Andrew Coates looks at the main leadership candidates and finds Keir Starmer best placed to take the party forward
The December General Election was a disaster for Labour with 32% of the vote to the Conservatives’ 44%. With a call to “Get Brexit done”, Boris Johnson won a majority of 80 seats. Labour did not coherently confront this issue during the election. It dangled the possibility of a better Brexit while offering the possibility of a second referendum to make the final choice. This failed to counter an image of Labour’s leader as “unfit to hold high office”. The party’s stream of ambitious policy announcements did not convince electors otherwise.
Hopes for a Corbyn-led left populism may be at an end, but is a transformative socialist project still possible? As the campaign for a new Labour leader and deputy leader reaches the final stage, front-runners have made their pitch.
Lisa Nandy has opposed austerity, defended European freedom of movement, opposed racism and “divisive nationalism”. Nandy’s call to win back those who voted Brexit in seats lost to the Conservatives has seen her gain support from the traditional, pre-Blair, Labour right.
Rebecca Long-Bailey, seen as the “continuity Corbyn” candidate, has criticised Labour’s election campaign but defended its policies, including plans for public ownership. She floated the idea of “progressive patriotism”. Making a ‘Green New Deal’ the centrepiece of her platform she follows other European left parties. Momentum and smaller left-Labour groups have instructed the left to support her.
Keir Starmer has a background on the radical left, including, during the 1980s, editorship of the magazine Socialist Alternatives. He was active in the Socialist Society, the forerunner of the magazine Red Pepper. During the 1990s Starmer was a respected human rights barrister, involved in cases such as the McLibel trial. Appointed under the last Labour government as Director of Public Prosecutions (2008–2013), his record is open to the controversies this position entails.
Starmer has not been a supporter of Jeremy Corbyn. As Shadow Home Secretary in 2016 he resigned in protest at the leadership. Appointed Shadow Brexit Secretary in the same year he expressed the view, shared by a majority of Labour members, that there should be a public vote on any Brexit deal. Many of the Corbyn inner-circle were strongly against this policy.
In the leadership election Starmer has called for party unity. Reflecting a consensus he opposes austerity, and has taken over a key Corbyn and McDonnell policy on redistributive taxation. Starmer now argues for reintroducing European freedom of movement. He has strongly criticised the Trump Peace Plan for Israel and Palestine.
Starmer resonates with the Labour membership because he is seen as competent and open-minded. There is no ‘cult’. Paul Mason has described him as on the left, with solid values, seen in his record on human rights. A moral socialism could help to bring the party together, as would the removal of factionalists from positions of power. He looks the best placed to undertake the strategic review Labour needs. The space for coherent policies, some building on the work of the teams around John McDonnell and not a leadership clique, would be welcome. As somebody who first met Keir Starmer in Paris in 1985, and as part of the pro-European radical left, somebody not that far from our politics is somebody to support. The wider public seem to agree: Keir Starmer would make a good Labour leader.