July 23, 2024
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‘People need hope, but it needs to be realistic hope’

Britain’s next prime minister — barring a flabbergasting reversal — is sitting next to me in Southampton’s Retro Cafe chewing a hash brown as he takes a break from electioneering. 

Amid the frantic rhythm of the campaign trail, we don’t have long. And Sir Keir Starmer, fresh from a visit to the local port, keeps getting waylaid by customers and staff wanting to meet the Labour party leader.

Starmer seems on the brink of the first Labour general election win for 19 years, possibly by a landslide, a scenario that would have seemed far-fetched when he became leader four years ago. Yet change is in the political air. 

The smiling 61-year-old sports a navy blue Sandro suit, open-necked pale blue shirt and a gelled silver quiff of hair. He seems neither happy nor unhappy about the sudden appearance of an £11 vegetarian fry-up, chosen on his behalf by an aide from the menu of this cosy little eatery. 

With just a couple of weeks to go before polling, Starmer starts each day with a dawn conference call before a pinball journey across the UK to a bewildering variety of stage-managed events. It’s a frenzy of press interviews, speeches, debates, round-table meetings and photo ops in scores of towns and cities. “It’s every day, and it’s day after day after day after day,” he says. But he’s not complaining: “I’ve waited four and a half years for this.”

Labour’s risk-averse campaign has so far avoided the endless gaffes that have dogged struggling Conservative party leader Rishi Sunak — including a rain-soaked election launch and an early exit from D-Day commemorations in Normandy.

Starmer looks blank when I ask if he feels sorry for his main rival. “I don’t think about it. He wanted to be leader. He took it up . . . Although I have no personal animosity to him.”

Not long ago the north London MP was dismissed as a grey figure struggling to gain traction, a powerless Olaf Scholz or Anthony Albanese. Now he is selling his offer of prosaic stability as the antidote to years of political chaos involving Brexit, Covid, Boris Johnson’s rollercoaster leadership and then Liz Truss’s unorthodox six-week premiership. A fatigued voting public seems ready to give him a chance. 

Starmer says his slogan could easily be “Make Britain Serious Again” before declaring: “There is a degree of steadfast seriousness that is much needed across the country.”


The snap election has put paid to our plans for a leisurely lunch in London but Starmer will still find an hour and a half to chat, albeit in a conversation spread over two train journeys and a bolted café meal. 

It’s easy to mistake Starmer for a career politician, not least given his sometimes tedious message discipline. But the workaholic former lawyer, who did not enter politics until his fifties, sees himself as a Westminster outsider, telling me he hates the “shallowness and tribalism” of the political bubble. 

“People will constantly say go faster, go slower, go louder, go softer,” he says. “Finding your way through that is really important. You do have to stop the ‘noises off’, otherwise you lurch all over the place. I’ve become quite good at blocking out some of those noises.”

Beneath the sometimes bland, careful mien, there lurks a man of acutely competitive instincts. Starmer, an Arsenal fan, hates losing his regular eight-a-side football game. As a youngster he quit the flute, despite winning a scholarship to the Guildhall School of Music, because he wasn’t top-flight. “Maybe that does tell you something about me,” he says. “If I can’t be the best, I’ll leave it in the cupboard.”

Likewise he hated Labour’s electoral losses in 2010, 2015, 2017 and 2019. It is why he didn’t mind making enemies in his efforts to turn the party around. And it explains why in 2021, initially struggling to get results, he almost threw in the towel.   

He likes a pint of ale or lager but can’t remember the last time he got drunk. “The answer is not never, but I cannot remember.” I can’t imagine him wanting to lose control? “No, I’m not very good at that,” he says.

Starmer is quite good-humoured but never frivolous. When I ask him who he would push off a cliff — Nigel Farage, Rishi Sunak or Jeremy Corbyn — he sighs. “I hate these quick-fire questions, they are a bugbear to me. You can’t reduce everything to yes/no answers.”

Nor is he always forthcoming. When I ask if all the shadow cabinet will keep their current roles in government, he replies: “Jim, don’t start asking questions you know I’m not going to answer — I’ve only got so much time.”

