As the Labour leadership contest enters its next stage, journalist Aaron Bastani delves deep into the Keir Starmer, the current front runner, asking who or what it is he truly represents.

As the Labour leadership contest enters its next stage, writer Aaron Bastani delves deep into the current front runner, asking who or what it is he truly represents.

There are many worthy attributes for the rising politician: a catalogue of accomplishment in a previous profession, the ability to think on one’s feet, a talent in capturing the zeitgeist – particularly at historic turning points. Foremost among them, though, is to give just enough away to just enough people. In my lifetime the British politician most effective at that was Tony Blair, although Barack Obama was even better across the Atlantic. Both had other gifts of course but, when they arrived on the scene, they could create rapport with a crowd regardless of class or creed.

Such a talent is also helpful in internal party politics. When Harold Wilson won the Labour leadership in 1963 – he went on to win four elections – the party’s left intuited he was really one of them. And yet the right felt similarly, happy that Wilson would imitate their rhetoric and was always happy to listen. You can’t be all things to all people, but in politics you have to at least try.

Which brings us to Keir Starmer, Labour’s shadow Brexit secretary and favourite to become its next leader. A former Director of Public Prosecutions, Starmer reached the zenith of his career before turning 50 – gaining a knighthood in the process – and is equipped with arguably the most impressive ever CV of any applicant for Labour’s top job. More importantly, and why he is presently the favourite, is because like Wilson he appeals to both sides of his party.

Yet with politics ever more polarised, and electoral winners liable to triumph on the back of personality and rupture rather than consensus, that raises a critical question: what does Keir Starmer really stand for?

After his campaign published a video on social media we certainly know what Starmer would like us to think. This is the young man at Wapping in 1986, who stood alongside striking print workers as they defied the Murdoch empire; the rising lawyer who gave pro bono advice to arrestees after the Poll Tax riot; the activist who – as New Labour led Britain to war – marched against conflict in Iraq and even published a legal opinion warning against it in The Guardian

Yet there is another Keir Starmer – one who is less alluring to a party membership which previously voted twice for Jeremy Corbyn. This is the Director of Public Prosecutions who initially chose not to prosecute the police officer involved in the death of Ian Tomlinson; the candidate who insists on an end to factionalism and yet, three years ago, withdrew from Jeremy Corbyn’s shadow cabinet calling on him to resign; the new MP who chose to not vote against the Tory party’s now infamous Welfare Bill during its second reading in 2015.

Just weeks into his leadership bid Starmer presents something of an enigma. There is no doubting the authenticity of his activist credentials, nor his decades-long commitment, and yet these fail to entirely match with the public figure of more recent times, whose political judgement has, as an elected MP, frequently erred. Of perhaps greatest concern is how many of those who dedicated themselves to obstructing the party’s leadership under Corbyn, now support a man who claims the 2017 manifesto should be the “cornerstone” for the party going forward.

One might argue such a contradiction reveals the extent to which Corbyn’s tenure transformed the party’s common sense – the idea someone who marched against Iraq would be the choice of the party’s right seemed implausible five years ago. Perhaps, one line of thinking runs, this is a case of the left not realising they’ve won.

“Keir has always been a socialist and is on the left of the Labour party,” one Corbyn-supporting policy expert told me, “he opposed Iraq and has taken on powerful corporations such as Shell and McDonald’s – as well as the Murdoch Press. Because he is measured and dresses smartly the content-free Blairites are doing everything they can to claim him.” 

For this person, who had the ear of Labour’s leadership up until election day, any rejection of Starmer by the party’s left would be a historic misjudgement: “they need to fight hard to keep him true to who he’s always been”.

Whatever ambiguity elsewhere, few doubt the right of the party are trying to render Starmer as one of their own. In the West Midlands, the political base of rival candidate Jess Phillips, one activist told me they were surprised she had stepped forward: “all of the right here is backing Keir – I can’t see her support. Him running is why she won’t do well”.

Such misgivings were compounded by the recent decision to hire Matt Pound, a full time organiser for the right wing Labour First. Though Starmer’s campaign team also includes Simon and Cat Fletcher – both of whom worked for Corbyn and hold more senior positions – neither is factional, while Pound is the very definition of it. One campaigner on the left who is familiar with the process offered a reasonable explanation, however: “It makes sense because Starmer wants to tap into Labour First’s ground game for CLPs – there is a calculation there, like anything, and you weigh it up”.

As well as the backing and active support of the party’s right, Starmer has gained endorsements from MPs who relentlessly attacked not only Jeremy Corbyn, but the party’s membership. One is Thangam Debbonaire, MP for Bristol West. Appearing on Radio 4’s ‘Any Questions’ last Friday, she insinuated that another guest – Novara Media’s Ash Sarkar – should be expelled from the party. When I spoke to Sarkar she was surprised: “I was told I was unwelcome in the party I campaigned for. It seems there’s a significant portion of Labour MPs who see Starmer’s candidacy as a chance to purge the left. I’d be keen to see if he’s willing to refute it.”

Such misgivings aren’t helped by the fact Starmer’s leadership bid has been brewing for some time. One former Labour staffer told me his positioning on Brexit – he declared remain was “still an option” in his 2018 conference speech without consulting the leadership – was primarily about ensuring he would replace the Islington MP: “looking back that was the day we lost the election and he won the leadership”. Yet they also accepted responsibility went both ways: “the mistake was in not pushing back, it made Labour’s position incomprehensible”.

At his launch event in Manchester last weekend, where Starmer said the 2017 manifesto should be the cornerstone of what Labour does next, there was a muted response from the audience when he spoke about the failure of trickle down economics. That indifference suggests the politics of those most passionate, at least for now, regarding his candidacy. Whoever prevails in April the battle for the party’s soul may remain unfinished. The contest to determine Keir Starmer’s ‘true’ politics could be the battle to define Labour’s.

Follow Aaron Bastani on Twitter.

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