Labour leadership contest: Keir Starmer defends Brexit policy

Kate Proctor Political correspondent
Photograph: Robert Perry/Getty Images

Keir Starmer has defended Labour’s Brexit policy after claims from colleagues that it was the reason for the party’s worst election defeat since 1935.

The shadow Brexit secretary said Labour’s plan to renegotiate another deal and then put it to a public vote, and to decide at at later stage whether to back leave or remain, was the right position to take.

He said he would have gone further and pushed the leadership to come out and tell members which side they would have campaigned for.

Asked on the Sophy Ridge on Sunday show on Sky News if it was the right policy, Starmer said: “Of course.”

He said: “I thought it was the right policy. I thought we should have gone on by the way and said which side we would be campaigning on if there was a referendum and I warned our party that if we looked indecisive, we wouldn’t look like we were leading on this issue.”

He said going into an election saying Labour would try to get another deal was the right thing to do because Boris Johnson’s proposals “would be very damaging for our country”.

Rebecca Long-Bailey


A close ally of the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, the Salford MP and shadow business secretary has been groomed as a potential leftwing contender for the top job.

Pitch Promising to champion “progressive patriotism”.



Lisa Nandy


The Wigan MP has built a reputation as a campaigner for her constituency and others like it, many of which have fallen to the Tories. A soft-left candidate, she resigned from the shadow cabinet in 2016 over Corbyn’s leadership and handling of the EU referendum.

Pitch Wants to “bring Labour home” to voters that have abandoned the party in its traditional strongholds.



Keir Starmer


Ambitious former director of public prosecutions has led the charge for remain in the shadow cabinet. He was instrumental in shifting Labour’s position towards backing a second referendum

Pitch Launched his campaign by highlighting how he has stood up for leftwing causes as a campaigning lawyer, and unveiled the slogan “Another Future is Possible”, arguing "Labour can win again if we make the moral case for socialism"



The former director of public prosecutions was a vocal remain supporter and pushed the party to back a second referendum, alongside the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, and the shadow home secretary, Diane Abbott. Members of the shadow cabinet have said since the significant election defeat that they repeatedly warned the party not to back another vote on Brexit.

The shadow cabinet secretary, Jon Trickett, said the policy had been a mistake while the party chair, Ian Lavery, has said Labour ended up trying to “foist” a remain position on working-class communities.

Starmer said Brexit was one of several reasons for Labour’s election loss. He said: “I think we all take responsibility for that devastating election loss. People brought up the leadership of the Labour party, fairly or unfairly; they brought up Brexit in different ways – what was said in the Midlands was different to what was said here in Scotland; they brought up the fact that they thought the manifesto was overloaded and they didn’t believe we could deliver it all; and in a number of places they brought up antisemitism.


• The “red wall” was a huge block of Labour-voting constituencies stretching from north Wales into Merseyside, through Greater Manchester along the Midlands and up to the north-east. The origin of the term is unclear but some believe it was first used in 2019.



•  Thirty-three Labour leaders spoke to the Guardian and all but three supported Sir Keir Starmer or Lisa Nandy to become the party’s next leader. All of the 33 local authority areas voted for Brexit in 2016.



• Of those who would disclose their least favourite candidate, all but two said Rebecca Long-Bailey. The other votes were for Jess Phillips and Emily Thornberry.



• Labour leaders in six of the 10 longest-held Labour seats that fell to the Tories said they were backing Starmer or Nandy. They are the Labour leaders in Rotherham, Newcastle-under-Lyme, Leigh, Bassetlaw, North East Lincolnshire and Bolsover. The other four leaders had not responded to requests for comment.


“So there were a number of reasons and we need to address all of them. But we’ve also, I’m afraid, got to face up to the fact that we’ve lost four elections in a row … Brexit wasn’t the cause of four election losses for the Labour party, so an honest assessment of the nature of the task ahead is needed.”

Starmer, Lisa Nandy and Rebecca Long-Bailey are through to the final stage of the Labour leadership contest, where members are balloted on whom they want to succeed Jeremy Corbyn.

The shadow justice secretary, Richard Burgon, who is running to be the party’s deputy leader, said the Brexit policy was at the heart of the election loss and it was clear the second referendum stance failed.

He defended socialist policies in the manifestos of 2017 and 2019 and said members should be asked if a new leader wanted to remove such policies.

He told Ridge that no new leader had a mandate to “ditch a single one of those socialist policies … without the express permission of Labour members”.