Some opinion polls have predicted a result that would have seemed outlandish until recently: a Labour “supermajority” in the House of Commons with more than 400 MPs and the Conservatives reduced to fewer than 100.

Does he pinch himself when he sees the polls? “No, because I was among the small group of people who thought we could do this in five years,” he says through a mouthful of food. “Although we’ve got to a better position than I could have imagined.”


As I tuck into my fish finger sandwich, I ask him how he felt after one Labour grandee said that he needed to “shed a few pounds”. “I couldn’t care less, honestly, I’m very comfortable in my own skin.” he replies. His teenagers keep him grounded by mocking his cream chinos or wondering why anyone would want to listen to his speeches. “Peter Mandelson is no match for them.”

I ask how he feels about being called Sir Keir. “I don’t mind, but if I’m honest I prefer Keir,” he says. He says the title carries an assumption about his background. “Which is why it’s important for me to remind people that my dad was a toolmaker and my mum was a nurse.

“No one just gives you anything when you’re working-class, you have to work for it, not having a base camp of wealth and privilege.”

He attributes his resilience to his mother, who suffered from the rare inflammatory disorder Still’s disease; despite enduring repeated operations, she never complained. “They told her she wouldn’t be able to walk by the time she was 20 and she wouldn’t be able to have kids, and she defied that.”

Menu

Retro Cafe
34 Bedford Place, Southampton SO15 2DG

Vegetarian breakfast £11
Fish finger sandwich £8.50
Total inc service £21.45

I ask how his parents would feel if they could see him on the threshold of Number 10 Downing Street: “They would be so proud. I can see my mum beaming,” he says, a piece of avocado on his fork. 

He pauses, choosing his words carefully. “The only reason I’m hesitating is because my dad was slow to say, ‘Well done’ to me, or take pride in what I was doing, but unbeknown to me he was saving all these cuttings of what I’d achieved.”

Starmer has admitted he didn’t tell his father that he loved him in his final days: “If he was still here it would be a moment for me to have a bit of that closure, which, it’s my own fault, we didn’t get,” he tells me.

When Starmer first became a member of parliament in 2015, having previously been director of public prosecutions, his ambition was only to become attorney-general under a government headed by Ed Miliband, the then Labour leader. “But events took their course.”

He says he has a “steely determination” but not an ego: “I’m not in this for me. You know when you go to someone’s house and they have pictures of themselves with politicians or outside Number 10 on their mantelpiece or in the loo, you won’t see that anywhere in my house,” he says. “This is not about me getting into Number 10, it’s about getting a Labour government.”

Even close allies never thought he’d rebuild Labour so fast after its implosion in the December 2019 general election under former left-wing leader Corbyn. Starmer has benefited from a series of self-inflicted disasters by various Conservative prime ministers. Yet he says Labour was in a position to benefit only because he had moved the party back on to the centre ground. “You have to make your own luck,” he argues. 

Labour has aped Tory language on immigration, crime and Brexit to bring back blue-collar former voters. Corbyn has been expelled from the party. I ask Starmer if he deliberately misled the Labour left when he won the 2020 leadership race on a more radical mandate — or whether he has since had a Damascene conversion to centrism. 

He doesn’t accept the premise of the question: “At the beginning and end of every speech and hustings I did I said, ‘We’ve got to change,’” he says. “I meant what I said when I said we’re going to change the Labour party.”

His evisceration of the Corbyn project makes him a hate figure for the left. Does he care? “No,” he says with a guffaw. “That’s not just me trying to create a macho image. I know what we need to do in government and how hard it’s going to be. I haven’t got time for the noises off.”

The phrase “noises off” is also how he describes Nigel Farage, the Reform UK leader whose rightwing insurgency appears to be cutting off the Conservatives at the knees. “You certainly get a lot of noise from Nigel Farage,” he says. “But I’m focused on the real choice of two governments between Tory and Labour.”

As I polish off the remains of my (delicious) sandwich, I ask him about the nadir of his leadership: Labour’s disastrous Hartlepool by-election in May 2021, in which there was a 23 per cent swing to Boris Johnson’s Conservative party after the successful rollout of a Covid vaccine.

