Sir Keir Starmer on the frustrations of being a leader during the pandemic and winning voters back

Sir Keir Starmer has only ever been a leader in a crisis.

That is not a commentary on his leadership, but a reflection on the last 20 months in British and global politics.

Elected to the top job in Her Majesty’s Opposition in April last year, the country was in the dark depths of the first national lockdown, and he had to give his first speech from his living room.

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Coronavirus has cancelled visits and party conferences, it has emptied MPs from the House of Commons at times, and its made it difficult for politicians - of all colours - to focus on the policy ideas which they may have wished to prioritise.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer arrives to receive his Covid booster vaccination at a pharmacy in London. Picture date: Monday December 6, 2021Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer arrives to receive his Covid booster vaccination at a pharmacy in London. Picture date: Monday December 6, 2021
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer arrives to receive his Covid booster vaccination at a pharmacy in London. Picture date: Monday December 6, 2021

When asked how he has found the predicament that the nation’s political world has found itself in, Sir Keir is refreshingly concise.

“Hugely frustrating,” he says.

Labour was all but wiped out across vast swathes of the North of England in the 2019 vote, as the so-called Red Wall turned blue, and communities across Yorkshire and other northern regions elected Conservative representatives, many for the first time in their histories.

“When I became party leader, I knew that my first task had to be to persuade people who were no longer voting Labour to vote Labour again,” Sir Keir told The Yorkshire Post.

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“And the only way to do that is to be with people in the communities where they live. It’s been hugely frustrating that it’s been much more difficult for me to get to places like Yorkshire than I would have liked. I hope that that changes,”

When the General Election came around two years ago, many predicted that Brexit would be the politically and historically defining moment of the decade. It influenced how many people chose to vote, and caused arguments and rifts in families.

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The country wondered if we would ever talk about anything else.

However, the coronavirus pandemic has knocked that idea for six.

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The former Director of Public Prosecution’s chat with The Yorkshire Post came as Westminster was winding down for Christmas at the end of a turbulent few weeks.

Shifted from in-person to a Zoom meeting at the last moment in response to the spiralling Omicron cases in London and around the country, the interview was sandwiched in late on a Wednesday afternoon after the weekly Prime Minister’s Questions showdown.

In the preceding days, new restrictions have left festive party plans in doubt, and the Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been at the centre of his own tinsel-adorned scandal, with a number of ‘gatherings’ reported to have happened in Number 10 and across Whitehall last year.

The Government’s popularity has plummeted in the polls following several successive scandals, but Labour has not officially called for Mr Johnson to resign.

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Instead, Sir Keir is asking the Conservative Party’s own members to take another look at Mr Johnson’s leadership.

“I live in the real world and me calling on the Prime Minister to resign is not going to make him resign,” Sir Keir says.

He believes the Prime Minister’s standing is instead an issue which the Conservatives have “to tackle head on”.

Sir Keir adds: “I invited him at the end of Prime Minister’s Questions today to take the opportunity over the Christmas period to look in the mirror and ask himself where they had the authority and the trust to lead the country.

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“But in the end, the question really is one for the members of his party, his MPs to ask themselves, how much longer they’re prepared to put up with this.

“He has let his party down and let his country down, and as expected his cabinet members had to go out and defend the indefensible.

“They have to ask themselves, how much longer are they prepared to go through that degradation.”

Coronavirus continues to dominate people’s lives and the headlines in daily newspapers as Covid-19 retains its vice-like grip on dictating politics.

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But inevitably it has also had an influence on the nation’s own thoughts and priorities.

Sir Keir - whose wife works in the NHS - says: “The concerns of most people have been about if they are going to get the virus. Or if they are going to lose their job or is a family member going to get the virus and lose their job.”

However, he says that there is been a flipside that “has actually brought out the best of us”.

He adds: “I think that in my lifetime, I’ve not seen people looking after each other like this - communities coming together, making sure that each other all right, whether that’s support on food, medicine, businesses, et cetera.

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“We need to harness that spirit of community, the one thing that Thatcher said we didn’t have.

“We need to harness that and build on that going into the future.

“And the ambition has to be to build a better Britain coming out to the pandemic, as the pandemic has exposed a lot of the flaws and fractures in our economy and in our communities.

We’ve got the chance to build a better Britain coming out of it.

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“So frustration is the first emotion - ambition to change and build a better Britain is the second emotion.

“And that’s very much what I think the future needs to be, and what the arguments need to be into the next General Election.”