Keir Starmer would keep Labour’s policy of scrapping student tuition fees if he became the party’s leader, he has announced, in a fresh attempt to demonstrate he would not ditch Corbynism wholesale.

The pledge to abolish the £9,000 annual fees was one of the most eye-catching policies in Labour’s manifesto for the 2017 general election, and also featured in 2019.

In a statement released by his campaign team, Starmer said: “Labour must stand by its commitment to end the national scandal of spiralling student debt and abolish tuition fees. We lost the election, but we did not lose our values or determination to tackle the injustice facing young people going to university.”

The tuition fee policy was costed at a net £7.2bn a year – making it the party’s third most expensive promise, after providing free social care.

That price tag would have included the restoration of student maintenance grants – which Starmer called on the chancellor, Sajid Javid, to bring back immediately.

The shadow Brexit secretary is well ahead of his three rivals, Rebecca Long-Bailey, Lisa Nandy and Emily Thornberry, in terms of nominations from grassroots constituency Labour parties (CLPs).

But he has sought to stress throughout the contest that in policy terms he will not “oversteer”, despite Labour’s disastrous performance in December’s general election.

Some leftwing MPs and party members are concerned Starmer could drag the party towards the political centre-ground. The deputy leadership candidate Richard Burgon has warned against “throwing the baby out with the bathwater” or returning to “business as usual”.

Starmer said: “Under the Tories, tuition fees have tripled and young people are leaving university with nearly £60,000 worth of debt. Let’s be blunt: we need to end the scandal of spiralling student debt.

“Young people cannot wait another four years for a Labour government to tackle this issue. That is why I would urge the chancellor to use next month’s budget to invest in the next generation by restoring maintenance grants for students in further and higher education.”

Ballot papers for the leadership contest are expected to be posted out next week, and the result is due to be announced on 4 April.

The field appears likely to be narrowed down to three at the end of this week. The deadline for gathering 33 CLP nominations is Friday, and Thornberry appears likely to fail to meet that threshold.

An alternative route to the final ballot paper was to win the support of trades unions or other affiliated organisations with 5% of the affiliated membership, but the shadow foreign secretary has been unable to do so.

Starmer’s campaign team are concerned that Long-Bailey was given a head start because she has the backing of Momentum, the campaigning machine which helped Corbyn retain the leadership in 2016.

But they have volunteers ready to run phone banks across the country once the membership database is made available to them.

The Starmer and Long-Bailey teams have been embroiled in a row over the use of membership data, with Labour HQ reporting two Starmer staffers to the information commissioner over an alleged breach of data protection rules.

Momentum published a campaign video on Tuesday, hailing Long-Bailey’s “principles”, and pointing out that she was one of the 48 Labour MPs, along with Corbyn, Diane Abbott and John McDonnell, who rebelled against the leadership to vote against Tory welfare cuts in 2015, instead of abstaining.

“If we believe in our principles, then we believe that we will eventually be proven right,” the narrator says. “If we just agree with the Tories, then we can never hold them to account, as voters will think we’re all the same.”

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