IT’S Sir Keir then, the winner of our autumn distraction. It probably always was going to be. The defeated may look back and think they could have done this or that differently, but the stats of Labour’s parliamentary selection contest show the membership more or less always knew what they wanted.
There will be claims that strings were pulled from up on high for a leadership candidate, Guido was the quickest to call a fix. Sure enough, it is not difficult to see why Ed Miliband and Partners would want Sir Keir quickly welcomed into the fold, rather than shunned on his own doorstep. But it makes you wonder why these shadowy central office riggers, desperate to dope a safe seat for the former chief prosecutor, chose a constituency with a membership that brushes 1,200 people and the unpredictability which comes with such numbers. They are not just names on database, there was a mighty turnout in St Pancras Church on Saturday afternoon, despite the call of Christmas shopping and Arsenal playing at home. In fact, as an outsider looking in, it was impossible not to be impressed as members queued around the corner to make their choice. They didn’t look like the brainwashed masses of Holborn and St Pancras.
It is true that, whether he was given extra energy by the leadership or not, he was hugely advantaged by the profile of his past. Sir Keir somehow managed to glide onto the scene with suspiciously perfect timing, resigning from his politically restrictive job just as Frank Dobson moved towards his retirement decision, without ever really attracting the level of oh aye scepticism that we might have expected. Rather than being met as a Quiffy Come Lately, his celebrity was digested as stature and gravitas. Maybe outside the party there was a brewing cynicism or within the council group where efforts were made to swell around Sarah Hayward, but not within the street by street membership. The figures of a first round majority suggest members quite liked this dashing chap they had seen so regularly in their favourite broadsheets. The constituency, having had one of the country’s most recognisable backbenchers representing it, has grown accustom to having an MP who is known beyond the borough boundaries, and seems to like it.
There was a feeling, I heard it many times, that people felt lucky to have Sir Keir’s interest, flattered, and the aide who keeps asking us not to use the Sir in Sir Keir Starmer needn’t worry (NB… we’d only really started using it with an increased regularity in the paper after feeling the madness of being actively asked not to). For the second-placed Raj Chada was right when he pointed out that nobody seemed interested in a scrap about who had the humblest of life starts. While Camden is sometimes portrayed as a woolly nest of socialist caricatures, accepting a knighthood, we learned today, is no bar to thumping a selection contest.
When the dust settles, people will think about how early Sir Keir was to the fight. It is one year and two days since the first public suggestion that he might stand for selection here – um, that was by me in a blogpost: Keir, There And Everywhere – but it had been gossiped about before by members who had noticed his sudden appearance at more and more local events. People had cottoned on, and the first foundations of this victory were being dug last year, not this. And if there is one thing the candidates could have learned from Tulip Siddiq’s success in neighbouring Hampstead and Kilburn last year, where she won the right to follow Glenda Jackson as Labour’s parliamentary candidate last year, it is to start early, really early. The unknown of that constituency is whether Tulip would have beaten another high profile candidate in Fiona Millar, who pulled out just as it was about to get interesting, but Tulip’s campaign had, regardless of that, grown a formidable momentum from months and months of groundwork. She showed that people may say they get irritated by constant calling, but when it comes to the vote, they remember the incessant effort. Similarly, Sir Keir was able to deflate his rivals by unveiling more than 100 declared supporters on his first official leaflet.
So although Sir Keir’s team were occasionally told they were rude for setting up informal coffee meetings with local influentials before Frank had even made his announcement and there was some futile muttering about campaigning rules being broken, it surely helped the winner jump the start, rather doing much harm. Certainly it didn’t seem to stick as the negative it was briefed as, even when it became apparent that the preparations for Sir Keir’s run were going on while others were trying to stay focussed on cementing Labour’s lead at the Town Hall ahead of May’s council elections. There were a couple of pretty ludicrous briefings from Sarah backers later on that he was actually drifting away into third place over this apparent offence of starting too early. It didn’t stack up, didn’t make sense.
In reality, Frank, despite saying little publicly about his intentions, presumably so he could reveal them more or less on his own terms, decided to retire two years ago. This likelihood had slowly dribbled out across the party and it was certainly known at conference in Brighton in Autumn 2013, where it was almost the exclusive topic of conversation among people I bumped into in the hotel bars. This all meant those early bird contact calls by people like Abdul Hai on Sir Keir’s behalf did not seem as insensitive as they might have been, had Frank been genuinely dithering.
By contrast, Raj Chada and Sarah Hayward’s campaigns began from a standing start, particularly Sarah who, as leader, had the council elections to navigate. This was not a small distraction, even if the successful results that they brought must have lit new interest in standing as the area’s MP. She was also shackled to comments of the past about not standing, a real contrast to Tulip, who even during her time as a cabinet councillor was pretty out there and obvious about her desire to stand for Parliament. Career ladder gibes seemed to bounce off Tulip, doing no damage, while Sarah came across as genuinely conflicted. What third place now means for Sarah was already being discussed on the way out of the church, you know how it is, but that’s probably best left for another day.
In the analysis of victory, Sir Keir’s early bird noises are also said to have scared off potential competitors. Who? There were a few names in the wind, but his obvious interest apparently thinned the field as would-be opponents came to think that challenging the well-connected man of the telly was not worth the effort. In the same way, it is often said Hampstead and Kilburn did not attract as many applicants as the seat’s potential suggests because of a general assumption that Fiona would stand and ultimately be too tough to beat. It costs money, time and, from some of the dew eyes in the church this weekend, a heap of emotional energy to run a selection campaign in places like this. You can see why some think again about throwing their hats into the ring if they feel all this effort will come up against an unbeatable opponent.
When his turn came to speak at the final hustings, Sir Keir talked about his family: his six year-old son who was desperate for this selection campaign to end, and a deeply personal story about the NHS. He talked about how immigration should be celebrated in an answer to one question, and fudged another about his thoughts on the coalition.
In truth, if this had been a dance-off, sing-off style decision, like the Saturday night talent shows where the judges are ordered to decide on who performed best on the night, and on that night alone, Raj may have won. I know he changed at least three people’s minds on the day by delivering the most passionate, firebrandish speech. Even those who have been uncharitable towards him recently, said he had spoken well. He had surprised them. For Raj’s part, he had taken a few weeks at the start of the contest to shake himself out of his natural nice guy mode, and drop the self-depreciating humour and his polite, after you style. Neither he, nor Sarah, however, could establish themselves as the obvious pick for anyone who didn’t want Sir Keir’s machine, diluting the opposition in some ways to the market leader. Their gains sometimes seemed only to have been won from each other, while Sir Keir was at home each night counting his own numbers. And smiling.
By the final hustings speeches, more than 200 postal votes had already been cast, anyhow. Sir Keir had crunched those as well and was already on his way. Upon victory, he demanded that there should be no inquest into who voted for who, before members formed little packs and headed off to various watering holes to discuss who voted for who.
There was a stop at the Premier Inn’s bar in Euston Road for many of Sir Keir’s supporters, where he seemed just as excited to receive a congratulatory call telling him that Arsenal were 1-0 up against Newcastle. Glasses were clinked, there was a debrief, and then the a-team were off, off to the after-after party at Chez Starmer back in Kentish Town. A new chapter had begun.