Like lots of amateur footballers, Keir Starmer marked the first easing of the UK’s third national lockdown by joining his mates for a kickabout. As someone who has played a match virtually every week since the age of 10, the relief of meeting up for his regular eight-a-side game was palpable.
Football has long been his refuge from the day job, a jealously guarded private place he can briefly forget about the cares of politics. But for the first time since he became an MP, aides released a photo of him in action, sporting a Donegal gaelic football top.
Having worked for five years as a human rights adviser to the Northern Ireland policing board, an experience that was formative in his experience of grappling with all sides of a problem, Starmer loved Ulster so much that he and his new wife flew to Belfast for a honeymoon around the whole island of Ireland. It was then he picked up the Donegal shirt and has been wearing it ever since.
Nearly a year since he was elected as Labour leader by a huge margin, Starmer’s major achievement has been to put his party back on the political pitch. From a catastrophic defeat in the 2019 election, his personal ratings are the highest of any Opposition leader since Tony Blair and he’s narrowed the double-digit gap with the Tories.
Yet as the vaccine rollout has steadily boosted Boris Johnson in the polls, Starmer’s honeymoon period is well and truly over. Having been neck and neck until last November, Labour’s ratings, and even his own ratings, have dipped as winter has turned to spring.
Starmer faces continued leftwing disquiet over his decision to withdraw the whip from Jeremy Corbyn late last year over his predecessor’s refusal to apologise over anti-Semitism. But there has also been a low rumble of unease from other parts of the party over a perceived lack of political definition and missteps. Even the largely supportive parliamentary Labour party (PLP) is getting restive.
As he heads towards May 6 and a raft of elections across the country, including a by-election in the Labour heartland of Hartlepool, both his allies and his critics are preparing for Starmer’s first examination at the hands of the voters, rather than the pollsters or his own party members. So does his first year in office offer any clues as to what’s coming next? Or is the past another country?
Close allies of Starmer, inside the shadow cabinet and in his top team, repeatedly point out just how far he has come since he took over. “I was making a little note last night of all the big things he wanted,” said one shadow cabinet member. “Despite that huge Tory majority, we have had wins on getting furlough extended, getting Universal Credit extended, on the NHS surcharge for staff, even getting more money for cladding. These are real substantial things, all of those things actually make a real difference to people’s lives.”
A key insider who used to work for Corbyn said: “Simply by not being Jeremy, and by coming across as clearly competent, able to lead and so on, he made great strides in the general standing of the party in the country. And much as it was frustrating, particularly for the left of the party, the kind of constructive opposition stuff in that period, did strike the right note. Add in his performances in the Commons, and so on and the early period was largely a success.”
The constant theme among most of his close allies is to highlight the immediate aftermath of that shattering 2019 defeat, when it suffered its worst election performance since 1935. “If we’d been a car, we’d have been scrapped,” says one frontbencher. “It wasn’t just the scale of the defeat, but the hollowed out party capacity Corbyn left behind, on the edge of bankruptcy.”
A very senior aide adds: “The burning skip of a party and organisation we inherited, we didn’t appreciate the work that needed to be done to put that right.” Another says: “This first year has been about fixing the party. It was totally busted. I can assure you, there was no handover note [from Corbyn’s team].”
On his way back from a campaign visit in his former seat of Hartlepool, Peter Mandelson was full of praise for Starmer. “What is more important is not the barometer of PLP opinion, with the greatest of respect to them, it is what he is doing to turn around a sinking ship – and that’s what it was. He inherited a wreck, it was not a properly functioning political party. He’s patched it up and we are seaworthy again.”
But Mandelson qualifies his verdict as he extends the metaphor. “We need to steam ahead, we are presently not at fast enough speed. Once he knows what’s got to be done and once he has made up his mind to do it, he has the ruthlessness to carry it through. It’s a work in progress.”
Others in the PLP are much more scathing, including those who initially believed Starmer offered hope of real change. Although there is some criticism of his political director Jenny Chapman and of his chief of staff Morgan McSweeney, it’s the leader himself that is causing worry among some MPs.
