Keir Starmer looks into the middle distance as he explains that “complacency is the enemy”. We are discussing how, after more than a decade in the political wilderness, the Labour Party is preparing for power. But before Starmer can finish his sentence on the importance of staying “utterly focused”, we are interrupted by a thud-thud-thud on the window. We are sitting in Smithills Hall, a Grade I-listed manor just outside Bolton, and the leader of the opposition has been recognised by a passing dog-walker. The man, perhaps in his fifties, presses his face to the glass and waves.
Starmer’s face relaxes into a smile and he nods. He has spent the past hour in the faded grandeur of Smithills Hall’s dining room, listening to climate campaigners speak as part of a nationwide project called Letters to Tomorrow. There, pensioners read out letters addressed to great-grandchildren who are yet to be born; children shared their anxieties for friends and for their older selves. Starmer has promised to make action on the climate crisis central to Labour’s offer, and on a grey day at the end of November, the response in the north of England was warm compared with that which greeted him there in 2021. When he campaigned for the Hartlepool by-election that spring, the Labour leader was met with indifference and, at times, contempt.
Tony Blair turned Bolton red in 1997. Now, two of the city’s three MPs are Conservatives, and Starmer will need to win here if he is to become prime minister. It is a prospect that looks increasingly likely: Labour is regularly polling at least 20 percentage points ahead.
Critics of Starmer have expressed doubt that the former director of public prosecutions, who is 60, is the radical, transformative leader the country needs. The structural problems facing Britain are multiple, from housing and childcare to industry, trade, productivity and in-work poverty, all of them worsened by the economic crisis. Will one term in office be enough to achieve Labour’s ambitions? “We’ve got to be realistic about the change that we need, and to do all of that in five years would be tough,” Starmer told me. He is wary of over-promising, but there is a growing confidence nonetheless. “The reason I am cautious is not that I don’t think we need more than five years – I know we do. And therefore we need to be clear about what we do in the second term as well.
“My feet are firmly on the ground. I picked up the Labour Party just after its worst defeat since 1935. We have fewer than 200 MPs, and if we get into government that would be an incredible journey that we have travelled. Therefore talking about a second term at this stage… is something I’m cautious about.”
Caution is Starmer’s watchword, and Neil Kinnock’s defeat to John Major in 1992, despite a Labour lead in the polls, will be on his mind. But surely he is not aiming to be a one-term PM? “No, no, no. Of course not.”
Starmer likes to remind his team that Labour should behave as if the party is five points behind in the polls. He says he is determined that the story of the next two years will not be about those polls narrowing, but about “more focus, more scrutiny, more pressure” on Rishi Sunak’s Conservative government. As a personal reminder, he carries with him a list of the marginal constituencies Labour will need to win. The seats are listed “in winnable order. It’s a really important document to keep my mind focused. I keep saying to the shadow cabinet: if you think the last two years have been tough, you’d better get ready for the next two years – it’s going to be even tougher.”
Starmer once referred to Boris Johnson as a “trivial man”. What is his assessment of Sunak? “Weak,” he says. “Johnson was all about character. Truss was very ideological and reckless. With Sunak, he is weak. Having lost a leadership election over the summer, he had to avoid [another]. He did that by putting a coalition together that is very hard for him to hold. [Appointing] Suella Braverman is an example of a weak leader. Having Gavin Williamson in [the cabinet was] a sign of a weak leader. For the Conservatives to take an axe to the dream of home ownership with what they are on doing on planning is the sign of a weak leader. If anybody puts a flag up to say, ‘We are not doing it,’ he has to back down. He’s got no mandate and you can tell.”
Nor does Starmer accept that Sunak and his Chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, are simply dutifully clearing up the economic mess left by the Truss debacle. “This idea that somehow they are not responsible for the last 12 years is totally wrong. The problems we’ve had with our economy – particularly not enough growth, particularly running down our public services – are problems of the last 12 years. The car was going off the cliff and [Truss] just pressed the accelerator. Who was driving the car at the time? The pair of them.”
But should the economy improve, there is a danger that voters may yet be won over by Sunak and Hunt.
