How Britain’s Labour Party Leader Keir Starmer Plans to End 13 Years of Conservative Rule

12 minute read

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If today’s polls were tomorrow’s election results, former prosecutor-turned-politician Keir Starmer would be Britain’s next Prime Minister. The opposition Labour Party, which he leads, has been in the shadows of British politics since losing power in 2010, but has enjoyed a sustained double-digit lead over the ruling Conservative Party since the fall.

This surge in popularity has been bolstered by a seemingly endless period of malaise under the Tories, as the Conservatives are known, from the divisive 2016 Brexit referendum to the COVID-19 pandemic to the worst cost-of-living crisis in a generation. It has also been helped by a series of political scandals within the Conservatives’ ranks, which resulted in the leader of the party—and, by extension, the country—changing three times in the space of a year.

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Still, Labour’s victory is not assured. A major challenge facing Starmer, who has been a Member of Parliament (MP) since 2015, is that few Britons appear to know who he is or what he stands for. He has been dogged by perceptions that he is wooden, distant, and even a bit boring. But perhaps the greatest challenge he faces is convincing British voters that Labour has what it takes to bring Britain back from the brink.

Starmer sat down with TIME to discuss his path to Parliament, his vision for the country, and how he plans to get into 10 Downing Street.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

You’ve spoken a lot about how you never saw yourself becoming Prime Minister. What elements of your life made you feel like you couldn’t get into politics?

My working-class background. My dad worked in a factory, my mum was a nurse. Nobody in my extended family had gone to university. I was the first, and therefore there was something in the back of my mind that simply said, ‘People like you aren’t MPs, Keir.’

In a sense, my journey is evidence that people from my background actually can go on and do really important things. Becoming a lawyer was fantastic. I didn’t know any lawyers when I was growing up. Nobody in my family knew any lawyers. I can’t really emphasize enough for my parents how big a step it was that their son had become a lawyer. Doing various cases, becoming a QC [Queen’s Counsel, or senior barrister]—now KC [King’s Counsel], since the passing of the Queen—and then going to work in Northern Ireland on delivering on aspects of the Good Friday Agreement, and then heading up the Crown Prosecution Service with 7,000 staff, and then on to Parliament in 2015, and now on to leader of the Labour Party and hopefully—if we win the next election—on to Prime Minister. That, I hope, is some evidence and some hope for the current generation that if there is something telling you it’s not for you, then that isn’t necessarily right.

Keir Starmer at the U.K. Parliament on March 20.David Vintiner for TIME

What is the most important thing that readers should know about you?

The most important thing is that when I see a problem, I fix it. I’m not that interested in circling around and around a problem, eloquently describing the problem. I’m much more interested in rolling up my sleeves and fixing it—whether that’s the police service in Northern Ireland, whether that’s prosecutions in England and Wales, or whether it’s the Labour Party. I’ve always been someone that, having identified a problem, wants to fix it.

The other thing is that passion can manifest in different ways. Some people think that passion is only manifested by shouting and screaming. For me, the passion and determination to change the country for the better runs very, very deep. And I think once people understand that, then they’ve got a much better sense of who I am.

How would you describe Starmerism?

Recognizing that our economy needs to be fixed. Recognizing that [solving] climate change isn’t just an obligation; it’s the single biggest opportunity that we’ve got for our country going forward. Recognizing that public services need to be reformed, that every child and every place should have the best opportunities and that we need a safe environment, safe streets, et cetera. You get a sense of what matters most to me.

Working people want change, they want things fixed. They don’t want politicians talking about it. They don’t want false promises. They want it fixed. It’s a very simple thing for most families.

If the polls are any indication, the next election is Labour’s to lose. How do you deal with that pressure?

One of the things I’ve had to learn being the leader of the Labour Party, leader of the opposition, is just to block a lot of noise out. We went from “You can’t win” to “You can’t lose” in the blink of an eye. ​​If we go from where we landed in 2019 into government, that’ll be a historic achievement—and we need to be humble enough to know that requires us to earn every vote.

Every person who didn’t vote for us in 2019, everybody who didn’t vote for us in the previous elections, because we lost in 2010, 2015, 2017, and 2019. We have to earn those votes. I’m humble enough to know that job is not done. Only when [voters] think that Labour has got a compelling story about the future of the country will we be clear that we can win that election.

At the World Economic Forum in Davos, you lamented Britain’s absence, both in terms of overall government representation and relevance. You described Britain as being “in retreat.” Are Britain’s best days behind it?