“It felt like a punch in the stomach. My job was to turn things around, so when we lost our first by-election test it really hit me.” A close friend advised him to step down, and he thought about quitting. “It really, really hurt, but it should hurt and it does.” 

We get on to his love of 1980s art-house band Orange Juice and his current musical tastes. “You’ll think this is me trying too hard but the Stormzy album he released about a year ago is my favourite album of the moment,” he says. 

After a whisper from an aide, the Labour leader apologises for having to cut short the lunch halfway through his fry-up. Before lunch, I’d grabbed 10 minutes with Starmer on the 9:35am train from London Waterloo. Now we will continue our conversation on another train heading west towards Bristol. 


Starmer, who suffers from travel sickness, makes sure he faces forwards as the lush Hampshire countryside rushes past. Labour has shed some Muslim support over the Israel-Palestine conflict, not least after an LBC interview where Starmer seemed to back Israel cutting off water and power in Gaza.

“I was dealing with the tail-end of the question before, saying they have the right to self-defence, and not ‘do they have the right to cut off basic amenities’”, he says. “I was a human rights lawyer for many, many years, I would never have made that argument.”

Corbyn was sceptical of US foreign policy and Nato. By contrast, Starmer — if elected — will tell this summer’s Nato summit that he is “proud” of Britain’s membership of the transatlantic security pact. 

How would prime minister Starmer deal with a potential regenerated President Trump? “As a grown-up,” he says, steepling his fingers together. “Recognising that each country will elect into office whoever they want to be their leader. The special relationship between the UK and US has been there a long time and that sits above the personalities involved.”

He has been taking advice from former prime ministers, including Gordon Brown and Tony Blair: “The thing I’ve concentrated on the most, particularly from Tony, was the rhythm and pace going from opposition into power.”

With public services desperate for money, Labour has ruled out rises to national insurance, income tax, corporation tax and VAT — but has left open possible tax increases elsewhere.

Starmer gives no fresh clues as to Labour’s fiscal intentions, but his party has already signalled its direction of travel with plans for higher taxes on private equity bosses, non-doms, the oil industry and — most controversially — private schools: “Are you coming for FT readers?” I ask. 

“No. I’ve got nothing against private schools at all, but there’s a VAT exemption there which we need to close in order to make the funds available for our state secondary schools,” he says. “I do understand that many parents who send their children to private school will have worked hard and saved, but every parent has aspirations.”

Starmer says a Labour government should be able to generate enough economic growth to avoid tax rises, a solution that has evaded multiple Tory governments. 

“There’s no sort of magic wand we can wave the day after the election, no quick fixes, and we have to do the hard yards,” he says. “But this is a very serious plan for growth . . . I can’t pretend private investment will come in overnight but you won’t have to wait five years.”

I ask the Labour leader what he would say to critics who think the manifesto was “small beer” compared with the scale of Britain’s challenges, with overwhelmed public services and depleted public finances. 

“The five missions are big, and if we’re able to achieve them over a sustained five to 10 years period — highest growth in the G7, the NHS not just back on its feet but fit for the next 75 years, GB Energy . . . halving violence against women and girls — no one who goes through the missions says ‘that’s small beer’; they say ‘that’s really hard to do,’” he tells me.

Starmer says people are already trying to compare the 2024 general election with Labour’s 1997 landslide under Blair. “That year was different, the turn of a new century, the economy was growing, there was the Cool Britannia sense of moving forward . . . We are not in that moment right now, and you’ve got to be meeting voters where they are,” he says. “I do think people need hope, but it needs to be what I call ordinary hope, realistic hope.”

Labour could inherit what one aide calls a “bin fire” of challenges, with the public finances in a far worse state than at the start of Tory-led rule in 2010. I ask whether he ever worries that in five years’ time things might still feel, well, a bit crap?

“They won’t,” says Starmer. “This is not an election manifesto built on hope. It’s a set of concrete plans. I’m confident we can turn this around. Like my mum and her walking, people have said it’s not possible. But it’s possible.”

Jim Pickard is the FT’s deputy political editor

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