Some Conservative MPs have recently announced that they will not contest the next election, including Dehenna Davison, a standout of the 2019 intake, and William Wragg, a select committee chairman elected in 2015. Starmer believes this is indicative of a crisis of confidence at the heart of the party. “A number of them are under 40, and some of them are on a path where you’d think they are going to have future positions within the Conservative Party. If it were people who’d done three terms, that’s one thing – but if it’s people who are new in, it tells a story of people who are losing faith.
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“And quite right, too. At the end of the last Labour government, there used to be conference after conference where we would say, ‘We have achieved…’ and we could list childcare, Sure Start, etc. There is no equivalent for the Tories. If you ask them what they’ve got to show for 12 years, the answer is: very, very little.”
Earlier in the day, as part of a BBC Newsround special, Starmer had taken questions about the cost-of-living crisis from a group of ten- and 11-year-olds from Sharples School in Bolton. The children nervously asked why families were using food banks, and expressed their concerns over heating their homes and being unable to feed their pets. More than a third of Bolton’s children live in poverty, and the pupils were enthusiastic about Starmer’s proposal for a windfall tax on energy companies.
Would he honour Jeremy Corbyn’s pledge to halve the number of food banks within a year of being elected, and eradicate them altogether within five? “Corbyn lost the election, so we didn’t get to put that into action. I would like to see a reduction in food banks. I applaud everyone who works in them and donates to them. But in the 21st century, to have food banks is a sign of a mismanaged economy.”
The most frequent criticism of the Labour leader is that he is uninspiring, too cautious, and even boring. When I ask Starmer to describe his approach to politics, he doesn’t appear to see this as a flaw. “People often say: where is the passion? The passion is in fixing the problems. What I don’t like is people who speak passionately about a problem over and over again, as they walk around it.”
He gives an example. “If we are going to have clean power by 2030, who do we need around the table and how are we going to do it? That’s a real expression of passion, rather than shouting on a soap box.”
Starmer points to his own record as a fixer, both in politics and as a barrister. “I’ve run a public service with around 7,000 staff. I’ve worked in Northern Ireland, implementing some of the proposals under the Good Friday Agreement and the Patten Report, in particular on policing. In the world outside of politics people fix problems. That’s the approach I’ve taken to leading the Labour Party and it’s the approach we will take in government.”
His leadership has faced multiple challenges. In the wake of Labour’s loss at the Hartlepool by-election in May 2021, Starmer embarked on a botched reshuffle which put him at odds with his deputy leader, Angela Rayner. He often struggled to cut through with the electorate when Boris Johnson was prime minister. His reforms to the party rulebook have angered trade unions, while Labour’s candidate selection programme has been criticised for locking out the left and producing a uniformly moderate set of would-be MPs.
Starmer reveres the Labour Party’s “winners”, such as Harold Wilson, but also insists he likes to be challenged and takes advice from others, including the former prime ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. Perhaps surprisingly, he says he has not ruled out a reshuffle before the next election, which could prove delicate given the tensions within the shadow cabinet. The October deselection of Sam Tarry, the sitting MP for Ilford South (and Angela Rayner’s partner) – an action supported by the shadow health secretary Wes Streeting – proved divisive.
Starmer certainly doesn’t want to be forced into a reshuffle every time Sunak changes his top team. “I don’t reshuffle my team because they reshuffle their team. If you look at the key players – Rachel Reeves is gaining plaudits, we’ve got Lisa Nandy, we’ve got Angela Rayner, we’ve got Bridget Phillipson, Yvette Cooper… Of course we will put our best team on the pitch when we go into that election.”
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Starmer lives in Kentish Town, north London, with his wife, Victoria, who works in occupational health in the NHS, their son and daughter (aged 14 and 12, respectively), and their rescue cat, Jo-Jo. (His daughter is also lobbying for a dog.)
The couple guard their privacy closely. “We protect them as best we can,” he says of his children. “That’s why I never give their names in public, and we don’t do photoshoots with the kids. Vic, as well, has never done an interview. She’s got her own life.”
He won’t work past 6pm on Friday evenings. “There’s an absolute hard red line in the diary, unless there is something exceptional. It would be easy for me to be the bloke who, in ten years’ time, says, ‘I wish I’d spent more time with my kids.’” At home, Starmer says, he is not the leader of the Labour Party (“they’re not interested in that”) but a father. “As a family, we are a very tight unit. When I walk through the door, I’ve got to be Dad. It sounds daft but it’s important.”
