Source: The Times

Red shoots’ of progress are emerging, the Labour leader tells Steven Swinford and Eleni Courea, as the electorate grows tired of Peppa Pig jokes

Sir Keir Starmer insists that he has the charisma to win. He says: “The most important thing is to be passionate about the change you want to bring about”
Sir Keir Starmer insists that he has the charisma to win. He says: “The most important thing is to be passionate about the change you want to bring about”TIMES PHOTOGRAPHER JACK HILL

Steven Swinford, Political Editor | Eleni Courea, Political ReporterSaturday December 04 2021, 12.01am, The TimesShare

Like Boris Johnson, Sir Keir Starmer has been to Peppa Pig World. Unlike the prime minister, he did not enjoy the experience. “I have been to Peppa Pig World, of course I have,” he said. “It’s dreadful. Peppa Pig is hugely successful. Our daughter was absolutely in love with Peppa Pig for a very long time. I’ve seen no end of Peppa Pig programmes.”

Starmer said that Johnson’s lengthy homage to Peppa Pig during a chaotic speech to the CBI group of business leaders last month was further evidence that the government was not serious.

“This comes back to our central division between us and the Tories,” he said. “You do need serious government. You do need government that has a respectful, grown-up relationship with business. That’s what we’ve put on the table.”

After nearly two years as Labour leader, Starmer said that the “green shoots” of his approach were beginning to show. The public is tiring of Johnson and his jokes, he argued.

In his first interview since he demoted key allies in a brutal reshuffle last week and installed high-profile, centrist figures in their place, Starmer told The Times that his party would begin to pull away in the polls in the next 12 months.

Sitting in a café in his north London constituency, he said that he felt encouraged by the Old Bexley & Sidcup by-election, in which Labour won a 10 per cent swing although the Tories retained a significant majority.

“The contrast between ourselves and the government will become starker,” he said. “Obviously we’ve made significant progress in the polls since April of last year. The green shoots — or red shoots — are there.”

But why is Labour failing to cut through more? The past month has seen a succession of Tory rebellions, major government reversals, sleaze allegations and new claims that No 10 broke lockdown rules. The polls, however, still put the Tories marginally ahead of Labour.

Starmer said that the pandemic remained a factor, despite the easing of lockdown restrictions. “It is undeniable that in a pandemic the incumbent gets the benefit of the doubt,” he said. “We have seen that across the UK, across Europe.

“Most people want the government to succeed. In the past four to six weeks that is now showing cracks. The benefit of the doubt is not there in the way that it was. The prime minister’s broken promises are catching up with him. What is beginning to be apparent to people is that this is hurting them.”

Starmer said that the next few months would be a turning point as more people faced a cost-of-living crisis with rising inflation, increasing energy prices and significant tax rises.

“The broken promises by the prime minister are going to start hitting people in their pocket,” Starmer said. “The Achilles’ heel of this government is that it is a high tax, high price, low growth government. That is a toxic combination.”

Starmer has significant concerns about the Omicron variant of coronavirus. Labour has gone further than the Tories and called for masks in pubs and restaurants and stricter testing requirements for travellers.

Does he believe Christmas could be cancelled this year? “I hope not,” he said. “If there are further measures this Christmas or restrictions, which I hope there won’t be . . . the responsibility is firmly at the door of the prime minister.”

He said that the government’s messaging was “all over the place” after ministers suggested limits on the numbers at parties and urged people to avoid “snogging” strangers under the mistletoe.

“Almost hourly there’s two different rules about who you should kiss, how you should kiss them and where you should kiss them — which is just bizarre,” Starmer said.

Labour, he said, had spent too long talking to itself. Much of his leadership has been dominated by clashes with the left as he tried to regain the centre-ground.

He said that he now had the “strongest possible team” on the pitch. “I was really pleased,” he added. “Every single person that I wanted, I got into the post I wanted them in. Reshuffles are notoriously difficult. But we’ve got a full house in terms of every single person in the slot I wanted them in.”

Lisa Nandy, Yvette Cooper, Bridget Phillipson and Wes Streeting were appointed because Starmer believed that they could win in the “key battlegrounds” at the next election — levelling up, home affairs, education and health respectively. Does he consider Labour to be the party of middle England?

