Keir Starmer tells Labour Hustings ‘we can beat the Tories if we unite’

Keir Starmer has told the Labour Party it faces a stark choice between “pulling together” to beat Boris Johnson at the next election or carrying on “taking lumps out of each other” and facing further defeat.

The Labour leadership favourite said the “burning question” was how to beat the Tories at the ballot box in four-and-a-half years time, acknowledging the party had a “huge job” ahead to rebuild.

“We've got to pull together – divided parties don't win elections. We've got to demonstrate to you and everybody else that we are a really effective opposition,” he told the audience at The Mirror hustings in Dudley, West Midlands.

“We're unstoppable when we're united. We're responsible for the next leg of the journey. It's up to us.”

As the contest to take over from Jeremy Corbyn entered its final weeks, Mr Starmer's rivals for the top job Rebecca Long-Bailey and Lisa Nandy used the final major hustings to underline the need to get Labour fighting fit.

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Wigan MP Ms Nandy said Labour had to hold an “honest reckoning” into why nurses and ex-miners turned away from the party to the Tories in their tens of thousands.

She criticised Labour's manifesto for having “nothing to say” about child hunger, Mr Corbyn's leadership which “allowed factional war” as well as the party's confused Brexit postion which “played games while the country was ripped apart”.

In a reference to Ms Long-Bailey giving Mr Corbyn full marks in an interview, she said: “It's not 10 out of 10. We can do better and we will. We'll start with honesty. I will never duck the difficult choices.”

But she suggested the other contenders were failing to do that. “I will stand up for what is right as I have done all my life and – alone in this contest  – I will tell the truth and will fight for the difficult things that need to happen.”

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Left-winger Ms Long-Bailey warned that industrialised areas like the West Midlands had suffered a “loss of faith” in politics over the last 40 years that only a “democratic revolution” including devolution and investment could restore.

“We know the Tories are trying to park their tanks on our lawns and we can't be complacent about this,” she said.

“We know that they're already setting up constituency offices and regional organisers in areas where they've broken down the Red Wall already.

“So we need to go toe-to-toe with them. We have to be ruthless and that means making sure that all our campaiging zeal goes into these local elections as though we were fighting a general election . It's that important.”

In a wide-ranging debate that covered climate change, crime, education and the NHS, Mr Starmer warned the Labour Party it faces the “challenge of our lives” taking on Boris Johnson over a post-Brexit trade deal with the United States.

The shadow Brexit secretary claimed the Prime Minister would rather “rupture our relationship” with the European Union than give up his hope of striking a deal with Donald Trump .

He slammed Mr Johnson as a “really dangerous man” who could put workers' rights, as well as food and environmental standards at risk and do huge damage to British industry.

“There's this suggestion that Boris Johnson is some sort of cuddly clown. But he's a really dangerous man on so many issues. He'll do great damage and I'm very concerned that he's willing to rip us out of the EU without a deal. It would be a disaster for manufacturing round here,” he said.

In a softening of his position in recent weeks, he refused to rule out campaigning to rejoin the EU at some point in the future – but insisted it was “not a priority for now” as the Leave/ Remain argument was over.

“We now need to focus on Johnson and what he's going to do. I am convinced, whatever he says, that he will rupture our relationship with Europe and go into a relationship with Trump, with a Trump deal."

He added: "We have left the EU. It's very important that we all recognise that. We have got the challenge of our lives taking Johnson on over this.

"I don't think rejoining is our priority  for now and the immediate future. It’s for our kids to decide what our future relationship is."

But his two rivals both rejected the idea that Labour could fight the next election on a platform of rejoining the EU.

Ms Nandy said: “I'd rule it out. We haven't got the option, we've lost that right because we didn't take the deal that ticked every box that we had about protecting close economic and political cooperation. We refused to do it.”

And Ms Long-Bailey added: “It would be absolutely disastrous and think we should be setting out a positive vision now of what Britain looks like outside of the EU.”

All three candidates at Dudley Town Hall said it was time to push the Government further on tackling climate change – saying Mr Johnson appeared to have stalled on the issue.

Ms Long -Bailey told the audience “that's what we're up against” while Ms Nandy said the PM should be “shamed into action” and Mr Starmer added “we've got to call them out”.

Asked on International Women's Day whether it was time for the Labour Party to finally have a woman leader, Mr Starmer insisted he was an “ally of the feminist movement and a feminist myself”.

He added: “I'm acutely conscious this isn't about one individual. Alongside me will be a team working together.”

Ms Nandy claimed it was time to “start calling out” the misogyny that existed among some older male Labour MPs who had suggested she was too inexperienced in Parliament to become leader, even though she had been an MP for 10 years, half of which she spent on the front bench.

Each of the candidates praised the NHS and its handling of coronavirus but raised concerns over its capacity to cope in the event of a major outbreak.

Mr Starmer said: “My wife works in the NHS but morale is low in her team because day after day, week after week, they have too much work and not enough funding”.

They also attacked the Tories' record on schools, with Ms Nandy claiming they had “stripped away” support for children outside of school leaving some in her Wigan seat forced to “scavenge through bins and steal from the canteen” to avoid going hungry.

And they highlighted the lack of workers' rights in the gig economy. Ms Long-Bailey called for a dedicated Ministry of Emloyment, adding: “It's no different from standing at the gates of Victorian Salford Docks to see if you can get a couple of hours of work. That's got to change”.

The deputy leadership candidates also appeared at the Dudley event, with favourite Angela Rayner saying Labour had to “take on” the Tories like she did Nigel Farage in an explosive TV debate during the election and  “talk in the language of the people we represent” to win back Red Wall seats.

Dr Rosena Allin-Khan said the leadership had to listen not just to Labour members but to voters across the country, while Ian Murray said it was for voters to hold the next leader to account rather than party members.

Dawn Butler, the only one of the candidates to have served in government, said she would insist on party discipline while Richard Burgon, in a dig at ex-deputy leader Tom Watson, said the role should not be leader-in-waiting and “certainly not mischief maker”.

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