Keir Starmer: "Labour are a broad church and we must remain a broad church. It is one of our great strengths"
As he gets to work leading for Labour on the biggest issue facing British politics for half a century, Keir Starmer tells Kevin Schofield how his party can block an ‘extreme Brexit’ and go on to win the next election – but only if its MPs remain united
While Jeremy Corbyn has accepted most of the plaudits for Labour’s better-than-expected general election result, there’s a decent argument to be made for Keir Starmer being the party’s most significant figure in the years ahead.
The Repeal Bill – the first of eight Brexit-specific pieces of legislation contained in the Queen’s Speech – was introduced in the Commons this week. As shadow Brexit secretary, Starmer has the unenviable task of spearheading Labour’s response to the government’s proposals, while also trying to hold together his party’s fragile coalition on the issue of leaving the European Union.
Although he insists “there is more unity in the PLP than at any time I’ve been here” – not a terribly high bar, it must be said – one does not need to look very hard to find the splits within the party on the single biggest issue to face the UK since the end of the Second World War.
Some 49 Labour MPs – including a handful of frontbenchers who were subsequently sacked – defied the party whip two weeks ago to vote for an amendment tabled by Chuka Umunna supporting the UK’s continued membership of the single market and customs union. “One of the unfortunate side effects of the amendment was that it over-exaggerated differences in the PLP,” Starmer says as we sit in his small, sparsely-decorated office in Portcullis House. “It was an unnecessary battle, it didn’t achieve anything for anyone and it put a lot of people in a difficult position that they shouldn’t really have been put in.”
The reality, he insists, is that Labour are pretty much as one on Brexit. “It’s very important to make it clear that there is huge unity in the Labour party about what we want to achieve. The difference is in tactics or models,” says the Holborn and St Pancras MP. “So far as the outcomes are involved – which is retaining the benefits of the single market and the customs union, by which we mean tariff-free access to the single market and no more red tape on customs – there is complete unity across the PLP about those objectives. The issue between us is on how we achieve that.”
Unsurprisingly, Starmer would rather focus on the travails of the Conservative Party. He believes the prime minister has not yet come to terms with what her disastrous decision to call an election means for her Brexit strategy. “Theresa May made it clear in her speeches calling a general election that the reason was to get a big majority so she would get a stronger mandate, and every vote was a vote for her plan. She’s not yet reflected on the fact that that strategy backfired badly and that’s why we’ve been calling on her to re-think and reset her approach.
“She’s been very belligerent and a there’s been a lot of provocative rhetoric with the EU – all the nonsense about no deal being viable, that has got us off to a bad start. The prime minister needs to reflect on the impact of the general election on her strategy.”
There has been little sign of that so far, and the publication of the Repeal Bill – which will transfer all EU laws onto the UK statute book on day one of Brexit – does not suggest that any change of approach is imminent. For Labour and the other opposition parties, the lack of a Tory majority in parliament provides an opportunity for all sorts of mischief.
“There are real problems with the government’s proposed approach because the Repeal Bill, if it follows the proposal in the White Paper, is going to give sweeping powers to the executive without any enhanced scrutiny. That’s a very bad combination for democracy. Therefore, that will be a central focus for us as soon as we see the bill,” Starmer says.
“There are other issues, including the question of if you transpose rights and freedoms from the EU into our law, you’ve also got to transpose means of enforcement and in the White Paper there was very little about means of enforcement. So as currently proposed, there will be a real battle on these aspects of the Repeal Bill.
“As for the other bills, we know nothing about their content and that is because the government has not even developed its own thinking, partly because some of them are intertwined with the negotiations. If you take the customs bill for example, you would want to know broadly where you were going in the negotiations before you would put a bill before the House. They are threadbare and lacking any detail at all, and we need to be on our guard for anything that takes us down the path of sweeping powers for the executive. This is pretty fundamental stuff in a democracy.”
Starmer returns to the issue of parliamentary sovereignty – supposedly a key issue for Leavers during the referendum – several times during the interview. He finds it ironic that that in year since the Brexit vote the government’s main focus “has been an attempt to side-line parliament”.
“Up until January, the battle the government chose was a battle in the courts to stop us even having a vote on Article 50,” he says. “That’s the only vote we’ve had, on a bill they refused to allow any amendments to. It’s squeezing parliament to a very narrow role, and only allowing that role because the court forced it on the prime minister.
