Karin Smyth MP: Why I’m backing Keir Starmer for Leader of the Labour Party

As many of you will know, I’m backing Keir Starmer for leader of the Labour Party. I’ve touched upon some of my reasons previously but I wanted to expand on this as we near the ballot. 

I’m not alone in supporting Keir. He received 88 MP nominations, around three times as many as the other candidates, as well as the support of several key unions and Labour Party affiliates. There is a very good reason for that. 

We need to unite the party and regain the trust of voters in order to win an election and form a progressive Labour government. This feels like a pivotal moment for the party that I’ve been a member of for 35 years. It’s a huge responsibility and we must get it right.  

As I considered who to support, I thought back to when I first joined the Labour Party and the journey that’s followed. 

As a young woman from an Irish working-class family, I was determined to have a better life than my parents. The Labour Party of the early Eighties offered nothing to support my family or my ambition to go to university. It wasn’t until Neil Kinnock took the reins and started to transform the party into a much more outward-facing organisation that I really saw the potential for a better future. 

That was something I could get behind and I campaigned for Labour in both the 1987 and 1992 elections. The first chance I had to determine the party’s leader was in 1994. Reeling from the shock of the 1992 election defeat and as a feminist, I was taken aback by how a young male lawyer had become the party and media favourite – sidelining Margaret Beckett. I voted for Margaret, and am now fortunate enough to call her a colleague. She is a brilliant politician, whom I continue to admire and respect. 

But it was Tony Blair who inspired the nation and gave hope to millions. He went onto become the greatest leader in my lifetime (to-date!) and won us unprecedented success to be able to make the changes that still serve my constituents. From building decent, modern public buildings for education, healthcare and community services such as children’s centres to establishing a minimum wage, reducing NHS waiting times and enabling more social mobility.  

May 2nd 1997 remains one of the most exciting days of my life – after watching Tory Ministers on TV from my teenage years right through to my early 30s, it was amazing to see and hear the difference that a Labour government could and did make.  I am determined to see that again – it’s why I became an MP, but it’s clear that we have a way to go. There are obvious parallels with today, but it’s also different.  

Once again, we have a male lawyer emerge from the ranks – being pushed forward looking like the party and the media favourite. This time, all the other leadership candidates are women – most of whom, like Margaret Beckett in 1994, would make good leaders. This time round, I personally know the people in the running – having worked with them over the last four and a half years. And, a quarter of a century on, I’m presented with a new dilemma.  

A leader can make or break a party. If we get this right, we have a decent chance of winning the next election – if we don’t, then we will condemn ourselves to another decade of Tory rule.  

Keir does what experienced, good leaders do. He brings people along with him, listening, reflecting and considering the bigger picture. He looks after his team and takes accountability for decisions and actions.  Before becoming an MP, he was Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) and, as such, has faced some of the hardest decisions imaginable – relating to murder, serious organised crime and terrorism. He fully appreciates the consequences of such decisions.

In his role as Shadow Brexit Secretary, he’s navigated the difficult and adversarial politics of Brexit to repeatedly hold the government to account. I was part of Keir’s Brexit team and have continued to work closely with him as Shadow Minister for Northern Ireland. I cannot imagine anyone else getting us through the last few years in the way that Keir did. It is testament to his leadership ability and style that everyone in his team is supporting him. 

I remember the evening we agreed to trigger Article 50; a tough decision for MPs who did not want to leave the EU but faced with a Tory majority government and in respect of the referendum result, felt compelled to vote to start the process. A number of colleagues rebelled. As I returned home that night the phone went – it was Keir checking in to say acknowledge what a tough day it had been for the team, checking in to see if I was OK. Empathy is such an important quality in a leader, especially during these fractious times and Keir has that key ingredient – a genuinely decent person who cares.

People who have met him during one of his many visits to Bristol have commented on this too. This genuine caring nature extends beyond his team, to people Keir doesn’t know. Witnessing again and again how well he leads, and crucially, unites teams and connects with people has made my decision much easier. 

I am still hearing people say we need to be bolder and more radical when selecting our next leader. But, after four General Election defeats – the last one in December a catastrophic defeat – the most radical thing we can do is win. And I firmly believe that Keir is the person to lead us to victory. In Keir’s words, another future is possible.