Can Keir Starmer Pull Off A Dramatic Surprise Win To Become Labour Leader?

Shadow Brexit secretary hoping to prove Blair wrong. But will Labour be finished if it doesn’t win in 2024?

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Lightning Rod

On my way to the Tony Blair speech today, I took a short-cut through the BBC’s forecourt and bumped into Keir Starmer. I suggested to the shadow Brexit secretary, who had just been on the Today programme, that maybe he would want to pop along to hear the former PM. Reader, he got the joke.

Yes, not a single contender in this Labour leadership contest will be going anywhere near Anthony Charles Lynton Blair, despite the fact that he won three general elections and governed continuously for twice as long as any other Labour PM in history.‌

Blair himself was not daft enough to endorse anyone either. However, his speech and his Q&A today felt like a riposte to Starmer, who had talked about the danger of “oversteer” to the centre, as well as other contenders in the race to succeed Jeremy Corbyn.

Former MP Tony McNulty was withering about Starmer’s soft left mood music. “‘Vote for me and I’ll be continuity Corbyn but not brave enough to take Corbynism on’ will work as well for Starmer as it did for Owen Smith,” McNulty tweeted.

There’s a lot of chatter about Labour needing a Kinnock rather than a Blair, someone who can just claw them back into contention in 2024. But Blair himself said that incrementalism just won’t work after this shattering defeat. His main point was that 2019 is much worse than 1983 and “we don’t have the luxury of the slow march back” or “moving crablike towards reality”.

That’s all very well, but as Blair himself knows, this Labour party is a very different one to Michael Foot’s. The left are embedded at every level - crucially among the trade unions who Kinnock, Smith and Blair relied on for reform - and the membership have the final say.

Given that Labour is now a member-led party, I asked him whether he was pinning his hopes on an influx of new “registered supporters” for the leadership election - or current members trying something new. Blair accepted that he could not pin his hopes on a rush of new members or supporters. But some of his admirers can see a glimmer of hope in the fact that Labour’s membership has risen by an estimated 50,000 since the start of the election, and it spiked by 24,000 since polling day.

It’s also worth saying that even Owen Smith managed to get 38% of party members to back him rather than Jeremy Corbyn. Add in those recent YouGov polls suggesting Starmer is way ahead of the pack and you can understand why his own supporters (and Lisa Nandy’s too) think it’s not inevitable that Rebecca Long-Bailey will cruise to victory.

In proof that Blair still has the gift of an arresting metaphor, he said that the exit poll on election night was “like a flash of lightning that clarifies the landscape for you...the problem is the lightning goes, and if we are not careful we will just go back to the darkness again.”

The most interesting bit of Blair’s pitch today was his repeated argument that if Labour chooses a ‘one more heave’ leader, it will be “finished” and “replaced”. But replaced by what? I put it to him that despite its defeat Labour still won 10 million votes, while former independent group defector Chris Leslie couldn’t even keep his deposit. Why would any Labour MP want to head off into oblivion like that?

Blair’s answer was that if Kinnock had not changed Labour in the wake of the 1983 debacle, “I think it would have been replaced back then”. He talked about a new historic realignment with the Lib Dems. He said “the country won’t tolerate” Labour’s leftism and would be replaced by “a generation of smart, capable, politically conscious people who will never be Tories”.

That’s quite a claim, given that Blair himself admitted our current electoral system makes it very difficult for new parties to make an impact (the Brexit Party’s huge support didn’t yield a single seat, like UKIP before it).

The former PM said it was “completely naive” to assume that the hard left would ever agree to compromise. Yet perhaps he himself is being naive about the chances of any new party in the UK. The more rational conclusion of his argument is that Labour may bounce back but take 10 years to do it.

Remember too that governments often lose elections as much as oppositions win them. Although Boris Johnson has a big majority, the UK is due a cyclical recession in the next few years that could help any Labour leader. Especially one who argues that the Tories are botching Brexit. Within a year of Blair leaving office after a third election triumph, there was a global financial crisis that wiped out his party and others across the world.

Still, unless someone like Jess Phillips exploits the opening on the centre now vacated by Starmer, there may be no candidate at all in this race that Blair can back (however privately).

I remember chatting to Liz Kendall after I chaired a 2015 leadership hustings which showed how popular Corbyn was. “I’ve been hitting the party over the head and they’re just not ready for that,” she confessed. We will find out in coming weeks just what kind of headache it is prepared to endure.

Quote Of The Day

“Labour can keep with the programme and positions of Corbyn with a new leader. In which case it is finished.”

Tony Blair issues his apocalyptic warning about his party.

Wednesday Cheat Sheet

Emily Thornberry went public for the first time with her own possible candidacy for Labour leader. Yvette Cooper said she would consider over Christmas a fresh tilt at the top job.

Richard Burgon confirmed that he would be backing Becky Long-Bailey for leader and running for deputy himself (while adding a dig at Angela Rayner for not nominating Corbyn in 2015). Burgon didn’t mention Rayner had also failed to vote against welfare cuts in the summer of 2015 (another Left virility test), but you can be sure he and others will soon.

Tory MP for Wakefield Imran Ahmad Khan said that claims by LGBT Conservatives that he was openly gay were inaccurate, but he added “I will not comment further on this matter”.

Several SNP MPs bent the rules when they took the oath of allegiance to the Queen in the Commons. Mhairi Black joked “I didnae get chucked oot” after swearing her allegiance “first and foremost” to her constituents and that she was making the Royal pledge “for the purpose of the job”. Stephen Bonnar crossed his fingers while saying the oath.

Liz Kendall was caught on mic at her own swearing in, telling Rachel Reeves she was affirming rather than swearing on the Bible. “I’m godless. I’m the pagan Kendall. My parents would be so upset.”‌

Stop Brexit loudhailer man Steve Bray finally announced he was giving up his one man protest outside parliament. Amen to that.

Commons People

Each week, the HuffPost UK Politics team unpack the biggest stories from Westminster and beyond.

Today, we chatted to Tory MP Lee Rowley, a 2017 intake pioneer of his party’s ‘blue wall’ strategy, about what next for backbenchers like him, Labour’s predicament and Brexit next steps. Listen HERE on Audioboom

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