“Since the Article 50 bill went through, the prime minister called a general election to try to push the opposition further away from any challenge. So the other thing that needs to be reset is a genuine and proper role for parliament in the process.
“She put an extreme version of Brexit out there when she had a majority in parliament and she’s now returned with a minority. That needs to be reflected upon. The numbers have changed in the House and therefore the potential for winning votes has changed.”
But how realistic are Labour’s stated objectives from the Brexit negotiations? The party appears to want the benefits of single market membership, while not being in the single market. Significantly, however, Starmer refuses to echo John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn’s insistence that leaving the EU automatically means quitting the single market altogether.
“I have a number of times expressed a reluctance to be drawn too far into models,” he says. “I know what outcomes we want to achieve. I understand what the concerns of the EU are and that’s what the negotiations should be about.
“I think if we can reach agreement on what we want to achieve, and meet the concerns of the EU, we will have little difficulty in translating that into a model that will give effect to it. What businesses and trade unions are saying to me is not ‘we must have this particular model come what may’. It’s ‘these are the outcomes we need, to make sure we can trade successfully in the future just as we have done in the past’.”
On my way to the interview, I bumped into a Tory MP who made the rather startling prediction that if Labour goes into the next election promising a second EU referendum, their victory is assured. But Starmer rejects that assessment out of hand.
“We’ve never had as one of our objectives a second referendum. We have been clear that we’ve got to respect the outcome of the referendum and get on with the serious business of negotiating with our EU colleagues. What we seek to achieve is something that is not membership, but partnership based on collaboration and co-operation.”
Starmer toured “40 or 50” keenly-contested seats during the election, earning him the nickname ‘Captain Marginal’. Surely, then, he must have witnessed the Labour surge which led to a hung parliament?
“It would be easy for me to now say I could see all this coming, but I’m not going to do that,” he says. “It was varied across the country, but I did not detect that the outcome would be as it was and even on the day I didn’t think that would happen.”
He benefited personally from the surge as his majority soared from 17,000 to 30,500. But he does not subscribe to the theory that one more heave will inevitably deliver a Labour government the next time the country goes to the polls.
“The direction of travel is in our favour, so it is easier for us to step up than it is for the Tories,” he says. “For a government to go from a majority to a minority and then back to a majority is very rare indeed, so history is against the Conservatives.
“If we step up we can win, but we need to up our game. We will come under great scrutiny and we need to analyse the areas where we didn’t do as well as we should. I am optimistic, and I think Labour can win the next election, but we need to do a lot of work to do it.”
He points to Labour’s failure to convince its white working class base as proof that there is still much work for the party to do. But he rejects the notion that this was a Jeremy Corbyn problem. “I don’t think that was a particular feature of this election. I think Labour needs to have a stronger offer to that vote than it currently has.”
Something else Labour must do, he says, is unite. And that means rejecting calls from many Corbyn supporters – including his fellow frontbencher Chris Williamson – for the introduction of mandatory reselection, thereby making it easier for local parties to dump MPs deemed disloyal to the leader.
Starmer says: “I don’t support mandatory re-selection and I’ve always been really clear about that. That’s the very strong view of very, very many people in the PLP.
“I don’t think it’s a discussion we need to be having. I think we have a government that is in crisis, that really doesn’t know how to go forward, is on the ropes on a daily basis, is clearly fighting itself. In those circumstances, the Labour party should be dignified, it should be united and it should rise above – we don’t need a discussion in the party about mandatory re-selection.”
He also firmly rejects suggestions by Ian Lavery, another close Corbyn ally and Labour’s new chairman, that the party is “too broad a church”.
“We’re a broad church and we should remain a broad church,” he says. “It is one of the great strengths of the party that it’s a broad church. It has allowed the party to change over time and to remain relevant over the very many years of its history.
“It started off as a narrowly-based party of the trade unions and working people as its primary function. Then it broadened and embraced all sorts of other important social issues – including all the work that’s been done recently in relation to equality and sexuality, then into climate change and environmental protection. That broad church is important because it allows us to be a broad-based party that’s representing a broad swathe of people across Britain, but also because it gives us the flexibility to be the party of the future as well as the party of the past.”
While most of his colleagues are looking forward to a well-earned summer break after what has been, by any standards, a punishing political schedule, Starmer will spend the summer speaking to European leaders. That started this week when he and Corbyn held talks with chief EU negotiator Michel Barnier. By April 2019, his transformation from Captain Marginal to Captain Brexit will be complete.