What now for left behind areas in Yorkshire? For them Starmer is as remote a figure as Sunak - Jayne Dowle

He’s named after the great Labour leader Keir Hardie, who toiled in the Victorian coal mines of Lanarkshire from the age of 10, but despite his impeccable nomenclature, the new Prime Minister is going to have a problem with class.

Why would this be, you might ask, given that successive Conservative governments – apart from the short-lived reign of Liz Truss as an odd counterpoint, her parents were Leeds lefties – steadily seemed to step further and further away from the concerns of the ordinary person in the street?

Starmer’s dad was – famously – a toolmaker, his mother a nurse. Young Starmer dragged himself up by his boot-straps to attend a selective state grammar school, then university (Leeds and Oxford) to take barrister’s silk.

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His party’s electoral success should not blinker the former Director of Public Prosecutions to the fact that across deprived areas of the country, including Yorkshire and the Humber, he is as remote a figure as Sunak, Johnson et al.

Labour Party deputy leader Angela Rayner as she marshals an easyJet plane arriving from Amsterdam onto the stand during a visit to London Stansted airport. PIC: Joe Giddens/PA Wire.Labour Party deputy leader Angela Rayner as she marshals an easyJet plane arriving from Amsterdam onto the stand during a visit to London Stansted airport. PIC: Joe Giddens/PA Wire.
Labour Party deputy leader Angela Rayner as she marshals an easyJet plane arriving from Amsterdam onto the stand during a visit to London Stansted airport. PIC: Joe Giddens/PA Wire.

But Rishi Sunak is richer than King Charles, it’s said. Boris Johnson considered himself above everyone else – and eventually, the law – and Lord ‘call me Dave’ Cameron, a humbler kind of toff.

Surely a Labour Prime Minister who had risen through the class system would be hung up on none of the entitlements and pretensions of his predecessors?

It’s exactly that. Starmer, and many of his new Cabinet – Bridget Phillipson, for example, who grew up in a Wearside council house with no upstairs heating, and Angela Rayner, a single mother at 16 – started life with no indication that one day they would be sitting around the big table in Downing Street.

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Yet through determination, some luck, hard work and the bravery to take up the chances that came their way, these politicians transformed their own lives. It’s not their fault, it’s their strength; but such achievements, to those stuck in left-behind towns with no prospect of ever doing anything except a minimum wage job, seem wildly impossible.

We don’t hear much political talk of social mobility these days, perhaps because it works only for the ‘chosen few’ whilst the others simply don’t make it. Our classrooms are full of kids like this, who haven’t even got the confidence to try.

They weren’t born posh or wealthy or well-connected, but to so many people these senior Labour politicians are now out of reach, unknowable, a different class altogether. They should take nothing for granted; Ms Rayner might brag of her holiday Venom cocktail binges, but safe to say, a lot of her constituents in the old mill town of Ashton-under-Lyne will have never even left Greater Manchester.

When the swingometers have been packed away, we’ll be reminded that above all, politics is about people. If connections can’t be made easily, the new Labour government is going to feel like it’s trying to push a very large boulder up a hill.

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Those old alliances past Labour governments might have leaned into, trade unions, MPs who had been born and brought up in their constituencies, are shattered as communities have splintered. Blame modern life, blame the Tories, blame the pandemic, but there is a huge disconnect now between those who have and those who have not, and no bonds to make stronger.

Starmer should also be aware of the fact that despite Labour victory, untold millions of voters who might be described broadly as working class – although this definition is nowhere near nuanced enough these days – either supported the party through habit, historic allegiance or anger at the Conservatives, not because they wholeheartedly agree with what Starmer and his new Cabinet propose in their manifesto.

Those who declined may well have switched their vote to Nigel Farage’s Reform, or not bothered to vote at all.

There are also hard-left supporters in many former industrial regions who don’t trust Starmer’s middle-to-right of centre ground, and disagree with his views on the Israel-Palestine war.

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So what must Starmer do? He should accept that despite the inroads made by New Labour almost two decades ago to foster enterprise and entrepreneurship in less-privileged areas, in particular former coalfields, there are years upon years of decline to tackle.

He should instruct his Cabinet to refrain from preaching or nannying (as many of Blair’s senior ministers were prone to, on matters such as childhood obesity or smoking), and he should do everything in his power to strengthen education and economic growth.

Dare we say the words ‘levelling up’? Forget that, and form a transformation task force instead, in the manner of that old One Nation Tory Sir Michael Heseltine when he took on the regeneration of a riot-torn Liverpool in the 1980s.

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