Keir Starmer starts campaign to succeed Corbyn as Labour leader

Brexit spokesman Keir Starmer is expected to compete with at least 4 female contenders for the party head. (AFP pic)

LONDON: The Labour Party’s Brexit spokesman Keir Starmer said he’s running to replace Jeremy Corbyn as leader following its worst electoral defeat since 1935.

Starmer, 57, is the early front-runner according to a YouGov poll of Labour party members published on Jan 2. He’s on 36%, comfortably ahead of business spokeswoman Rebecca Long Bailey with Jess Phillips in third.

Corbyn said in the aftermath of the crushing defeat to Boris Johnson and the Conservative Party on Dec 12 that he would stand down as leader following a “period of reflection” to determine the direction the party should take.

“We all have to take responsibility,” Starmer told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show.

“It’s a devastating result. Cumulatively, we lost the public’s trust in the Labour party as a force for good and a force for change. After four general election losses, we have to address that.”

Labour’s National Executive Committee is due to outline a timetable for the leadership election this week.

Starmer hasn’t always been loyal to the current leader – particularly when it comes to the question of the UK’s relationship with the European Union. He backed Corbyn’s rivals in the 2015 and 2016 leadership contests and is one of the party’s most vocal Remainers.

“I thought we should have taken a stronger position one way or the other and I argued for it,” he told the BBC.

“I lost that argument but I accepted the result. Clarity about what your position is, and not being able to say whether you’d be leave or remain after the election was a problem. People wanted clarity and they wanted leadership.”

Starmer’s launch campaign video was a pitch to Corbyn supporters, reminding them of his previous legal career, fighting for trade unions against the Conservative government in the 1980s, and using a lot of the current leader’s buzzwords about foreign policy and the media.

He has warned the party not to “oversteer” after the election defeat, arguing Labour should “build on” Corbyn’s anti-austerity message and radical agenda.

Starmer has an impressive legal career behind him, and was knighted for his tenure as director of Public Prosecutions.

While he has been accused of being out of touch with working-class Leave voters in northern England, he’s arguably closer to them than Corbyn, who was privately educated.

He told the BBC in December that he’d never been in an office until he left university, because his father worked in a factory and his mother was a nurse.

One big problem though could be that he’s a man. There are expected to be at least four women in the contest. One of them, Long Bailey, has yet to announce, but the other three were out on Sunday morning.

Emily Thornberry was mainly speaking in her capacity as foreign affairs spokeswoman, attacking Johnson for staying on vacation during the Iran crisis.

Two others, Phillips and Lisa Nandy, used their distance from Corbyn’s leadership to attack his approach.

Phillips told the BBC that the contest now “has got to be about whether the Labour party can speak and connect and be trusted by the public”.

While she didn’t explicitly commit to pulling back on some of its pre-election pledges such as free broadband for everyone, she said that it “just wasn’t believable” at a time when essential services are struggling with funding.

Phillips, who opposes leaving the European Union, also refused to rule out rejoining in future if the economic case was compelling.

“If our country is safer, if it is more economically viable to be in the EU, then I will fight for that regardless of how difficult that argument is to make.”

Nandy told Sky News that “there is definitely a disconnect between the hierarchy of the Labour Party and the people of the country and towns like mine”.

She said her voters in Wigan, northwest England, felt they “lacked the means to effect change in their own lives,” and that the party’s response had been “paternalistic”.