The family always makes a Christmas Day trip, with Vic’s father, to Starmer’s mother-in-law’s memorial stone. “He’s been with us at Christmas since we lost her mum [in 2020].” After that, Starmer cooks. “Well, we share it out. Vic does the starters and I do the main course.” They are a largely vegetarian household – though Starmer still eats fish, and his son has lapses. “Almost every time we go out, there is a Deliveroo notification on Vic’s phone saying, ‘KFC being delivered to your house.’”
How has the prospect of moving in to No 10 been received? “Vic always says, ‘One day at a time’… I do worry about it from [the children’s] point of view, should it happen. Because [my son is] just starting his GCSEs and it’s the most important two years of his life.”
Though Starmer no longer hesitates to talk about Labour being in government, anyone expecting a surge of policy announcements in the future will be disappointed. The next manifesto, he says, will be a “slim document”.
A week after we spoke, Starmer unveiled a report he commissioned, headed by Gordon Brown, on the future of the constitution of the United Kingdom, describing its recommendations as the “biggest ever transfer of power from Westminster to the British people”. Its 40 proposals include replacing the House of Lords, moving 50,000 civil servants out of Whitehall, devolving economic powers over housing, transport and employment, and an independent commission to investigate breaches of the Commons code of conduct. It is, in effect, Labour’s answer to levelling up and the fragmentation of the Union.
But some are frustrated that Labour is unwilling to push for a softer Brexit. Starmer won the Labour leadership with the backing of pro-Remain party members and, during his campaign, he pledged to keep free movement. But he has since said that as prime minister, he would not seek to rejoin the EU or its single market. Is this tactical, or has his personal view changed? “Personal. It’s plain common sense. We’ve left, free movement has gone and it’s not coming back. It doesn’t help anyone to pretend that things aren’t as they are.”
Businesses struggling with labour shortages have called for immigration rules to be relaxed. Starmer favours a points-based system. Is there a level of net migration that would be unacceptable to a Labour government? “I’ve never thought that picking arbitrary numbers is the way to approach immigration. I do look at the drivers of immigration and you’ve got different categories: refugees, family members and students, and then you’ve got work.
“Because we have not worked on skills [in the UK], too many firms are over-reliant on people coming from abroad. I want to fix skills here, and, in some cases, that will mean immigration numbers going down.”
Starmer increasingly chooses to avoid intervening on culture-wars issues such as trans rights. Some would like him to take a more decisive approach. The campaign group LGBT+ Labour has repeatedly called on Starmer to remove the whip from Rosie Duffield, the MP for Canterbury, after she expressed gender-critical views. His argument is that taking a strong position risks falling into a trap set by the Conservatives. “The Tories want to weaponise division, pit group against group, and sow mistrust between people, which tells you everything you need to know about this government.”
Instead, Starmer plans to prioritise attacking the government’s record on crime. “The criminal justice system has serious issues. Thanks to decades of managed decline under successive Tory governments, we’re seeing court backlogs and unacceptable reoffending rates. The justice system is broken. It makes me angry to see people being let down.”
On 1 December, Labour held Chester after a by-election, securing a 61 per cent share of the vote. Starmer described the result as “a clear message to Rishi Sunak that people are fed up and they want change”. The following day, the former chancellor Sajid Javid became the latest Tory MP to announce that he will stand down at the next election.
Before we left Bolton, Starmer told me his party was ready for office – something he has felt since the September party conference in Liverpool. “I think most people who were there would say this is a changed Labour Party. It was a party putting the answers to tomorrow’s questions on the table, and had a confidence about it that we have not seen since we were last in government.”
Keir Starmer’s caution and self-belief have taken him a long way. But will they be enough? To keep a sometimes fractious shadow cabinet united and win those marginal seats will be a huge challenge. Rishi Sunak may yet unite the Conservatives. For Keir Starmer, and the Labour Party, so used to losing, the path to power is by no means clear.
This piece appears in the New Statesman’s Christmas special, subscribe now to get your copy
This article appears in the 07 Dec 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Special