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Labour leadership frontrunner Starmer hires ex-Corbyn aide as key strategic advisor

Sir Keir has secured the backing of 24 Labour MPs - putting him well ahead of his main rival Rebecca Long Bailey. Credit: PA

Labour leadership frontrunner Sir Keir Starmer has hired Jeremy Corbyn's former campaigns chief, as a key strategic advisor to his bid to run the party.

The appointment of Simon Fletcher, a left-wing Labour veteran, who also worked for Ed Milliband and Ken Livingstone, is being viewed as a move to draw in support from those who backed Jeremy Corbyn when he was elected as leader.

The coup of bringing a Corbynite into his team came at the end of a good day for Sir Keir, who now has enough nominations from colleagues to reach the second stage of the Labour leadership contest.

On Wednesday morning the party published the first running tally of nominations from MPs and MEPs, revealing shadow Brexit secretary Starmer has already gathered the required 22 backers, with his total at 24.

Later he was given another boost by Unison, the country's largest union, which announced that it is backing Sir Keir Starmer for leader.

Unison's backing means Sir Keir is now almost certain to get his name onto the ballot paper which will be sent to Labour members.

Simon Fletcher (right) worked on Jeremy Corbyn's 2015 leadership campaign. Credit: PA

And with Mr Fletcher on board, Sir Keir, a more centrist candidate, will be feeling confident he can unite different factions within the Labour Party.

He also hired another former Corbyn staff member, Kat Fletcher, as director of field, and former Darlington MP Jenny Chapman - who lost her seat in the recent election - is chair of the campaign.

Sir Keir said his campaign team “draws on the breadth of talent, energy and enthusiasm from across the Labour movement.”

Unison also thew its support behind deputy leadership candidate and shadow education secretary Angela Rayner.

Sir Keir said he was "delighted and honoured to have the backing of Unison" but was careful not to get ahead of himself.

"It's very early days, I'm obviously pleased with the support that I've got but there are excellent candidates in this race with me," he said.

Unsurprisingly, Sir Keir's backers include high-profile Remainers such as David Lammy, who supported his efforts to push the party towards advocating a second referendum.

But that policy has been questioned in the wake of the party's haemorrhaging seats in its Brexit-backing heartlands.

In second place is the left's preferred candidate, Rebecca Long Bailey. She has been named the 'continuity candidate', and yesterday rated Jeremy Corbyn's leadership "10 out of 10" in an interview with me on ITV News.

Almost all of her declared supporters are new MPs, which suggests the battle to get left-wing candidates selected in key seats before the election has paid off.

The two favourites in the race, Rebecca Long Bailey and Sir Keir Starmer are already ahead. Credit: PA

Jess Phillips currently has 6 nominations, with Lisa Nandy on 2 and Emily Thornberry on 1.

The sixth candidate, Clive Lewis, has yet to receive any nominations but his team say half a dozen MPs have already publicly supported him.

Further running tallies will be published each day, with MPs having until the 13th January to nominate their preferred candidate.

Ultimately, it'll be up to members, the unions, and registered supporters to decide who the winner is.

Candidates who receive enough nominations from colleagues will then enter phase two of the contest, where they have to secure the backing of 5% of constituency Labour branches or at least three affiliate groups, two of which must be maid up of trade unions, to get onto the final ballot paper and face election by the membership.

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Unison's backing of Sir Keir provides him with further momentum at the start of the campaign.

The decision was taken by the union's Labour Link committee, which is made up entirely of Labour members.

General secretary Dave Prentis said: "This is a pivotal time for Labour. "We believe - if elected by the membership - Keir Starmer would be a leader to bring the party together and win back the trust of the thousands of voters who deserted Labour last month.

"Keir has a clear vision to get Labour back to the winning ways of the past.

"He is best placed to take on Boris Johnson, hold his Government to account and ensure Labour can return to power and once more change working people's lives for the better."

Announcing Unison's support for Ms Rayner, Mr Prentis said: "Angie has a long association with Unison as a member and a representative, and has an intimate understanding of the day-to-day struggles facing working people and their families across the UK.

"Angie's popularity across the party means she is the right person to handle the challenges of this job. Angie will make a great deputy leader if elected." Contenders vying to be party's deputy leader also set out their stalls to MPs on Wednesday.