Keir Starmer has been telling voters for years that his dad was a toolmaker. He brings it up so often it has become a joke among the political press pack – when that happens it usually means the public has picked it up too. We used to groan at the endless mentions of “long-term economic plan” by David Cameron and George Osborne, for example, before it gave them an unexpected majority in 2015.
Yet it doesn’t look like Starmer’s factory-worker father, or that he grew up in a pebbledash semi, or that his family struggled to keep the bills paid, have made their way into the public consciousness. Most Brits (42 per cent) don’t know what type of school the Labour leader went to, compared with nearly a quarter (23 per cent) who say he went to private school, according to exclusive polling for the New Statesman by Redfield & Wilton Strategies. A quarter correctly say he went to grammar school, while just 9 per cent say he was educated at a comprehensive school.
Reigate Grammar School, which Starmer attended, turned independent during his time there (but pupils already present, like him, were allowed to carry on for free with their fees paid by the council).
We ran this poll after a swing voter claimed Starmer went to Eton in a focus group by JL Partners, aired on Times Radio’s Red Box Politics Podcast at the end of July.
The British public generally seems unsure about whether Starmer is posh. When we asked how he acquired the title “sir”, 40 per cent didn’t know, followed by 39 per cent who correctly said he was awarded the title for his work. (He was knighted in 2014 for serving as head of the Crown Prosecution Service and director of public prosecutions.)
Significantly, 15 per cent believed he inherited his title, and 6 per cent that he married into it. Luke Tryl, director of More in Common, which runs focus groups, revealed to the i in April that he’s noticed people assuming Starmer is an aristocrat with a hereditary title: “You get comments like, ‘Oh, yeah but he’s part of the aristocracy, what does he know?’… ‘Tony Benn gave his up, didn’t he? Why doesn’t Keir do the same?’ And of course, Benn had a hereditary title and had to give it up to be an MP. It suddenly clicked to me that all these people think it’s a title he was born with, and it’s acting as a drag.”
By contrast, those surveyed seemed more sure of Rishi Sunak’s privilege. The largest proportion of respondents (37 per cent) correctly identified that he went to an independent public school, though 35 per cent didn’t know. Eighteen per cent thought he went to a grammar school and 9 per cent – the same percentage as with Starmer – believed he attended a comprehensive. In reality, Sunak went to Winchester College, one of England’s most prestigious public boarding schools.
Most voters also understood how Sunak acquired his great wealth (he and his wife have a combined fortune of around £529m). Forty-two per cent said he married into his wealth – which is largely true, as his wife’s stake in her father’s tech multinational Infosys puts her net worth in the hundreds of millions. Twenty per cent say he inherited his wealth, and 26 per cent don’t know where his money comes from. That leaves 12 per cent who believe he earned his fortune through work.
Voters do not necessarily punish wealth: it represents both aspiration and security for your family and future. But narratives of meritocracy are very firmly entrenched in the British psyche, so it may dent both leaders’ reputations if people assume they did not come by their money or titles through hard work.
Redfield & Wilton Strategies polled a weighted sample of 1,500 eligible voters in Great Britain on 2 August 2023 for the New Statesman