One senior MP who has fought battles on behalf of Starmer puts it bluntly. “His team will often go policy shopping ahead of any planned intervention. So whether it’s, you know, the farmers NFU speech or any anything else they’ll ask think-tank types or academics what should we be saying? Some of those people push back and have said ’Well, maybe you want to tell us a bit a bit more about what you think and then we can tailor what we’re going to tell you when we know a little bit more about your gut, on this issue’.
“I don’t know that you could leave that at the door of just Morgan or just Jenny, a lot more of us are coming to the conclusion there’s a problem with Keir himself. Because unlike Jeremy, I hate to say that phrase, but unlike Jeremy, unlike Ed M, previous leaders had an idea of what they wanted. He has got none of that.”
One MP recounts giving Starmer personal advice over the phone. “You call up and he’s basically managing you on the call and he sort of thinks he’s really smart and you haven’t clocked that he’s just managing. Obviously, we’re fucking politicians so we know when we are being managed.
“He’ll often say ‘I agree with everything you said’. I’m thinking, you shouldn’t have agreed with everything I said. You should have told the truth, which is, you maybe half understood half the things I said and you disagree with the rest of it, I’d respect him more if he said that.
“We’re all desperate for him to succeed but almost everyone I’ve talked to this sort of has these conversations with him, he agrees with everything you’ve said. I think he hangs up, and he’s like ‘yeah, that was fine I’ve dealt with that’ and he’s on to the next thing. And I hang up and I think he’s got even less politics than I thought.”
One insider says “there’s a feeling of drift”. “We’ve come out of that honeymoon period. And people are sort of looking around for what the next big battle is and where are going to be those big, cut-through dividing lines. People in the party are quite hungry for that. In the PLP there is a real sense of anger at the Tories over the pandemic and they want to be able to channel it.”
An MP laments his lack of bite – and fight. “His biggest weakness is he’s not very political and we are living in a very ideologically political age.” One staffer says that the frustration is growing. “By early winter people needed to know more about what the Labour Party stood for under Keir. And what he himself stood for.” Few doubt his competence, but several doubt he has a political killer instinct.
Even senior allies of Starmer admit the backlash against the party’s repeated abstensions – and planned abstentions that were then dumped – on parliamentary votes, from Covid restrictions to contentious bills such as the Policing Bill and Covert Human Intelligence Sources Bill. Some blame the whips for being overcautious, others blame the leader.
Yet defenders of Starmer will point to the sheer scale of the pandemic and the way it has knocked normal politics off the agenda. On a practical level, it has also torn up some of his strategic planning. His big speech on the economy was planned for January but had to be postponed until just before the budget simply because the nation was plunged into a third lockdown. “We’ve got to be in tune with the pace of the country. The nation doesn’t work to your ‘media grid’, unfortunately,” one aide says.
The disruptive rhythm of the pandemic has meant Starmer has had to self-isolate three times, while robbing him of the normal chance to connect with both the public and his own party. “You just cannot overstate just how fucked off he is and how frustrated he is by all this,” says an insider.
Starmer’s party conference speech was delivered not to a crowded hall of delegates but to a socially distanced camera crew in Doncaster. Time and again his in-person audience has been literally a handful of people.
“The public’s only interaction with him has had to be the speeches he’s done in an empty room, behind the despatch box, or through an LBC studio....People say where’s the passion? I’d love anyone to show passion in an empty room.”
Crucially, internal party politics is often done through personal interaction, through nuances that cannot be said over a Zoom call, through intimate chats where “the record button is not next to everything you say”, as one insider puts it. “People don’t bump into one another in the [Commons] tea room anymore, in Southside [the party HQ] in the same way. That’s true in all walks of life but what’s special about politics is that we’ve suddenly moved to a place where no one can have a private conversation except in recordable form either written down or over Teams or Zoom.”
One old hand says the real loss has been the lack of a supportive wall of MPs in the Commons chamber. “He has been denied what every single other opposition leader has had, which is the weekly opportunity to massively rally your troops with a good performance in PMQs. He often does really well but it doesn’t have the same effect.
