Sweet, sincere and humanising: could Keir Starmer’s oh-so-serious student picture win votes?

The Labour leader’s portrait from his Leeds University days reveals a young man with a vision, who might just appeal to that key electoral group: Joy Division dads

The torch of Labour leadership has truly passed to a new generation. Tony Blair’s student look was long hair and Jagger struts in his 70s student rock band Ugly Rumours. Keir Starmer’s image-conscious university photo from 1982, as seen in last night’s interview with Piers Morgan, brings us hurtling into the age of New Romanticism.

Blair failed in music, but turned politics into superstardom. Young Starmer seems to have shared a passion for subculture, at a moment in pop history when image and emotion were elegantly entwined. Can he recapture the youthful charm pictured here to make love tear Boris and the electorate apart (again)?

Looking at Starmer’s artful pose with his uni mates, nostalgia hits me – and not just for Labour’s good old days. Perhaps his aim in releasing it is to get the Joy Division dads’ vote. The melancholy intonations of that group were presumably as revered at the University of Leeds as they were in my sixth-form college in Wrexham. The skull beside Starmer as he looks steadily into the distance says it all. So does the so-serious use of black and white. They clearly want to be a band, photographed in romantic monochrome, as Joy Division were by Anton Corbijn. Yet they also want to be the Cure, or Echo and the Bunnymen. Starmer’s magnificently tended hair is a dead ringer for that of the head Bunnyman, Ian McCulloch.

His friends have not put quite the same work into their looks. The girls who flank him achieve a lot with hats, shades and jackets. The other bloke is more a drummer than a lead singer. Starmer is clearly the star of this putative indie band. But the mood of the early 80s was particularly suited to posing: in fact, it was when the pose became pop, modelled by the likes of Spandau Ballet on Top of the Pops. That helps explain how Starmer not only had himself and his hair broodily portrayed, but also led his friends in this potential cover shot for their first album. The setting reeks of art, complete with the big old mirror in which their sensitivity and seriousness are reflected.

Yet the look in Starmer’s eyes is sincere. While the other boy is lost in a gloomy reverie, the future politician has a fervent light in his eyes. He may be all too aware of his look, and his looks, but he also projects a romantic dream of some kind – nay, a vision. Young Keir appears to believe in some big idea or better future. He can see it.

The artifice of these students playing at pop stars is supremely innocent. It is all a bit of fun. But it is touchingly real, too. Yes, they are being arty in an art student’s room. But the sash windows and bare walls put this in a student house in Leeds, not a select Oxbridge drinking club. This is one reason Starmer may be happy to share it. How can former northern Labour voters see him as a London elitist when he went to university in Yorkshire?

This is a winning picture. Could it be an election-winning picture? It makes Starmer more accessible because it is not so different from how he is now. He admitted in his interview with Morgan to still being proud of his hair. The style has changed, but not that touchingly acknowledged vanity. To be a human whom people can recognise as sharing their own complexity is a surprisingly rare political gift. Blair knew this and it won him three elections. Boris Johnson is also seen by many voters as human – all too human. He lies, he does dodgy things … you can’t deny that is human.

Starmer has previously struggled to get his character across and, just as much as his emotional confessions to Morgan, in its mix of the absurd and sincere, his youthful performance as a romantic visionary communicates that he is someone with different sides to him, someone with a life. To cut a long story short, that is a start.


Jonathan Jones

The GuardianTramp

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