Keir Starmer, Labour’s shadow Brexit secretary, has rejected the idea that improving on Ed Miliband’s vote share in the last election would mark a good performance for his party on 8 June.
Labour’s standing in the polls has been creeping up since the start of the election campaign, and senior allies of Jeremy Corbyn have suggested that if the leader tops Miliband’s 30.4% from 2015, he could stay on even if the Conservatives significantly increase their majority.
But when asked about that idea, Starmer, who is touring marginal constituencies in an attempt to bolster the morale of Labour candidates, said: “We are in a first-past-the-post system, therefore we measure success in the number of seats.
“The vote share has to be compared with the vote share of a rival party and therefore establishing a reasonable vote share if your rival gets much more of a vote share just doesn’t do it.”
Labour had 229 seats at the end of the last parliament, but there has been speculation that if the most recent polls prove to be accurate, the party could win fewer than that.
The shadow minister’s remarks effectively rejected a statement made by Corybn’s principal trade union backer earlier this week. On Tuesday, the Unite general secretary, Len McCluskey, said that winning 200 seats would mark a “successful campaign”.
Starmer said that would “probably give the Tories 30 or 40 more seats, which would put them at 350. Nobody could call that success.”
The Labour candidate, who hopes to retain his Holborn and St Pancras seat comfortably, was speaking on a tour of three Midlands seats: Stoke-on-Trent North, Walsall South and Birmingham Northfield.
Starmer was closely involved in crafting Labour’s position on Brexit, which saw several members of the shadow cabinet resign over the decision to back Theresa May’s article 50 bill. He admitted on Friday it was an agonising period for him and his party, but said he had been surprised at how little voters had raised the issue on the campaign trail.
“It’s come up far less than I had thought it would, and that’s across the country. I’m not saying it never comes up, but actually, it comes up very, very rarely.
“It was billed as a Brexit election: in the end, it’s an election that’s turned into ‘What sort of Britain do you want to live in?’ And therefore there’s a lot of talk about the health service, about public services, about tax – about the basic deal between government and people.”
He said that had meant the much-discussed Liberal Democrat “fightback” appeared to be proving less successful than it had hoped. Tim Farron’s party has put stopping Brexit at the centre of its general election pitch, with the hope of significantly improving on the nine MPs it had in the last parliament.
Starmer said: “I think the Lib Dems will be very concerned that the surge that they hoped for is simply not happening – it’s not happening in the polls, it didn’t happen in the local government elections, and in my experience on the doors it’s not happening.”
Considered a potential future Labour leader by some of his colleagues, Starmer gambled by taking a seat in Corbyn’s shadow cabinet last autumn, after the mass resignations that followed the EU referendum.
The post allowed him to gain valuable experience at the dispatch box, though some less supportive MPs also say it exposed the fact that, as a former director of public prosecutions, he remains more of a lawyer than a politician.
Starmer said Labour’s manifesto, which includes re-nationalisations and a significant increase in public investment, had opened up political debates that had been sidelined for a long time.
“I think what’s really important about this manifesto is that it’s opened a space for an honest discussion about the investment we need in infrastructure, people, in skills, in the health service, in public services, and it’s set out what we need to pay for it. That’s a debate that I think we’ve all shied away from for a very long time in all political parties. And that’s a debate that needs to be had.”
Having appointed himself “captain marginal”, Starmer has been having that debate up and down the country, visiting more than 25 seats since the campaign began.
Visits this week have included a trip to support Ruth Smeeth, who is defending a 4,836 majority in Stoke on Trent North, a morale boosting session for activists working for Valerie Vaz in Walsall South, and a stop outside the gates of a Birmingham school with Richard Burden to hand out leaflets about school funding cuts.
Along the way there are hugs, and anxious exchanges of intelligence about the voters’ mood – and little of the razzmatazz of Labour’s manifesto launch. Privately, Labour candidates who won last time with majorities as high as 8,000 are fretting about whether they will still have a job on 9 June, especially where Ukip polled well last time and is not standing candidates this time around.