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Keir Starmer leadership interview: ‘I’m a socialist… for me it has a very practical application’

Holborn and St Pancras MP says he was wrong to abstain on Welfare Bill

24 January, 2020 — By Richard Osley

Holborn and St Pancras MP Sir Keir Starmer is the bookmakers’ favourite to become the next leader of the Labour Party

WHAT’S Sir Keir Starmer’s definition of socialism?

It seems fair to ask, given his opponents, even some locally, have suggested that he has camouflaged himself as a man who is unwilling to spike the Corbyn years and start all over again as if they had never happened.

Last week, members of Momentum in his own Camden patch issued a statement saying, bluntly, they did not trust such sentiments from him. In a sit down interview with the New Journal this week, the Labour leadership contender said: “I am a socialist. For me, what I’m driven by in this is the very deep inequalities that we’ve now got across the country of every sort: Income, wealth, health, influence, it’s deeply ingrained. I believe that in order to change that you’ve got to do fundamental change, and shift power and wealth and I think that we need to do things more radically than we had envisaged in the past. For me, it’s a very practical application.”

Momentum and other members supportive of Mr Corbyn have generally sided with Rebecca Long-Bailey in the contest to be Labour’s next leader, although Mr Starmer has picked up union support from Unison and Usdaw.

Asked again for his shorthand definition of socialism, he said: “I do not agree with the argument that the private sector is good and the public sector is bad. You don’t have a functioning private sector if you don’t have a really good public sector. I also believe that certain services simply shouldn’t be in the private sector. So I don’t think you should be making money from criminal justice. Privatisation has been a complete disaster; in principle you shouldn’t be making money from putting people into prison. “I think the case for rail makes itself, the privatisation has largely been a complete failure.”

Mr Starmer taking a question from Femi Oluwole during a debate on Brexit

He added: “I do think that the next manifesto has to focus on the late 2020s and 2030s and therefore as well as talking about common ownership, we need to talk about how we make sure that the gig economy with lesser working hours, with big data and IT being the driving force, doesn’t entrench even greater inequality going forward. We have to have a very forward-looking radicalism.”

Whether this will convince those who are badging him as “Tony Blair, mark 2” in this contest remains to be seen. He is facing other questions too, however the obvious one being his role in the thick of Labour’s response to Brexit.

One analysis of the party’s defeat at the polls is that a switch to offering a second referendum with a remain option saw support in leave-supporting areas capsize, with some traditional Labour voters turning to the Tories for the first time. Mr Starmer was in the mix as the party’s Brexit spokesman.

“Firstly, anybody who was out campaigning in this election knows very well there were a number of reasons that were coming up regularly on the doors: Brexit was one of them, but it certainly wasn’t the only one,” he said. “I personally wish we had been able to knock down the slogan ‘get Brexit done’ because I felt that was coming back at us on the doorsteps and we hadn’t properly tackled it.”

He added: “We also have to bear in mind we’ve lost four elections, not one. And therefore the idea that you can find one thing from the last election and identify it as the sole cause and change that – and then everything will change – is wrong.”

Mr Starmer rousing election campaigners at the 2017 general election

He said MPs who had nominated him had come from areas which had voted to leave, while CLPs around the country had supported him.

“We do have to bear in mind that throughout the whole Brexit process, we were focusing on how to prevent damage to our communities, and that is why all of the candidates who are going for the leadership voted against Theresa May’s deal three times, and all of them voted against Boris Johnson’s deal.”

He added: “For month after month after month, before we even adopted a second referendum position, we were advocating a deal with Europe that kept us close economically to Europe and I don’t know how many times I pushed amendments in Parliament to try and achieve that.”

Of his voting record as an MP, he has been asked why he abstained on the government’s welfare bill in 2015 which paved the way for the cuts to housing benefits and child tax credits, and a household benefit cap.

“I abstained on the second reading – and, yes, that was a mistake,” he said. “I’m a team player and the whip was to abstain, but it was the wrong thing to do. I actually voted against it on a third reading, but that is mitigation, not an excuse.”

He added: “I have actually done quite a lot of work on welfare. I challenged Tony Blair’s government by taking it to court over the cutting of benefits for asylum seekers.”

Mr Starmer said that as leader he would want regular updates on how complaints of anti-Semitism within the party are being handled, admitting that Labour had to “rebuild trust with the Jewish community” after the controversies of recent years.

He said: “The test for me will be whether people who left the party because of anti-Semitism feel comfortable returning to it.”

But the former Director of Public Prosecutions said he felt Mr Corbyn had been “vilified” by the national press during his time as leader.

A visit to The Jungle in Calais

“Of course it has an impact,” he said. “Because one of the issues that came up on the doors was the leadership of the Labour Party and it’s impossible to argue that some of that was not influenced by what the press and media had done to Jeremy Corbyn in vilifying him.”

He added: “They vilified him because they didn’t want him to be prime minister. That was the purpose behind it, but he’s not the only one. Ed Miliband had it, every Labour leader has had it.” He said he would not boycott any newspapers, however, and had “always talked to the media”.

Did he think the BBC had been biased, as many of Mr Corbyn’s supporters had argued online?

“I’ve never gone down that route,” he said. “There’s always a danger in an organisation when something goes wrong – and we’ve just lost an election – that people try to identify a sort of comfortable reason that everybody in the Labour Party can agree on. ‘It’s not our fault, it was the fault of the media’.  All that does is mask the other reasons, and if we don’t grapple with those, then we’re not going to win the next election.”

Lisa Nandy and Emily Thornberry are also running to be the party’s next leader, which means he is the only man on the hustings stage aiming to lead a party that has never had a woman as its leader.

“I don’t think any of the candidates are standing because they’re a woman,” he said. “I think all five [Jess Phillips has since dropped out] are putting forward their arguments as to what they think is best for our party, our movement, our country.”

He added: “Our members will hear what we say, and make a decision based on that.”

The result of the contest is due on April 4.

MP says he gets on with all sides of the Labour Party

SIR Keir Starmer said this week that he had always called for unity, amid accusations that his aim of ending Labour’s factionalism was undermined by fractious relations inside his own Holborn and St Pancras constituency party.

Mr Starmer with Diane Abbott, Jeremy Corbyn and council leader Georgia Gould in Kentish Town after a fatal stabbing

He told the New Journal: “I’m not saying there is nobody who is against the idea of me being the leader of the Labour Party but I do not think the vast majority of members are in that space.  I genuinely think I get along with and have the respect of people who come from different parts of the party.”

He said he had tried to update members at every constituency meeting over his five years as an MP and “believed in a broad church”.

“I have never spoken against Jeremy [Corbyn] or the leadership in my GC reports,” he said. “Time and again, I’ve said we’ve got to stay united.”

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