what a return to the centre could mean for the membership are not unfounded.
When asked about his political leanings, Starmer has pointed to his extensive legal career, where he claims to have fought tirelessly for the “powerless against the powerful.” But even this calls for further scrutiny. In his role as Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP), Starmer helped to enforce harsher sentencing for those committing benefit fraud, with the maximum sentence increasing from seven to ten years. When he has been pulled up on this, he has responded that he did not have a choice in the cases which he fought as DPP.
An inability to act against the grain has also cropped up elsewhere in Starmer’s career. In 2015, he followed the orders of interim leader, Harriet Harman, and abstained from a vote on the second reading of the Conservatives’ Welfare Reform Bill, which reduced the maximum amount of benefits that a household can receive and scrapped legally binding child poverty targets. Rebel MPs who defied orders and voted against the bill included Jeremy Corbyn and Starmer’s leadership rival, Rebecca Long Bailey. If Starmer is willing to compromise values which are at Labour’s core, then this could put his suitability to be leader into question.
Starmer is best known for his work as Shadow Brexit Secretary and architect of Labour’s second referendum policy. This was in itself a compromise: an attempt to appease the strong ‘Remain’ voice within Labour while supposedly giving ‘Leave’ voters the chance to reconsider whether they still wanted to leave the EU. It was this failure to take a side that caused Labour to lose credibility among voters and Starmer’s hand in this has raised doubts over his suitability to lead the party in an election.
When the people of this country voted for a Conservative government in December, they did so because they wanted radical change. Labour failed to convince them that they were the party best placed to achieve this. Labour’s next leader must show that it is only through mass economic reform, not a Conservative-led Brexit, that this change can truly happen, while holding Boris Johnson accountable and refusing to compromise the values which underpin Labour. Unless Keir Starmer can do this, his future electability is anything but guaranteed.