As the Labour leadership campaign starts in earnest there’s a clamour from the liberal left for Keir Starmer to be seen as the only viable candidate. Keir reminds them of how they prefer to see themselves: the "grown-ups" in the room. They like him because he’s bright and looks like his house has a subtle whiff of Arabica beans.
If recent history proves anything, however, it’s that academic prowess doesn’t always translate into political acumen. As the man who had Corbyn’s ear on Brexit, he was Britain’s most influential Remainer. He was the architect of Labour’s "six tests on Brexit", a transparently semantic straitjacket: it was a device Labour could use to try and lever the government out of office, while claiming to support enacting the outcome of the referendum – despite never voting for any version of it. The public aren’t idiots; it was clear what was going on. Starmer’s plan was, in common terms, too smart for its own good.
Over time, Starmer overplayed his Brexit hand. Jacked up on e-petitions and well-attended People’s Vote marches (because jolly days in central London are always an accurate gauge of the electorate), he – like many Remainers sensed a point in time where the referendum result might be overturned. I wonder how he views that opportunism now, when a Labour abstention on the Withdrawal Agreement Bill at any point would’ve already had us living in the kind of tepid Brexit he claimed to favour. It was a political gameshow where he gambled and went for the car, only to end up waving and claiming to have had a "great day out".
There’s also the issue of how he seems. Starmer may stress his working-class credentials. Apparently his old man made tools. Rumours are he may have been so good at it he ended up owning a whole factory of people doing it for him. Unfortunately, the only thing Keir Starmer looks like he makes from scratch is fresh egg pasta. If he became Labour leader, it would mean four of the last five labour leaders would’ve been metropolitan blokes from London. If Dawn Butler doesn’t go on to win deputy, it would mean the so-called party of diversity has never had a female leader or a person of colour as deputy leader. They’re losing the diversity fight that they picked.
If the Labour Party really did want a female leader, it’s a shame someone like Caroline Flint isn’t still around. She combines the best traits of the rest of the field, as well being a rare voice of pragmatism on Brexit. She also has actual experience in government, although sadly under Blair, which large swathes of the Labour membership consider akin to serving as a special advisor to Thanos.
Flint’s natural successor would’ve probably been someone like Jess Phillips, who always seemed engaging and real. Maybe too real. I played the Jess Phillips drinking game recently: a shot every time she mentions "the doorstep" or "her constituency". Needless to say I was shit-faced within minutes. While her earthiness is catnip for luvvies, she ultimately lacked the kind of specifics needed to sell yourself in a leadership contest. On BBC Radio 5 Live's "Pienaar’s Politics", when asked about her policy on secondary union action, she didn’t seem to have given it much thought. Her response was to question whether people on "the doorstep" would care about such issues. She’s probably right, but unfortunately Betty from number 74 doesn’t have the same block voting power as Unison and that ultimately led to her withdrawal from the race. I doubt this is the last time she’ll be in contention to lead a political party.
Starmer, too needs to understand the risk of seeming light on detail, though you can understand his reasons. Whenever you stumble upon Labour factions on Twitter it seems like opening the door on a bar room brawl. Clive Lewis (who definitely wasn’t sore from having picked up less nominations than Angry Birds 2 at the Oscars) recently declared that Labour have only really been in "power" and "office" once, in 1945. The antipathy towards the Blair era never fails to astonish, like United fans white-washing the Fergie years because he once had lunch with Bill Shankly.
The increasingly impressive Lisa Nandy is right to warn about the risks of playing it safe. Starmer seems like the sensible choice. If you were a divorced woman, he’d be the guy all your friends were telling you was "a catch".
However, the modern era of politics isn’t always about the Steady Eddie. People want to feel something. If his leadership campaign follows the same trajectory as his Brexit strategy he may end up with another set of splinters.
Geoff Norcott's touring show ‘Taking Liberties’ runs from 25 January to 25 April 2020. Tickets are available here