Keir Starmer: ‘The hope of a Labour victory has turned into a belief’

In an interview with the Observer, the party’s leader says the battle lines with the Tories are clear – and he’s ready for the challenge

Sir Keir Starmer used to get quite cross with people who called him dull, once rebuking mutterers in the shadow cabinet by telling them: “What’s dull is being in opposition.”

Now, more confident in his position and more optimistic about his party’s prospects, he says people can call him what they like. “Look. If taking the Labour party from where we landed in 2019 into government, which now looks quite possible, is dull, then I think there are millions of working people who would be very happy with that.

“Most people, when I took over, said to me, ‘Good luck’, and, in the next breath, behind their hand, said, ‘You’ll never do it in five years’. This year, something has happened in Labour. The hope of a Labour victory has turned into a belief.”

He thinks that the removal of Boris Johnson and his replacement by Liz Truss clarifies the battle lines with the Tories to Labour’s advantage. “She is more ideological and there are absolutely fundamental political differences now.”

One of those big differences is between a Labour party that wants the fossil fuel giants to contribute more of their windfall profits to pay for the energy price freeze and a Conservative government that won’t countenance this.

“We’ve tried it out with numerous focus groups, polling. We’ve tested it and tested it and the vast majority of people can’t understand why you wouldn’t do that.”

An even greater divide between the parties is on the economy and who grows it.

“We say it’s working people, the people who go to work in our factories, in our shops, those who educate our children, give them the skills, those who work in hospitals. She says it’s those at the top.

“Therefore, she wants trickle-down economics. Make the rich, richer, give them tax cuts. So there is a huge ideological gap there. It allows us to clearly define what we want to do in much starker terms.”

He says he listened to Kwasi Kwarteng’s de facto budget with some amusement. “It was remarkable that the chancellor started his statement with an admission of guilt. As a former prosecutor, I’m always happy to hear an admission of guilt when someone is bang to rights. To say we’ve got to end this vicious cycle of stagnation as the description of what’s gone on in the last 12 years is a big guilty plea.”

Labour is against the abolition of the 45% top rate of tax on the highest earners, but is wary of being seen as opposed to lowering the tax burden on the less affluent voter.

Asked whether the party will also oppose the 1p cut in the basic rate of tax, Sir Keir responds: “We will vote for that.”

By repudiating all his Tory predecessors since 2010 and spectacularly abandoning their stress on “sound money”, the chancellor changed the terms of engagement. “The roles are switched. We’ve got the Labour party as the party of fiscal responsibility. You’ve got the Tories as the gamblers in the casino. They have ripped up the rules or missed every fiscal target they’ve set for themselves.”

Labour has an alternative strategy for growth that places a lot of emphasis on accelerating the transition to a green economy.

His conference speech will announce a big ambition to have all the UK’s electricity generated from green power by 2030. This will make the country a “clean energy superpower” and cut bills and create jobs. “I don’t approach this as a tree-hugger,” he says. “I’m a jobs green.”

He thinks that Tory voters, some of whom have been previously allergic to solar farms and wind turbines, are now biddable.

“After this winter, I think most Tory voters will say we need energy security, we need to get ourselves less dependent on the international market, and if that means solar, wind and tidal, then bring it on.”

When parliamentarians offered their tributes to Elizabeth II, Sir Keir’s eulogy was judged to have been among the most stirring and glowing. Some also found it surprising, given that he argued for the abolition of monarchy in his younger days.

“Well, I thought long and hard about that tribute and what I wanted to do was try to capture the emotion of the nation and also to make every single Labour party member, supporter and voter proud of what their party was saying on the passing of a remarkable sovereign.”

He gave an enthusiastic endorsement to the succession of Charles III and, a novelty for Labour, this year’s conference will open on Sunday with the singing of God Save The King. Within him, is there still not a bit of the younger, radical Starmer who gagged at the idea of someone inheriting privileges and status?

“No. I actually think – and the more I reflect on the late Queen, the more I see this – to have a constant that is above politics does give people an incredible anchor. Also, I think it opens the space for politics underneath. I very happily went to the Accession Council.”

So he doesn’t mind being a subject rather than a citizen?


There is ample potential for this conference to become quarrelsome about a number of issues, including electoral reform, the minimum wage, nationalisation and workers’ rights.

There are a number of things that could be difficult for him. “There always are,” he laughs. “That’s why we have conference!”

Despite a swell of support for embracing electoral reform, he says “it’s not a priority for me” and won’t be featuring in the next manifesto. That could make life challenging if Labour is the biggest party in the next parliament but lacks a majority and needs the co-operation of the Lib Dems.

“We are not doing deals,” he replies bluntly. He is especially vehement about not making any deals with the SNP. People may have underestimated just how fervent he is in his conviction that the United Kingdom must be kept together. “It is impossible to do a deal with a party that says the answer to economic growth is to put a barrier between England and Scotland.”

In the event that the SNP tried to blackmail a minority Labour government, he believes he can call their bluff. “We will get them to blink. If they want to bring down a Labour government and introduce the risk of another Tory government in Westminster, they can go and explain that to their voters in Scotland. We wouldn’t do a deal and I don’t think we need to do a deal.”

His time as leader has been punctuated with complaints about the performance of Labour’s frontbench and turbulence when he’s reshuffled the top team.

Has he now got the shadow cabinet that he wants? “Yes. I am very happy with what we’ve got.”

So are they all guaranteed to get the positions in government that they currently shadow? He’s not guaranteeing them that much job security.

“I’ve got a very good team. I’ve got no secret plan to move people around, but we could be two years away from an election.”

When he first became leader, he rightly told his party that it had an enormous mountain to climb. To get to a parliamentary majority of just one at the next election, Labour will need a swing the like of which is only very rarely seen in British politics. It is “very, very important for us” to get back the red wall seats lost to the Tories, but he acknowledges that Labour also needs to be making gains from Scotland to the south-east of England. “That is the mission.”

There is no room for complacency. “We’ve got to work and earn every vote going forward to the next general election.”

Labour’s climb up the mountain is not complete, but its leader now speaks as if he has a clear view of the summit.


Andrew Rawnsley and Toby Helm

The GuardianTramp

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