“Yes, absolutely, it is and it must be. I’m constantly conscious of the fact that in addition to retaining the votes that we’ve had in 2019, my job is to regain the trust of those voters that voted Labour in the past, not just in 2019, but actually in 2017, 2015 and 2010 and no longer vote Labour. And persuade them not just to look at Labour again but also to vote Labour again. That is about building trust.

“Have we got to focus on winning votes in the red wall? Yes, but we’ve also got to focus on winning votes across the whole United Kingdom. Therefore, yes is the answer to middle England. We absolutely need to win those votes.

The Labour leader has written to each member of his shadow cabinet and told them that they must hold themselves to a “higher level of performance and delivery”, demonstrating five values — energy, expertise, ethics, fiscal responsibility and focusing relentlessly on the electorate.

He says in the letter that Labour must “take back our mantle as the party of patriotism and progress” and support British businesses, bring in a new deal for working people and deliver modern public services.

“A majority of the public recognise the government is slow, incompetent, lacks grip and its promises count for nothing,” he said. “But the full effects of extra taxes and rising prices are yet to take hold and some still want to give the PM the benefit of the doubt.

“So we must be honest with ourselves: we still have a mountain to climb.”

While Starmer was clearly pleased with his reshuffle, it brought relations with Angela Rayner, the deputy leader of the Labour Party, to a new low. He failed to consult her about the reshuffle in advance, with The Times learning that it was about to take place before she did.

She found herself trying to fend off questions about a reshuffle she knew nothing about during what was supposed to be a major intervention on sleaze. Does Starmer regret failing to consult her?

The Labour leader was unapologetic. “There’s never an easy time,” he said. “A reshuffle is always difficult whether you’re in government or whether you’re in opposition, and very few of them are carried out successfully. This was carried out successfully — that is good for me and it’s good for Angela.”

He insisted that their relationship was misunderstood. “There is no personal issue between me and Angela,” he said. “We’re friends, we get on, we talk a lot. We bring different things to the table . . . the two of us together make each other stronger. She’s politically astute and invaluable to me as a deputy leader and to the party.”

Starmer’s confrontation with the left is far from over. One of the biggest problems Labour has after the Corbyn years is its finances, having fought three general elections in six years and running up more than £2 million in bills defending legal action over antisemitism.

In July the party announced that it would shed at least a quarter of its staff. Unite, its biggest funder, delivered a fresh setback this week by announcing a cut in its contribution to the party coffers. In his letter to shadow cabinet ministers, Starmer is upfront about the problem.

“We don’t have the money the Tories enjoy,” he writes. “Every day we have to take tough decisions about how we deploy our limited funds. That will mean fewer advisers and more sharing of resources.”

Asked if he intended to turn to individual donors for alternative sources of funding, as Tony Blair once did, Starmer was clear that he would. “Across all sources I want to increase the funding into the Labour Party because I want to us to be in a position to win that next election,” he said. That task has become urgent for Starmer. He said that the next election could be held as soon as May 2023. Tory strategists say that they view Starmer as, in many ways, the ideal opponent for Johnson. While the prime minister is a charismatic extrovert, they say that Starmer is an awkward introvert.

Did he believe he had the charisma to win? “Yes,” he said without hesitation. “The most important thing is to be passionate about the change you want to bring about.

“I’ve met many people who spend most of their lives walking around the problem, making a lot of noise about it, thinking that they’re being passionate . . . I’ve got a passion about actually changing [things]. It is a drive that has been with me all my life.”

Curriculum vitae

Born September 2, 1962, the second of four children to a nurse and a toolmaker

Education Reigate Grammar School; bachelor’s degree in law at the University of Leeds; postgraduate in law at St Edmund Hall, Oxford

Career Called to Bar in 1987; appointed queen’s counsel in 2002 and director of public prosecutions in 2008; elected MP for Holborn & St Pancras in 2015 and became Labour leader in 2020

Family Married to Victoria Alexander, a former solicitor who works in NHS occupational health; they have a son and a daughter

Quick fire

Angela Rayner or Wes Streeting? Both

Peppa Pig or PJ Masks? Oh my God . . . Peppa Pig

Stormzy or Beethoven? Beethoven — but Stormzy for the kids

Netflix or the BBC? BBC

Priti Patel or Emmanuel Macron? Ugh, neither

Tony Blair or Gordon Brown? Both