Keir Starmer interview: Labour leader takes off gloves and goes on the attack

Sir Keir Starmer admits he had to bite his tongue at times during the early stages of the coronavirus crisis.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer

Becoming Labour leader at the height of the pandemic in April, he says he rode back from attacking the Government’s response in favour of a more conciliatory approach.

But in recent weeks, with his efforts to support the Government largely falling on deaf ears, the former barrister and director of public prosecutions has shifted tact.

Now, it appears, the gloves are well and truly off.

“The Government has let people in the Black Country and Staffordshire down badly on a number of measures during the pandemic,” he told the Express & Star. “The exams fiasco hurt a lot of people, and now we have the situation with testing.

“One or two errors, you might expect, but we’ve had a string of U-turns, up to 12 now. I think many people will be looking at this as serial incompetence from a government that just can’t get it right.”

The failure of the Government’s testing programme, he says, is the latest in a “build up of frustrations” that were growing by the week.

And he says that while people were – like him – willing to give ministers the benefit of the doubt in the early stages of the pandemic, the public’s patience was now wearing thin.

“It was very important we got our schools open and supported the economy, and we supported the Government on that,” he tells me. “Their side of the bargain was to get an effective testing system up and running.

“The Prime Minister said it would be ‘world beating’. Well we don’t need that we just need one that works, and we haven’t got it. I don’t think that families who pick up a bug and have to get tested and self-isolate are going to accept that this was some unexpected happening. It was inevitable, it should have been planned for and it wasn’t.

“You look at schools. They should have the ability to get tests very quickly so they can get on with their business, but that’s not happening.

“There’s also a lack of clear guidance with what to do when you get positive tests in schools, so we have got different schools taking different approaches to deal with it.

“I can understand why people are frustrated and I think there has been a build up of frustrations. At the start of the pandemic people were willing to give the Government the benefit of the doubt.

“Seven months in and people would have expected something far better.”

Trust

According to Sir Keir, things are unlikely to improve anytime soon. He fully expects the “chaos” to go on for a number of weeks, and believes the key issue is the Prime Minister’s refusal to admit there is a problem in the first place.

“Facing up to the fact there is a problem is the first step, and Boris Johnson seems unwilling to take it,” he says.

Sir Keir returned to work this week following a short period of self-isolation after a family member awaited Covid test results.

He was due in Walsall today on the campaign trail with Liam Byrne MP, Labour’s candidate for West Midlands Mayor.

It is all part of his four-year strategy that he hopes will see Labour win back the so-called ‘red wall’ seats the party lost to the Tories in December’s crushing election defeat.

In the Black Country both West Browmich seats went to the Tories, as did two seats in Wolverhampton and Dudley North.

After the 2005 general election Labour controlled 10 Black Country constituencies, it now holds just three. Across Staffordshire there is blue as far as the eye can see.

Sir Keir knows this region can make or break Labour.

He sees the first stage of the comeback as a listening exercise, something he believes the party did not do enough of under his predecessor Jeremy Corbyn. The MP for Holborn and St Pancras says he is deeply conscious of the scale of last year’s election loss, saying the Labour has a long road ahead before it can win a general election.

“Across the West Midlands there’s a basic issue of trust,” he says. “People have lost trust in the Labour Party and I have to restore that trust.

“It’s going to take time. People want to know that we are listening to them, and rebuilding that trust starts with us reconnecting with voters here.”

He sees next May’s polls in the West Midlands as a “major test” of the party’s standing under his leadership, with local elections taking place at the same time as those for mayor and police and crime commissioner.

He expects a bold show, but says Labour cannot succeed at the polls “just because the Tories are so bad”.

“The Government’s incompetence does not give us the right to votes,” he said. “We’ve got to fight for every single vote and that starts with me engaging with people in places like the Black Country.

Culture

“We need to earn those votes back. There is no quick fix and it is going to be tough.”

A key element of Sir Keir’s plan involves what he calls “a change of culture” within the party. He says he’s “absolutely determined” to improve disciplinary procedures. He has committed to rooting out extremists among Labour’s membership, and says he will intervene personally in dysfunctional Labour-controlled local authorities.

He said Sandwell Council – which has been dogged by allegations of corruption and mismanagement for years – is very much under the microscope.

“I’m well aware of the concerns in Sandwell,” he said. “I’ve made it my job that it’s on my radar and I’m across the detail on it.

“I have a keen interest in making sure the culture is changed and that the disciplinary process works effectively.

“The people of Sandwell deserve nothing less.”

An avid Remainer who served as the Shadow Brexit Secretary under Mr Corbyn, Sir Keir has since come to terms with Britain’s departure from the EU.

He says “the Leave/Remain argument is over” and wants the country to “put those bitter divisions behind us and focus on the future”.

“I think the Government is wrong to reopen old wounds that I think most people in the Black Country would have thought were settled,” he said, reflecting on Ministers’ plans to override parts of the withdrawal agreement.

“We were told there was an oven ready deal, people expect Boris Johnson to get on and deliver it so that our business know what is happening.

“If he doesn’t he needs to own the failure.”

Reflecting on the early stages of his tenure as leader, Sir Keir, who was first elected as an MP five years ago, says he believes the party has already demonstrated that it has changed and is “ready to engage with the public”.

“We’ve made progress, but I’m not going to pretend that we haven’t got a mountain to climb,” he said. “We’re in the foothills at the moment and I’m going to sweat blood until we get to that general election in 2024.”

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