As Labour’s leadership race thins the contenders down from the impossible to the merely improbable next Labour prime minister, the winner of the January steeplechase is Sir Keir Starmer. On Monday, he secured 89 votes of MPs as the centrist candidate to Rebecca Long-Bailey’s 33. Early polls among the Labour membership give him a head start of 13 per cent in YouGov’s assessment of voting intentions at the start of the year.
What could possibly go wrong? Listening to The News Quiz on Radio Four, the running joke about Starmer from one adoring panellist was that he was too gorgeous to be true. This is not necessarily a disadvantage. Rumour has it Starmer was the model for Mark Darcy in Bridget Jones’s Diary (as opposed to Boris Johnson’s dastardly Daniel Cleaver). There are worse things that could happen to you in politics. Even Starmer’s good looks are reliably Labour-ish, with his snooker-player’s side parting and quiff.
But leadership contests are hard on the front-runner, who will remain at the epicentre of the fight until the final result in April, carrying the weight of the only question that matters in this contest: what would Starmer do to revive a party that suffered its worst electoral defeat since the Thirties?
His campaign to date has largely been a fight against his own self-image. He has a knighthood — in recognition for his services as director of public prosecutions. This is a common recompense for a thankless job full of pitfalls and negative headlines, but if you accept an establishment title, you should expect to be called by it.
Ditto the allegation that you are “posh”. Starmer does indeed come from very ordinary circumstances and rose through brains and hard work (and the grammar-school system). It is a meritocratic rise, but took place in a party that has become fixated on equality at the expense of any reassessment of how it might support aspiration and self-reliance (a great gift to the Tories).
There are worse fates in politics than to be rumoured as the model for Mark Darcy in Bridget Jones’s Diary
Proclaiming that “my background isn’t what they think it is” works more as a trap than an opportunity. You can never be “prolier-than-though” enough for those who equate political goodness with class war. So a Starmer video showing his defence of miners, print workers and striking dockers reminded me of the Labour Party which kept losing to Margaret Thatcher — defined by its martyrs and lost causes.
Starmer knows that his major weakness is the flip side of the Mark Darcy adulation among those who cannot get enough of Human Rights Act-living lawyers — the “centrist dad” accusation of rampant moderation.
His one area of strong definition was his campaign for a second Brexit referendum — which he now accepts is over. That is undoubtedly pragmatic but it leaves a hole in the heart of his leadership bid. The message now is that he wants the radicalism of Jeremy Corbyn, without his policies — or fewer of them, except for rail nationalisation as the one major tilt to state ownership.
But why only one — and why the railways? And would the Starmer of today still be fighting for the rights of print workers on the same terms? It’s a lot easier to signal that you did not like Rupert Murdoch in the Eighties than it is to make the case that these ancient enmities have any relevance today.
We would gain more from knowing what he makes of the dominance of the Google and Facebook duopoly or how workers’ rights can be protected while encouraging innovation and growth.
At the other end of the Labour spectrum, Starmer is accused of tacking too close to the agenda of the Conservatives during his time at the Crown Prosecution Service — upbraided for colluding in Tory toughness on “benefit cheats”.
Team Starmer has clarified that he “issued guidelines for the CPS relating to the applicability of the Fraud Act to benefit and tax credit fraud — in other words, he was simply doing his job. It is, nonetheless, a reminder that the role of top prosecutor is an exposed one to have occupied if you intend to run for high office in politics.
The Starmer cause is not a doomed one, because he is the cleverest candidate in the race, and there are enough doubts among members and even the unions about the threat of a simple rinse-and-repeat of the Corbyn experiment, to give him a shot at victory. But a vagueness on where he stands on the ideological spectrum ends up in convoluted manoeuvres. Claims that the Corbyn election manifesto was “overloaded” seems to run too close to a defence of the losing team — intimating that there were so many good things in it that a dopey electorate got confused about how wonderful it was.
In many ways though, heartland voters were a lot less muddled than the Labour elites vying to lead them. They saw through the party’s vagaries on Europe, didn’t much fancy another round of Brexit uncertainty and ascertained that the road to better security and prosperity did not lie in Corbyn’s world view or the Corbynite economic prospectus. As forensic a cross-examiner of Boris Johnson as Starmer would undoubtedly be, he also needs to be the candidate who starts to tell the unvarnished truth to his party. Labour cannot motor along for much longer on the idea that the other guy got Brexit-lucky, and by lecturing about Johnson’s lack of a “moral compass”.
At heart, Starmer is a realist who must realise the likelihood of overturning a hefty Johnson majority in five years is slim, and so is the chance of getting there in the political lifetime of a single Labour leader. Because the hurdle is so high, there is no point in pretending this can be achieved through an overindulgence in polemic and pulling heartstrings. Radical Keir has the charm and brains to lead the field. But the top job needs steel, too. Better start forging it now.
Anne McElvoy is senior editor at The Economist