Everything about Keir Starmer’s leadership campaign to date suggests it has been long in the planning. Fifty-seven years and four months ago his late parents – his mother was a nurse, his father a toolmaker – named him after Labour’s founder, Keir Hardie.
On Saturday, Starmer chose the birthplace of the TUC, the Mechanics’ Institute in Manchester, for his latest public appearance, alongside Doreen Lawrence, the mother of murdered teenager Stephen Lawrence, who he has supported in her fight for justice since before he became an MP. The Co-operative insurance Society was formed in the same institute in 1867.
Starmer’s team is seizing every chance it can to project their man as less the metropolitan lawyer, more the leader in waiting who can save a shattered, terribly defeated party. “My campaign,” he told his Manchester audience “will be about defending Labour’s radical values and winning a majority in 2024.”
The central Starmer message is that he remains in touch with his working-class roots, and will battle to reduce inequality. He tacked pointedly to the left on Saturday, while calling for unity between moderates and the left, stressing he would trash neither the last Labour government nor the last four years under Jeremy Corbyn. He made clear he was in favour of higher taxes on the wealthiest to pay for public services and for the first time denounced the free market for failing to help those most in need.
“We have to be bold enough to say the free market model doesn’t produce, doesn’t work ... the trickle-down effect didn’t happen. We have to rebuild an economic model that reduces inequality and protects working people,” he said.
So far it all seems to be working. On Monday Starmer’s well -choreographed start will see him sail through the first stage of the contest with the backing of at least 68 Labour MPs and MEPs. Candidates who want to proceed have to be endorsed by at least 22 Labour parliamentarians. He already has more than twice as many nominations as the other three who will definitely go forward; Rebecca Long-Bailey (26), Lisa Nandy (24) and Jess Phillips (23). Emily Thornberry and Clive Lewis have more work to do in not much time if they are to stay in the race. The next stage will be to build necessary support among the unions and affiliates to get on the ballot paper. Starmer has already won the backing of Unison, the country’s biggest union.
By contrast, probably the biggest threat to Starmer, the shadow business secretary Long-Bailey, who is backed by Corbyn’s circle, has struggled to slip into anything like top gear. One of her supporters is said to have told friends that it was not a case of “wheels falling off the wagon, but of there not being any wheels on the wagon yet”.
Since the election there have been arguments on the Corbyn left about how to promote Long-Bailey, and rows about who should be involved with her campaign. Last week Len McCluskey, the general secretary of Unite, which is yet to declare for any candidate, was said to have urged shadow cabinet minister and Brent North MP Barry Gardiner to run because he had fallen out with Long-Bailey over her refusal to allow Corbyn’s closest aides Karie Murphy and Seumas Milne to be involved in her bid for the top job. McCluskey denied approaching Gardiner, but there is plenty to suggest that key members of the Corbyn inner circle have fallen out amid the bitterness of defeat.
Starmer has been, in the words of one key figure in a rival campaign, “hoovering up money and staff”, and Nandy and Phillips have also made good impressions, but Long-Bailey has not hit home. Last week she gave Corbyn “10 out of 10” for his performance as leader, despite two election defeats, the last of them the worst since 1935. Nandy and Phillips, by contrast, have been far more critical of Corbyn and the election disaster.
Asked on Saturday whether she was worried by suggestions that Starmer was now the favourite, Long-Bailey said: “So I haven’t rushed into this. I’ve never been a personally ambitious person, but I’m ambitious about our principles and what we can do to transform our communities and that’s what brought me here.”
No one in Starmer’s team, nor those backing other candidates, is ruling out Long-Bailey making a surge. on Saturday the leadership of Momentum, the grassroots pro-Corbyn group, decided to hold a ballot on who to back, and said it would recommend that its 50,000 or so members support Long-Bailey for leader and Angela Rayner for deputy.
“If in the end Momentum backs Rebecca then that will be massive for her,” said a Starmer supporter. “They have all the data from two general elections and two leadership elections. It will be hugely important.”
But despite this there are signs that the previously strongly pro-Corbyn Momentum and the membership are not as united as they were. The founder, Jon Lansman, is heavily involved in advising the Long-Bailey campaign. But not everyone in the organisation believes it should throw its support behind her, at least not without a proper open debate.
Laura Parker, who resigned as Momentum’s national coordinator after the election, made clear on Twitter on Saturday that she disapproved of its decision to recommend Long-Bailey: “Although I am pleased Momentum’s governing body accepted the principle of balloting its members on the leadership, I’m sorry they seem to have decided in advance what the answer is. Members should be able to choose from all Leader & Deputy candidates.”
Another Momentum member, Sabrina Huck, said one of the movement’s core objectives was to promote party democracy and so it should “lead by example”.
It is early days but the momentum with a small ‘m’ seems to be at least as much with Starmer as with Long Bailey, while Nandy, who was judged to have won the parliamentary hustings last week, and Phillips are still very much in the mix.
An MP who is backing Phillips said last week: “There is one hell of a long way to go. I am backing Jess but I think Keir will win. The Corbyn left is totally demoralised by the defeat. So far it doesn’t look like it has the strength or togetherness to unite and to win it will need to be united.”