Keir's two years – an interview with the Labour leader
He came to the Labour leadership in less than auspicious circumstances: a divided, demoralised party and a country stricken by the Covid-19 pandemic. But two years into the job, Keir Starmer tells Adam Payne he is dreaming of victory.
For a smiling Keir Starmer, the sun is shining in more ways than one. It is a cloudless spring morning in Sunderland where he is talking to local kids about one of his favourite subjects: football. Back in Westminster, which he has vacated for local elections campaigning, storm clouds are hanging over Downing Street as scandal grips the heart of government. For the first time since becoming Labour leader two years ago, there is serious talk of him being the next prime minister.
A string of government scandals combined with the ongoing cost of living crisis – that for families in the North East and elsewhere is biting hard – has helped Labour establish a consistent lead over the Conservatives in the polls. Starmer is keen to stress, however, that Labour’s recovery isn’t wholly the product of the government’s own actions, or lack thereof.
“We have carried out huge changes within the party,” he tells The House.
“Whether that’s tearing out anti-Semitism, being absolutely clear that our support for Nato is unshakable, putting a first-class shadow front bench team out there through our reshuffles, or changing party rules to show that we have changed.”
Starmer is particularly buoyed by polling showing that his partnership with shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves, one of his closest allies in politics, is trusted as much as that of Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak to manage the public finances, if not more so. Imposing a windfall tax on the profits of major oil and gas companies to help fund financial support for households facing soaring energy bills is front and centre of Labour’s campaigning, with a new slogan: “On Your Side”. At the same time, Johnson and Sunak stand accused of not doing enough to support struggling families in their recent Spring Statement, with a number of Conservative MPs among the critics.
Starmer, 59, believes his strategy of aggressive change explains why people who couldn’t countenance voting Labour at the 2019 general election are beginning to “take another look”. He is detecting a “marked change” in how the party is being received on the doorsteps as he attempts to rebuild its support following the demoralising defeat to Johnson three years ago. Voters who said they could no longer trust Labour are now willing to listen to what the party has to say, he believes.
Starmer rejects the suggestion that Labour ought to be further ahead in the polls given the huge damage done to the government by partygate, as well as the sheer scale of the cost of living crisis (the imminent fall in living standards is expected to be the biggest since records began in the 1950s). “We were 27 points behind when I took over as leader of the party, and now we’re just ahead. That is significant progress,” he says.
Labour becoming a genuine electoral threat is why the government is ramping up what have become known as culture wars, Starmer suggests. “What the government is doing is deliberately choosing campaigns that divide the country, divide people, pit one group against another.” He agrees with claims that the government is “weaponising” trans people to score political points. In recent weeks several members of the shadow cabinet have struggled to navigate the subject in interviews; Starmer endorses the remarks of Emily Thornberry, the shadow attorney general, who earned plaudits in the Labour movement after telling LBC host Nick Ferrari that while some women do have penises, “I’m not looking up their skirts, I don’t care”.
I’m not a big fan of Twitter. I don’t want these discussions … in which people think that if you win an argument within the party, you’ve changed the world
“I’m not interested in the politics of division,” says Starmer. “I came into Parliament on the same day as [the murdered Batley and Spen MP] Jo Cox. What she said about us having more in common absolutely reflects my values and the values of the Labour Party I lead.”
However, despite his call for unity, Starmer is unapologetic about the anger he has provoked from elements the Labour left since replacing Jeremy Corbyn as leader in early 2020.
The former director of public prosecutions has been accused of marginalising the pro-Corbyn wing of the party. Corbyn now sits as an independent MP for Islington North, having lost the Labour whip six months into Starmer’s leadership after responding to an Equality and Human Rights Commission report into anti-Semitism within Labour by saying the problem had been “dramatically overstated for political reasons”.
Starmer suggests Labour needed a clean and unambiguous break from his predecessor to have any chance of being electable again. “I don’t think that you look to the electorate and blame the electorate when you lose a general election so badly, like we did in 2019,” he says. “You look in the mirror and you change your own party. That’s what I’ve been determined to do.”
Starmer, who was first elected MP for Holborn and St Pancras, just down the road from Corbyn’s patch, in 2015 – so has never experienced being in government – is desperate to win the next election, stressing he didn’t come into politics “to be the opposition, to walk in the division lobby and keep losing votes”.
His belief that the party strayed “too far” from the priorities of working people in recent years – another thinly-veiled swipe at the previous leadership – is why Starmer instructs his shadow cabinet to limit the amount of time they spend scrolling Twitter, where Labour’s sometimes antagonistic internal debates are often played out.
“I’m not a big fan of Twitter,” he says. “I don’t want these discussions within Labour in which people think that if you win an argument within the party, you’ve changed the world. You can only change the world by turning yourself inside out and engaging with voters.”
