Keir Starmer is not the first party leader who does not like doing the personal stuff. It’s not entirely his fault that he is not better known to the public. Taking over as Labour leader during a pandemic meant he gave his acceptance speech to his settee in his front room.
Remarkably, the first time he addressed any audience was when he decided to “open up” in a long interview to Piers Morgan for his Life Stories programme on ITV on Tuesday night. That Starmer is relatively unknown to the voters is due in part to being reticent, risk-averse and protective of his family. As his friend Parvais Jabbar told Morgan, it is “not a natural thing” for him to “talk about his feelings”. Perhaps acknowledging his tardiness, Starmer described the interview as “a real opportunity to explain who I am and why I am”. One ally told me: “It’s not that he hates it. It’s just that he’s never had to do it before.”
Starmer has now crossed a line and there will be no going back. To be noticed by the public, he will have to carry on doing the personal stuff over and over again. His reticence has allowed his critics to portray him as boring, buttoned-up and uninspiring. For Tory-supporting newspapers, it chimed neatly with the message from last month’s elections: voters do not know what Labour or its leader stands for.
In fact, Starmer is a more difficult target for the Tories and their cheerleaders than Jeremy Corbyn, who lived up to the left-wing, unpatriotic labels they pinned on him. Starmer’s interview shows that the less damaging “boring” charge can be answered convincingly, and that he will fight hard to challenge the misleading caricature painted by his opponents.
He might be “Sir Keir”, a successful human rights lawyer and a former director of public prosecutions, but his back story owes more to Keir Hardie, after whom he was named. You wouldn’t guess it from Prime Minister’s Questions, but he had a humble working class upbringing in Oxted, Surrey, the son of a toolmaker with whom he had a “distant” relationship, and a mother to whom he was close but who suffered for years from the debilitating Still’s disease and, tragically, died just before Starmer become an MP. His father never recovered from his mother’s death. Surely not even Starmer’s hard-hearted critics could fail to be moved by his family story, which brought him close to tears during the interview.
It might even get him a hearing in the red wall, and start to change his image in some voters’ minds as a remote north London lawyer who tried to block Brexit. Starmer recalled that his father complained that people looked down on those working on the shop floor, adding: “We still don’t value people on the shop floor.” His broad policy goals also acknowledged the need to win back voters wooed by the Tories; first class education; an economy that tackles insecurity and inequality and real dignity in old age.
Starmer also answered the “boring” charge. Friends described him as a “party animal” and Morgan eventually prised out of him “I haven’t said no” when repeatedly asked whether he had “a cheeky spliff” at Leeds University, where he “had a good time”.
For now, Starmer is doomed to fight a prime minister during a national emergency who can get on the news bulletins virtually every evening against a favourable backdrop of a hospital or school or wearing a hard hat on a construction site. When voters were unmoved by allegations of “Tory sleaze” and the controversy over Boris Johnson’s Downing Street flat, it looked, ominously for Labour, as if Johnson’s character flaws had already been “priced in”.
Yet the Morgan interview should give Labour a ray of hope that when politics returns to something closer to normal, it need not fear the presidential contest with Johnson that the next election is bound to become. One which Starmer tacitly accepted would be his only shot unless he wins power. It won’t just be a popularity contest, of course; Starmer needs to show better leadership qualities than he did after the May elections and put flesh on his policy skeleton. He will also have to hope Johnson makes more mistakes, that the public starts to care about them and to tire of him.
Starmer might have got a master’s degree at Oxford but his early years were a million miles from Johnson’s at Eton; his back story will appeal to many voters. First, they have to be told about it, a thousand times over. As Starmer told Morgan, it’s time to “take the mask off”.
‘Piers Morgan’s Life Stories with Keir Starmer’ airs tonight at 9.30pm on ITV and is available on ITV Hub