“Everybody knows I’m an Arsenal fan. Everybody knows I play football every week. Not everybody knows that I used to have violin lessons with Fatboy Slim when I was in first year of secondary school,” Keir Starmer tells me. We’re sitting in a conference room at the Mechanics Institute in Manchester, just after the launch of his leadership campaign.
“I was humming some tunes, which I’m sure I later heard him singing,” he jokes. ‘Jeremy Corbyn, I have to praise you like I should‘, perhaps? Welcoming the path that the outgoing leader took in turning Labour into a firmly anti-austerity party, he emphasised to me: “It’s very important that we don’t trash the last four years. We shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bath water.”
Unity was the order of the day. The key message from his launch was that he is the person to end the factional in-fighting in the party. His speech was carefully crafted to appeal to those both pro- and anti-Corbyn: “We are not going to trash the last Labour government. But nor are we going to trash the last four years. Jeremy Corbyn made us the party of anti-austerity and he was right to do so… We build on that, we don’t trash it as we go forward.”
Talking afterwards in the side room, we discuss his political reputation among members and that of his opponents. I suggest that many won’t see Keir as the left-wing candidate in the race. But he replies: “Anybody who wants to can look at my track record of the issues and campaigns I’ve been involved in during my life. The only thing that matters in this is whether we elect someone who is both a) capable of winning the next election, and b) capable of bringing about the fundamental change we need to if we’re to deal with inequality in this country. Badging people doesn’t help.”
I ask about his time as a young Labour activist. In particular, his days as co-editor of Socialist Alternative, a small-circulation magazine that has been described as Trotskyist. Perhaps people are not giving him credit for how left-wing he is? Keir explains that the publication took “very much a pluralist approach”. So young Keir wasn’t a Trotskyist? “No,” he laughs.
Moving onto a tricky question that some of the other leadership hopefuls have been tackling, I ask for his thoughts on Scottish independence. “We should put power much closer to people… I would like that to happen across all the regions of England and Wales. But I do believe in the union and I do not think we have made the Labour case for the union strongly enough.”
So, should Labour offer a second referendum? Does the party need to do so in order to win again in Scotland? “No. We should fight the 2021 elections in Scotland; we should make the case for the United Kingdom. Obviously, we will then have to see what the outcome of that election is. If after that there’s a mandate for a referendum, any government will have to consider it.” Basically, he is sticking to the policy that Labour had going into the general election last month.
What is his strategy to reach out to those who voted Leave, and who associate him with the second referendum policy as Labour’s Brexit spokesperson for the past few years? “Well, the reality is that we’re leaving the EU in the next few weeks, and therefore the divide between Leave and Remain goes. It is redundant by February 1st and we all have to accept that. Equally, the case for a second referendum was blown away by the general election. We need to focus intensely on the deal that Johnson is going to get for our country – or even no deal.”
We turn to discussing a future Labour manifesto. Would the rail, mail and water nationalisation still be there under his leadership? Avoiding the specifics of the question, he replies: “The case for nationalisation in most areas is powerfully made. We’re here in Manchester – you don’t have to spend long on the trains in Manchester to find out that most people would like there to be public ownership and a change. Same, actually, across much of the country. In my old world of criminal justice, privatisation has been a disaster: look at the probation service. But I’m very focused on the fact that the next manifesto is likely to be in four or five years time and we need to build towards that manifesto.”
On party democracy, I ask if he supports open selections, sometimes called ‘mandatory reselection’, which would require sitting MPs to seek approval as a candidate before each election. “I do think there has to be a process by which it’s possible to challenge sitting MPs and we need to find out what that process is and to work on it. So I’m not against the principle.” But he adds that he thinks the process the party went through shortly before the election – whereby executive bodies drew up shortlists, and eventually there were wholesale impositions of candidates by selection panels – “didn’t work for anybody, wherever they were in the party”. Perhaps he has in mind the Bassetlaw palaver involving Sally Gimson, an ex-Camden councillor understood to be working on his campaign.
LabourList has heard that the Camden representative once advocated ten-year term limits for MPs at a local meeting. Does he still agree with that idea? He thinks about this for a moment before responding that he’s always talked about this in a broader sense, not just in politics. And he emphasises a need to “allow fresh people to come through as much as possible”. He adds: “I would want to see that in politics – I don’t have a defined limit or anything like that. But I do know fresh ideas, fresh people coming through – that’s always a good thing.”
The MP for Holborn and St Pancras launched his campaign at the Mechanics Institute, the birthplace of the TUC, in Manchester on Saturday afternoon. He was keen to emphasise that he is the unity candidate in the contest. He said Labour must be “united as a party and a movement… factionalism has to go”. The Labour leadership hopeful also stressed the importance of the upcoming local elections.
The candidate was asked about antisemitism in the party. “If you’re antisemitic,” he said, “you should not be in the Labour Party. This is not complicated. If our members support another political party in an election, we throw them out. And we should do the same for antisemitism.” He added: “I will only feel satisfied when people who left our party because of antisemitism feel comfortable enough to come back.”
He was also questioned about a member of his team, Ben Nunn, who once worked as a healthcare lobbyist according to the audience member. The Holborn MP replied that he wouldn’t “tolerate” comments about his staff. “When they make mistakes, I carry the tab. I never turn on my staff and you should never turn on your staff… That is how I will lead our party and that is how I will lead our movement.”
As the deadline for nominations from MPs and MEPs approaches, Keir Starmer has gained more than the required nominations to get through the first phase of the process, with 68 Labour colleagues backing him. He has also secured the support of UNISON, which goes a long way to getting him through the second part of the leadership election. Keir Starmer is the certain frontrunner at this early stage – though another future is possible.