“There’s a possibility that that will be one of the big defining things that happens in the second year in the job, that he will be lifted and the party will be lifted because we will have packed chambers again. His response to the Budget was one of the best responses of recent years by a leader, but he just had to sit down without any notice simply because there was no theatre to it.”
A close friend of Starmer’s admits the problem. “Everyone’s working remotely, they don’t even vote together. They don’t even see each other in the lobby. It does matter because even just being able to say to your party members, ‘oh, I mentioned your campaign to Keir’. Those little fleeting things, being able to say, oh, congratulations on that speech you made or birth of your daughter. Those sorts of things really matter to generating that sense of team, and we’ve not been able to do it.
“Yes, absolutely, we are going to have to make fresh efforts to fix that, because I think it’s not right that the PLP feel a disconnection from the leader of the party, that is very bad, and we mustn’t allow that to continue, and we won’t.
“But it can’t be fixed in the traditional ways, we would normally be having drinks sessions, and you’d be going to the tea room and being on the terrace and those things are not possible. It has caused difficulty, especially with new MPs who didn’t get a chance to get to know Keir before Covid.”
One shadow cabinet minister puts it more simply: “We really need to be in the same room so we can have an Avengers Assembled feeling. You’ve got to get people together and when we do it will feel so much better.”
Others concede that the pandemic has made his job much harder, but still worry there is a deeper problem with that perceived “lack of politics” about Starmer. One leftwing ally says: “His support in the leadership campaign was wide, but it was shallow, and that needed to be deepened. I think that what has happened is it’s become very much more narrow, and still as shallow as well. That’s not a great combination.”
One former minister adds: “He’s inherited a mountain of shit and only moved some of it. The question is does he have that sort of animal drive you need? There’s a great line from Paul Keating: ‘Unless you want it with every sinew of your body, don’t even bother.’ Keir would actually like to be PM, but it is not the only thing in his life. And when you’re up against a bloke for whom it is the only thing in his life ultimately, then you have got a problem.
“As John Smith used to say about prime minister’s question time, it’s not about the earnest search after intellectual truth, it’s about dominance. About dominating the chamber and your opponent. This is real, raw primeval stuff. Given how the odds are stacked against the leader of the Opposition I think that Keir has done quite well in that forum.”
One shadow cabinet minister says that Starmer’s legal career, as former director of public prosecutions and earlier as a human rights lawyer, provides advantages but challenges too.
“He is an absolutely conspicuously decent, able person and would be a very good prime minister, and the prime minister of the left. Yet he is incredibly inexperienced in politics and in some ways very separate from politicians. That is both a strength and a weakness.
“It means there are a number of things as a result of that that have made this year more difficult than it otherwise would need to be. He lacks that urgency that experienced politicians have in dealing with the way that events unfold. You have to be fast and you have to be quick, and you have to be clear. Keir’s natural mood is more reflective but he’s realising the need to be much quicker. The quick decision on the basis of incomplete facts is not something he is used to.
“Secondly, I think he thinks that simply presenting himself to the public, and letting them make judgements about him is sufficient, whereas again in politics you are defined by the particular things that you campaign for and stand for.
“And thirdly, he does not engage in the same way as most other leaders of the opposition have done with the other leading politicians in their own party. You need to have people in your party owning your vision with you. Add in all the pro-vaccine bounce and Boris doing well ... and it’s reflected in anxiety in the shadow cabinet and in the parliamentary Labour Party. The message is: Keir, you have to be more of a politician, which he’s not doing enough of. But he’s learning it.
“Compare him with Abraham Lincoln, a lawyer, a practicing lawyer who was basically pretty crap at politics but then pulled off the nomination for the Republican Party in 1860. And then understood what was required in politics which was high vision, but low cunning as well.
“I’m absolutely sure he can do it, but he does need to change. And he is changing. He does get it. He is absolutely determined to be prime minister. I think that he recognises he needs to learn how to do it.”
