On Friday 17th of January, Labour Party leadership hopeful Keir Starmer visited Leeds as part of his campaign tour. A member of parliament since 2015, Starmer was previously a barrister and was knighted in 2014 for services to law and criminal justice. Many polls currently have him as favourite to win the leadership, with a recent YouGov survey predicting he will beat his closest rival, Rebecca Long Bailey, by 63% to 37% in the final round of voting. I went down to the church in Kirkgate, where he was meeting and talking to Leeds residents, to hear his pitch and see how enthusiastic about his campaign residents of Leeds are.
Compared to other Labour Party and campaigning events I’ve been to in the past in Leeds, the room is very noticeably old and also very white. Most people in the room are probably over 50, and there is an alarming proliferation of tweed clothing. There are a handful of young people in the room, and I go and speak to a few, but they seem there mostly out of curiosity rather than support – a couple stood at the back are Rebecca Long Bailey supporters, and another I speak to supports Lisa Nandy.
Starmer is introduced and is enthusiastically applauded. He’s wearing a sharp navy suit but has his top button undone and no tie; I assume he has done this to give himself a more down to earth, ‘man of the people’ look, and it reminds me a bit of Rory Stewart’s choice to take off his tie during a Conservative leadership debate. One of the compliments often levelled at Starmer is that he ‘looks’ and ‘seems’ prime ministerial, which in essence just means he’s a middle aged man who speaks in received pronunciation and looks good in a suit.
He starts by talking briefly about his love of the city of Leeds. Like other former leadership hopeful Jess Philips, he attended the University of Leeds, and he mentions how it is a city he enjoys returning to. He launches into his speech by talking about the great disappointment of the election results, a disappointment everyone in the room shares. From the outset he is extremely engaging and comes across as passionate, and it is not surprising considering his past career as a barrister that public speaking is one of his strong suits.
Starmer talks about how we must “come together”, mentioning how we cannot fight the Tories if we are fighting each other. He wants to present himself as a unifying force within the party, someone who can unite both the right and left of Labour and heal the divide. This is an attractive proposal for many members who are fatigued by constant infighting; however, calls to end division and factionalism all feel a bit hypocritical coming from Starmer, who took part in an attempted coup against Jeremy Corbyn in 2016, and it is unclear how he would prevent factionalism causing conflict in the future.
Starmer also makes it clear that he doesn’t believe that the Labour party should be criticising the Blair years. This comes after new MP Zarah Sultana demanded an end to ’40 years of Thatcherism’ in her first speech, slamming New Labour.
Starmer lists off achievements under Blair: Sure start centres, the minimum wage, investment in the NHS, the Good Friday Agreement. But of course, he makes sure to add, he was against the Iraq war. I’m unsure of his reasoning behind the insistence that Labour should not be critical of Blair, a man who is hated by many and considered by some globally to be a war criminal. Is it simply a way of appeasing the right of the party?
It is also of note how little during his talk Starmer mentions Brexit. I assume this is because he wants to distance himself from his role as shadow Brexit Secretary and the disastrous second referendum policy; it is no secret that he supported remain. Is he really the smart choice to win back the majority Leave-voting seats lost in the last election? Members of the audience seem to think so, and after he finishes speaking he receives a standing ovation from a group of supporters at the front of the room.
Starmer then takes questions from the audience, and as people introduce themselves it becomes clear that many have travelled from quite far to see him speak in Leeds today, with some people having come from places such as York or further afield in Yorkshire.
One audience member introduces herself as a University of Leeds student and talks about the crisis of waiting times for mental health services at the university, with some people having to wait over a year to get referred for counselling. Keir gives a reassuring and predictable answer about the crisis in NHS funding, but without any actual examples of how he would change the policy, the answer feels vague and lacking in substance.
Perhaps the most interesting answer of the night comes after a woman questions Starmer on how as a white straight male he thinks he can relate to the majority of the people in the country, despite looking very much like the face of the establishment. It is a fair point; after all, if it wasn’t for Keir in this election race, we would be guaranteed to have our first female Labour leader as all the other remaining candidates are women. His reply dodges the gravity of the question, and he starts listing off his working class credentials; how his mother was a nurse, how he worked at a factory before university etc. He then recounts an anecdote about visiting a mother in his constituency whose son had just been stabbed and how when he was comforting her it ‘didn’t matter that he was a white man’. It was a bizarre way to answer the question and Starmer came off as seeming quite rattled by it, which is odd considering I doubt it’s the first time he has been asked something along those lines during the campaign.
During the meeting I was struck by how passionate some people clearly were about his campaign, especially those who had travelled such long distances to see Starmer. However, it felt very different from the passion that surrounded the Corbyn campaign, which was fuelled by radical optimism and a youth-powered grassroots movement. Starmer’s supporters didn’t seem optimistic, they seemed tired. Sick of the infighting in Labour and sick of losing election after election, they believe Starmer is the one to unite the party and win going forward. I can’t say I’m convinced.
Image: The Independent