I’m absolutely sure Britain’s best days are ahead of it, not behind it. And lament is the right word. When I was Director of Public Prosecutions, I represented the U.K. in international bodies, and everybody looks to Britain as the pragmatic, reliable partner. Whatever the problem was around the international table, usually the British were asked to contribute early. And I certainly was as the representative of the U.K., because you’d be there, you would have a strong powerful voice, you’d have something important to say. And other countries wanted to hear what Britain had to say. To have gone from that to a position where the mood in Davos was that we drifted and that we’re not around the table is something I do lament and I think everybody from every political party should lament. I think Tories should lament it.

Going to Davos was a statement of intent to say, under a Labour government, Britain will be there, it will be around the international table. We intend to be there in a leading position of influence. So quite the opposite of saying Britain’s best days are behind it, it’s actually to say there’s huge potential and ambition here, but it’s not being realized. Under a Labour government, Britain will be back.

Looking around that international table, who is the world leader you most look up to?

Of all time, [Nelson] Mandela—like almost everybody else.

Any contemporary ones?

I don’t have posters of people on my wall. But I’m conscious that we’ve got a lot to learn internationally as a Labour Party, so we study intensely the U.S. and, particularly, the journey of [U.S. President Joe] Biden into office, because [the Democrats are] our sister party. Same as Australia and Germany as well.

This isn’t about me having posters on my wall. It is about making sure that the team and I are completely plugged into the politics and the arguments and the ability to win an electorate over. I’m absolutely determined that at the next election our campaign will be world class, not least because we are learning from all of those that have won recently.

Assuming there are no further changes to the Conservative leadership, you’ll likely be facing off against Prime Minister Rishi Sunak. Between him and former Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who is the tougher opponent?

I would just say they’re different. Different in their characteristics, different in the circumstance in which they are governing. Johnson was governing through the pandemic, so he had the benefit of incumbency through that until he then collapsed under the weight of his own character flaws. Sunak is a different person and is trying to portray [himself as] the man that’s here to clear up the mess that his party made; the problem being that he was alongside Johnson for most of the period in which the mess was made. So he can’t quite put the distance that he wants to.

Is there anything you like about Sunak? Is there anything you think he’s done well?

I have no personal animosity towards Rishi Sunak.

The Protocol in Northern Ireland was really important, and that’s why I warmly applauded what had happened and said that we would support it, because I do think it’s very important for Northern Ireland. I do think it’s very important for the U.S., for obvious reasons, and for our future relationship with the E.U. That was progress and we were very happy to say that’s progress.

There are other issues: on Ukraine, on terrorism, and on security issues, there will be no divide with the government on those issues and we will work with the government and Rishi Sunak knows that, I’ve told him that. There’s nothing that Putin wants more than to see division in the parliaments and governments of the allies. We will not allow that to happen. And therefore, you will see that, under my leadership, there’s been no criticism of the government’s approach to Ukraine. We’ve stood alongside them.

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Former Labour MPs who previously quit the party under your predecessor have since rejoined, citing the party’s shift under your leadership. How has Labour changed under your watch?

We are absolutely committed to patriotism. We absolutely understand that security is the first duty of any government. We are proud of our history in signing the NATO treaty. We were the government that helped bring that about, and I’m very proud of our NATO membership.

If you were to look at the Labour Party now, we are proudly pro-NATO. Secondly, we are pro-business in the sense of wanting to partner with business, which is a really big and important change for the Labour Party. We have made progress on tackling anti-Semitism. You can never say job done when it comes to anti-Semitism, but we’re in a materially different place than we were before. And I think on foreign policy generally, we know that the U.S. is our No. 1 important ally.

What would you say to those within your party who argue that you’ve taken the party too far to the right or that the pledges that you made in your bid to become leader haven’t been kept?

If you look at those pledges, they’re underpinned by values, which are very important to me. Most of the pledges are as made; some have necessarily changed as the circumstances have changed. We’ve had to bring about fundamental change. You can’t lose an election as badly as we lost in 2019 and look at the electorate and say, “Why didn’t you vote for us?” You have to look in the mirror and say we need to change.

We were formed to be a party of government. We weren’t formed to be a party of opposition or discussion. We weren’t here to be a protest party. We weren’t here to be a debating society. The Labour Party only came into existence in order to form Labour governments and bring about change. We must never, ever lose sight of that. Restoring the Labour Party to a party that can serve the country has been a driving part of what I’ve been trying to do in the last three years.

We have to appeal to people who didn’t vote for us last time. If we simply appeal to the same people who voted for us last time or to our party members, we’ll lose the next election—and that’s the blunt truth of it. That’s why I use this phrase over and over again: Country first, party second.

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