Three months ago, our cameras captured Keir Starmer standing backstage at the ACC conference centre in Liverpool. The Labour leader, dressed in a smart dark suit and holding a cup of water, paced back and forth, a slight nervousness etched into his face. He was waiting to deliver perhaps the most important speech of his political career.
For Labour advisers, this was his big chance to answer a key question that they believed would dominate all the way up to the 2024 general election: “If not them [the Conservatives], why us [Labour]?”
You may remember what happened next. Within minutes, Starmer’s speech was interrupted by a protester who somehow stormed on to the stage, threw glitter across his back and grabbed hold of his arm. If it wasn’t for the flick of genuine fear on Starmer’s face, a cynical journalist might have wondered had this moment been stage-managed?
I joked to that effect in the moments after the speech when I caught up with the Labour leader, leaving with his wife to walk back to their hotel room. “No,” he exclaimed, wagging his finger in my direction. But he was laughing, as he admitted this was the image he wanted to portray. “If ever there was a symbol that the Labour party has changed from protest to power,” he said.
When ITV’s Tonight programme was given exclusive up-close access to the Labour leader, this was one of many clues I got as to what drives Starmer politically. Over three months, I followed him from the highs of his party conference to the lows of division and resignations over Israel and Gaza.
To understand his political journey, I went back to his old university in Leeds, asked about tax and immigration in a target constituency, pressed him on climate policies at the UN conference in Dubai, listened to his fears for his family – and, of course, chatted about his football obsession on the way to his beloved Arsenal.
So, politically speaking, who is the man tipped to be our next prime minister? Is he the idealistic lefty who wrote about the “authoritarian onslaught of Thatcherism” as a student in the 1980s?
Is he the 2020 Labour party leadership hopeful who made 10 pledges, including mass nationalisations?
Or is he the centrist who (after that moment of fear) almost revelled in the imagery of a protester being booted off stage at the final party conference before a general election year?
Perhaps the best understanding came during a conversation in King’s Academy Prospect, a secondary school in Reading. We spoke in a design and technology lab in a wing of impressive buildings funded in the New Labour years. It was a late visit squeezed into Starmer’s brutal schedule.
There, he blamed a dire economic backdrop for his decision not to lift the two-child cap on benefits. Pointing out that the previous Labour government invested heavily in public services, I asked him if he was sad that he couldn’t be as bold as Tony Blair.
“Well, of course, but we’re inheriting a terrible situation,” he replied.
And Starmer has clearly been advised that he shouldn’t offer the Tories even an inch on unfunded public spending. His mantra is that economic growth will turn the situation around, and he claims that his shadow cabinet is drumming up business investment now, to land on day one if it is elected.
For many, growth is a longer-term solution, so what about other more immediate choices, such as taxing people’s wealth? I turned back to Blair, reading this quote: “It’s not a burning ambition for me to make sure that David Beckham earns less money.” Did he disagree with that?
“No,” Starmer responded without hesitation about Beckham or a similarly rich footballer today. “I don’t disagree with that.”
But if you are prime minister, I went on, would you want to take more money from the super-rich (non-doms aside) and redistribute it to the poorest? Again, a “no”, without hesitation. “That isn’t how I want to grow the economy.”
Starmer argued that while, of course, Labour believes in redistribution: “I don’t think redistribution is the sort of one-word answer for millions of people across the country”.
He spoke of the dignity and respect of skilled work. “So I’m afraid if it’s just redistribution, I think that fundamentally disrespects people.”
If I was to judge the Starmer I was listening to against two of the other contributors to our programme – Peter Mandelson, an architect of the 1997 Labour victory, and union leader Mick Lynch – it was clear which way he was leaning. This Labour leader was far more Mandy than Mick (though his advisers would argue he is neither).
Lord Mandelson, a key figure in Blair’s 1997 victory, praised Starmer for bringing the party back from “a near-death experience” under Jeremy Corbyn.
Meanwhile, Lynch told us: “The Labour party has got to be a socialist organisation. We have got to take money off the rich and redistribute it to the rest of the communities in Britain. He’s got to identify with what working people need, not … with what the Daily Mail, the Telegraph and the Express are telling him to believe.”
I wondered what had driven Starmer in the 80s. Back then, he was involved in producing a radical Trotskyist magazine called Socialist Alternatives. In one article, he argued that collective bargaining was not leftwing enough, handing too much power to the employers. And he did not hold back on the harm caused by Margaret Thatcher in the 80s.
So why did he praise the former Conservative prime minister in a recent Sunday Telegraph article?
Starmer asked if anyone would agree with exactly what they had believed at the age of 22. But, actually, he said he did agree that she delivered an “authoritarian onslaught”.
“I would say the same now. What she had was a clarity of mission and a purpose – but actually what she did was very destructive.”
Was he a lefty then? Is he now? Starmer hesitated briefly, aware of the growing gravity attached to his comments as the election draws near. But still “yes and yes”, he said.
Still, something big has clearly shifted. I asked if defeat in the Hartlepool byelection in 2021 – a sobering moment, by all accounts – had led him to compromise those lefty principles to make way for a relentless pursuit of power?
“When the electorate reject you as badly as they did in 2019, you don’t look at the electorate and say: ‘What are you thinking?’ You look at yourself and change the party.”
And this was the theme Starmer kept coming back to: the hopelessness of opposition.
He took every chance to stress how he had changed the party, moving Labour towards the centre ground (although some in the party would argue passionately that this is moving to where voters are, and they are in a different place in 2024 compared with 1997) and embracing the idea that he had been “ruthless” in doing so.
He said it again as we walked up to the Arsenal and talked about how politics compares to football. “It’s all about winning. You know some people say: ‘It’s the taking part that counts’. I don’t.”
Surely you don’t say that to your children, I suggested. But he doubled down: “I don’t subscribe to any of that,” he said.
But what might a young Starmer, who was clearly driven by a desire to tackle injustice and inequality, say to his older self, who won’t commit to lifting a two-child benefit cap or taxing the super-rich more than he has said so far? “The Keir Starmer of my student days would also know that the most important thing is to have a Labour government, otherwise it’s shouting into the void.”
But he did concede that an idealistic young Starmer would probably want him to go further – especially if he wins.
• Tonight: Keir Starmer – Up Close will air on ITV1 at 8.30pm on 18 January