Sir Keir Starmer will not quit as Labour leader even if the party loses in Thursday’s by-election in Batley and Spen, his spokesman has said, as calls for his resignation from MPs and members grow.
The embattled leader’s spokesman said Sir Keir was determined to lead the party “into the next general election and back into government,” despite the widespread expectation that the constituency will fall to the Conservative Party for the first time in almost a quarter of a century.
A poll on Wednesday found two fifths of Labour members want Sir Keir to stand down if he cannot hold on to Batley and Spen, after two other losses, in Hartlepool and Chesham and Amersham.
Seventy per cent of members said Andy Burnham, the Labour mayor of Greater Manchester, would do a better job.
In an interview published on Wednesday night, Mr Burnham conceded he would like to run for the leadership for a third time, but insisted he would not stand “any time soon”.
“I’m supporting Keir,” he told The New Statesman. “I want him to win the next general election, and I will do whatever I can to help him achieve that.”
Labour MPs point to the decision to allow Tracy Brabin to stand as West Yorkshire mayor, triggering the by-election, as a “strategic error of the highest order” and have called for the leader to be "accountable" for recent losses.
One MP in Labour’s Socialist Campaign Group told The Telegraph there would be “more candidates than you could shake a stick at” if a leadership contest was triggered.
To stand against Sir Keir, a challenger would need the support of 40 Labour MPs – double the 20 nominations needed in a contest sparked by a leader’s resignation.
Angela Rayner, Sir Keir’s deputy, has reportedly ruled herself out of a challenge but rumours of campaigns by the Left-wing MPs Dawn Butler and Richard Burgon are spreading in Westminster.
On Wednesday, Sir Keir’s spokesman said he would not stand aside until after the next election.
“Keir is not going to resign,” the spokesman said.
“What the British people are worried about at the moment is their jobs, their kids and the future of their country, and that is exactly what Keir is focused on.
“That’s what he will spend the summer talking about. And he will take the Labour party through into the next general election and back into government.”
Responding to the polling showing members want him to quit, the spokesman said: “Keir understands […] the scale of the challenge we’ve had since we lost the election in 2019, and the importance of rebuilding trust so we can win in the next general election in 2023 or 2024.”
But MPs have said Sir Keir cannot be left to fight next May’s local elections if he continues his recent streak of losses, and are quietly exploring the options for a challenger.
Diane Abbott, who served in Jeremy Corbyn’s shadow cabinet, has said a loss in Batley would be “curtains” for Sir Keir. Other voices on the Labour Left, including the journalist Owen Jones, have called for his resignation.
Profile | Keir Starmer MP
“He is not showing leadership. We don’t have a distinctive offer,” one MP told this newspaper.
“You can’t go back to the electorate. There are more May elections not that far away, and our polling is sinking.
“For me, the main test of a Labour leader is: can he or she show that they’re capable of beating the Conservatives in a general election?
“At present we find ourselves driving in reverse.”
Another veteran backbencher said: “We’re at a pivotal point within the future of the Labour Party.
“The likes of Keir have got to be accountable. They’ve got to accept some sort of responsibility, to look at the mirror and see the performance of the Labour Party and the personal performance of themselves.”
Sir Keir’s critics point to his unpopularity among Labour MPs as evidence he could be toppled if he refuses to stand down.
“He hasn’t got any strong base, a group of supporters in the parliamentary Labour Party,” one said.
“He hasn’t got these foot soldiers. He hasn’t got that natural base.”