After a lengthy fight to convince voters that Labour has changed since the Jeremy Corbyn years, Sir Keir Starmer has told The Independent that he wants to use 2022 to position Labour as a government in waiting, ready to “build a new Britain” after the pandemic.
Starmer set himself three challenges when he took over from Corbyn in 2019 – first, to transform the party, and to expose the failings of Boris Johnson’s administration, and then to show voters that Labour is ready to govern.
Having completed internal changes to the party rulebook to break the hold of the left, drawn a firm line under the Corbyn era with his conference speech in Brighton, and appointed an unapologetically centrist shadow cabinet, he feels voters are once again ready to contemplate the prospect of Labour in power.
“I think that one thing the public know very well is that the Labour Party is now led by Keir Starmer, not Jeremy Corbyn, and we’re a changed party,” he said.
Looking back over the 18 months since he took over following Labour’s worst election defeat since 1935, Sir Keir said: “We’ve made real progress. We’re confident but we’re not complacent.”
His choice of the phrase “new Britain” to describe his election offer will raise hackles among the Labour left, as it closely echoes the “New Labour, New Britain” slogan used by Tony Blair when he became the party’s last leader to go from opposition into power in 1997.
One veteran of past elections told The Independent: “It’s clear the direction he’s taking. He stood for the leadership as Jeremy Corbyn’s successor, and he is going to win the next election as Tony Blair’s successor.”
Despite the 10 pledges he made during his leadership election to preserve elements of his predecessor’s agenda, Starmer has made it increasingly clear that he is determined to shift Labour’s direction.
Justifying his strategy, he said: “If you lose that badly you don’t look at the electorate and say, ‘What on earth were you doing?’ You look at your own party and say, ‘What on earth are we doing, and how do we need to change?’”
November’s shadow cabinet reshuffle completed the clearout of Corbynites from his top team, and brought centrist figures like Yvette Cooper and Wes Streeting into key posts.
Sir Keir told The Independent that the current shadow cabinet is the one he wants to fight the next election, and he has told the party to prepare for it to come in May 2023. Though Corbyn remains suspended from the parliamentary party, Starmer accepted that the work of demonstrating how Labour has moved on cannot be declared complete.
The phase of reforming party management, as well as putting in place new structures to deal with the problem of antisemitism, may have largely been concluded, but the job continues of persuading voters to look again at the party they turned away from at the last election.
“We have to constantly show that we’ve changed,” said Starmer. “We have to constantly show that we have recognised the scale of defeat in 2019.” But he added: “That on its own isn’t enough. Exposing the government on its own isn’t enough.
“We also have to show we’re a government in waiting. I think already people are beginning to see that. We have better answers, clearer answers, and more confidence than the government going forward.”
Public confidence in the Conservative government is “draining away” in the wake of the series of blunders, scandals and broken promises in recent weeks, he claimed.
Voters are no longer willing to give Boris Johnson “the benefit of the doubt” in the way that has allowed him to sail through previous setbacks unscathed, making victory for Labour – buoyed by growing leads in a string of recent polls – an “achievable” prospect, he said.
“We know what seats we have got to retain. We know what seats we’ve got to win. And we’re utterly focused on that,” said Starmer. “And do I think it’s achievable? Yes, I do think it’s achievable.”
Meeting The Independent as the UK prepared for a Christmas overshadowed by Omicron, the Labour leader said that the “partygate” scandal and the Tory rebellion over Covid restrictions, along with a “litany of broken promises” on rail, social care and tax, had exposed the prime minister’s weakness to voters just as the country enters a cost-of-living crisis caused in part by his policies.
“I think he is now being seen for what he is, which is a leader who over-promises and under-delivers; a leader without a real plan for government or strategy for government; an unserious leader rather than a serious leader,” said Sir Keir.
“He has enjoyed the benefit of the doubt for two years now during the pandemic. But I think that over the last few weeks or months, more and more people are now saying that they’re removing the benefit of the doubt from him. Once that is gone, I think he then is seen for what he is.”
Regaining the trust of voters who abandoned Labour in 2019 – including in the so-called red wall seats of the Midlands and north of England that fell to the Tories – is “absolutely crucial” to any prospect of success, he said.
And he said he was relying on the new fiscal rules set out by shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves, along with new policies on affordable homes, green jobs, and “the strongest position the Labour Party has ever had on employment rights and security for people at work”, to help build that trust.
New policies will come in the coming months on “levelling up” – a battleground chosen by Johnson, where Sir Keir believes Labour can win – along with the climate crisis and “making Brexit work”.
“By the conference, we want to be putting forward a forward-looking agenda, an agenda for change for the country – a new Britain coming out of the pandemic,” he said. This agenda will be built on the experience of the pandemic, harnessing “the sense of community togetherness and the support communities have given each other”.
“It’s the complete opposite of what Margaret Thatcher said about there being no such thing as society,” he explained. “This is proof that there is such a thing as society, and it comes together at times like this.”
Sir Keir dismissed suggestions that he is holding back on calling for Johnson’s resignation because he now views the PM as an electoral liability for the Tories and would like to avoid his replacement with a more formidable adversary.
“If I could snap my fingers and force him to resign, then of course, we’d force him to resign,” he said. “But in the end, it’s for the Tory party to decide what they want to do about Boris Johnson. “They’re in the middle of absolute infighting in their party, as he hides from public scrutiny and those around him circle to see whether they can be his successor.
“In the middle of the pandemic that is the worst of all situations, because here we are with the variant on the increase, and people really concerned about what’s going to happen … and we’ve got a prime minister who is so weak and his party so divided.”
He refused to say whether he would rather face chancellor Rishi Sunak, foreign secretary Liz Truss, or other possible contenders like Michael Gove or Jeremy Hunt if Johnson was removed. The next election will be about the record of the whole Conservative party, not just the character of its leader, he said.
“I don’t care who they put up,” said Starmer. “We will take on whoever is the Tory leader. Whoever the leader is, whether it’s Johnson or his successor… it is clear that we’ve already had 11, going on 12, years of Tory government, and it’s been a complete failure on any terms.
“The economy hasn’t grown, inequality has grown, and there’s no plan for the future. That is a failure of the Tory party. So I don’t mind who’s the leader of the Conservative party to go into the next election. We’ll gladly take them on.”
Speaking over a coffee at a small local café near his north London home, Starmer said he had not been forced by Omicron to scale back his Christmas plans. “We always have a small family Christmas anyway,” he said. “So we will be with our children. And it’ll be as you’d expect, full of presents, left, right and centre. A lot of fun.”
Sir Keir said that he, rather than wife Victoria, will do the bulk of the cooking. But there won’t be turkey on the table: “We’re all vegetarian. I’m up for nut roast, but the kids are telling me that they want something else. So we’ll see how we get on.”
Starmer has so far been rigorous about maintaining the privacy of his 13-year-old son and 11-year-old daughter, to the extent that he has not revealed their first names publicly. And he said he intends to stick to this principle even as he gets closer to the day when he asks the country to elect him as its leader.
“I have no issue talking about myself as a father, but I’m going to protect my children,” he said. “They’re still young, and I will do everything within my power to protect them and protect their privacy.”