One shadow minister says Starmer has realised that his original time pressures have changed. “Keir started off talking about a four-year marathon. And actually the thing that is now absolutely coming home to him is there’s absolutely no time at all. We’re a year into it and there’s a lot of talk about an election in 2023.
“If you take a DPP, QC, 57-year-old person who is the leader of the Labour Party after next to no experience in politics, and don’t forget he was only elected to parliament in 2015, you will take quite a long time to change gear.”
One key criticism voiced by Starmer’s critics and potential supporters alike is a perceived colourlessness, a lack of “passion”, a woodenness on the media. But those close to him say that “the real Keir” just has to find a way to show himself.
Charlie Falconer, the shadow attorney general, says: “I have known Keir a very, very long time. There is a much more driven, passionate person than the slightly icicled figure that currently emerges. You will never ultimately succeed right at the top of politics without digging into your own soul and the things that drive you. And people have got to know that.”
He adds: “But he is profoundly a person of soul. Labour is littered with lots and lots of lawyers, myself, and millions of others, all of us followed at one stage or another in our career, a career driven by a desire to do well as lawyers, including making money. Keir never did that ever. He’s always been deeply driven by public service. He’s never ever sought to be either a big civil lawyer making money, or a big celebrity lawyer in any shape or form. And that is because his whole being is driven by a desire to help others.
“The processes of the law may have buried his soul and his soul has got ultimately to emerge, so the public could see it, but also so that the political party which depends upon campaigning also believes that he’s leading with his soul. If the public see that, I’m convinced it will make a big difference.”
Fellow shadow ministers talk about how Starmer gave one of his most fired-up addresses to a shadow cabinet after it was addressed by Sir Michael Marmot, the health inequalities expert, earlier this year. “I’d love to see him do more of that,” said one.
On a recent visit to London Ambulance Service, he stayed much longer than the tight timeline allowed. “We were just about to be whisked off and the paramedic said ‘have you got time to take a cup of tea and have a bit more of a chat?’ And he was superb in that 20 minutes, clearly natural, and obviously was enjoying it.”
One aide says: “He’s got that trait that some American politicians have of remembering details of people’s lives, their kids, and asking after them when he sees them again. That’s a real skill and it shows he has a natural empathy with people.”
On a recent campaign visit to Hartlepool, he clearly relaxed when he went on a walkabout on the waterfront, and similarly on a trip in Edinburgh with newly-elected leader Anas Sarwar, he was “visibly much happier than being stuck on a Zoom”. Although everyone knows he “looks the part” of a PM in a neat suit and tie, the party is putting out more images of him wearing casual jumpers and jackets.
Starmer’s team believe among his most notable media appearances of the year were not on the Marr Show or the Today programme but his appearances on Desert Island Discs and ITV’s Lorraine, where he talked about his mother’s illness and his childhood. In a recent PMQs he talked about his mother and his sister being nurses. “I didn’t know that,” a fellow shadow minister said, “and the more he does that the more he can connect with the public.”
As the lockdown eases, Starmer is actually coming full circle on how to present himself, it appears. During his leadership campaign, he deliberately didn’t deliver a single full-length speech and would instead turn up to an event, say a few words then spend all the time taking questions and talking to members.
Before the pandemic hit, his original plan for his first 100 days as Labour leader was to replicate that but with the general public. This summer, he will finally do it. “Factory floors, shop floors, community centres, churches, high streets, that’s where we plan to be,” a senior aide reveals. The plan is a combination of the Cameron Direct events that David Cameron used to hone his people skills, plus Emmanuel Macron’s series of meet-the-people events after the Yellow Vest protests.
“One thing Keir constantly talks about is how do you close the gap between the Labour party, and the people it’s there to represent? How do you bring Labour back to the people? Those kinds of community events, Keir back on the stump is what we want to get back into this summer, as the road to [party] conference.”
A return to vaguely “normal” political interaction is desperately sought by both Starmer and his party, almost as much as he desperately wanted to get back on the football pitch this week. Whether he can score goals is another matter. Although there was a rare photo of his eight-a-side match, aides still failed to furnish the actual result against the opposition.