Starmer says the country will face a stark choice when presented with the option of him and Johnson at the next general election, currently due in 2024. Watch the pair trade blows in Prime Minister’s Questions and there seems genuine animosity between them, and the Labour leader doesn’t mince his words when the conversation turns to Johnson and how he feels about him.
“I have nothing in common with him,” he says. “Honesty, transparency, accountability, and integrity matter in politics. He’s the opposite. He thinks they don’t matter.”
Those who work closely with Starmer characterise him as a calm individual who seldom loses his temper (some critics of his performance, particularly in the early days of his tenure, complained he wasn’t fired up enough). But Starmer admits he has recently found himself losing his cool with Johnson in the Commons, describing the Prime Minister as a fundamentally different person to him, someone who offends his most core beliefs. He did not shirk from calling for Johnson’s resignation following his and Sunak’s fines by the Metropolitan Police for breaching lockdown restrictions, and clearly sees a continuum in his behaviour.
I’m afraid with this Prime Minister, I’ve got absolutely nothing in common with him because we come at it completely differently
“That’s why some of those exchanges about whether integrity and honesty in politics matter have been really heated. The Prime Minister obviously thinks they don’t matter and that they can leave a mess for somebody else to clear up. I fundamentally disagree with that.” He continues: “I’m not the sort of person who finds it difficult [to build constructive relationships] across the political divide, at all. There are a number of Tory MPs who I would consider friends and colleagues. But I’m afraid with this Prime Minister I’ve got absolutely nothing in common with him because we come at it completely differently.”
In one of Starmer’s most stinging attacks on Johnson to date, the Labour leader describes himself as a “serious” person who doesn’t treat politics “as a branch of the entertainment business” – unlike the Prime Minister. “I’m also completely frustrated with the man,” he adds. “If you’re the prime minister, you get a chance that nobody else has: to change the country for the better, to improve the lives of millions of people – and he’s not doing it. So there’s a very deep frustration there that he’s not using the role of prime minister in the way I think it should be used, which is to improve lives.”
Starmer is greeted in the North East by Kim McGuinness, Labour’s police and crime commissioner for Northumbria. The pair chat to volunteers at the SARA community centre before strolling the quiet surrounding streets. The Labour leader is using his visit to Sunderland to push the party’s renewed focus on reducing crime and announces that if elected to No 10 he would give local people more say in sentencing by creating a network of community and victim payback boards. Labour believes crime has become a significant weak spot for the Conservatives after 12 years in office.
After visiting Sunderland, Starmer is continuing his travels north to Glasgow where he will campaign alongside Labour’s leader in Scotland, Anas Sarwar. Recent polling suggests that the Labour Party is well-placed to finish second next month north of the border for the first time since 2016, in what would be a boost to the Labour leader’s bid to demonstrate he has got the party on the path to being a viable electoral force once more. Clearly keen to manage expectations, Starmer says it’ll be difficult for Labour to “evidence gains” in England on 5 May, and that for him success would mean Labour outperforming its showing at the last general election. “I’ll be measuring it in particular against the 2019 results to see whether we’re making the progress that we need to make as a party heading into the next general election.”
Having been prevented from touring the country and mingling with voters during the first year or so of his leadership thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, it is a relief to have moved on from Zoom calls and speeches to empty rooms. Starmer has probably had more run-ins with Covid than the average person, having caught it twice, forcing him to miss last year’s Budget and a Prime Minister’s Questions in January. He also self-isolated on four separate occasions.
“It’s really great to be on the road,” he says, explaining that he’s a person who struggles to sit still. “I really enjoy it. I love the company. I love being out and about with people, visiting their place of work, their community centres like this one, their schools or their business.”
Starmer lives in Kentish Town, north London with his wife Victoria and their son and daughter, who he does not publicly name. When not trying to become Labour’s seventh prime minister, he plays football at the weekends and watches – or struggles to watch, he admits – his beloved Arsenal. He is often seen drinking at his favourite pub, The Pineapple – a local institution.
The Labour leader says he is not taking recent polling for granted, but for the first time in a while Labour MPs are seriously discussing the prospect of winning a general election.
In a recent shadow cabinet meeting, shadow work and pensions secretary Jonathan Ashworth told Starmer he was the first Labour Party leader in a decade to look like a prime minister, an attendee told The House. Ashworth just happened to be sitting next to the former leader Ed Miliband at the time, they added. Can he go one better than Miliband and turn mid-parliament polling leads into a general election victory? Starmer says he is confident he can and will.
And does he expect to be going toe-to-toe with Johnson when the time comes? Or will Conservative MPs have got rid of him by then? “Oh, I don’t know,” he says. “I’ll go up against whoever they want to put up against us. I don’t mind at all”.
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