On Wednesday the British public was treated to an episode of Piers Morgan’s Life Stories with Keir Starmer. You could call the Labour’s leader’s appearance either brave, or the act of a man who has nothing to lose. Let’s go for the more generous interpretation: it showed that Starmer is a fighter – even when faced with some pretty dire local election results.
Did it work? In several respects, the interview was a success for Starmer. For one, it showed the Real Starmer, not the slightly robotic one we are used to in the House of Commons. Although I found some of the “experts” on his life a bit random – Dame Helena Kennedy tells us that “school was where Keir blossomed” (was she there?!), you get a good understanding of him – and what makes him tick – by the end.
Inevitably, a large part of the show was dedicated to Starmer’s life as a barrister. He is clearly someone who thrives on having big targets to achieve, rising from QC to Director of Public Prosecutions to Labour Party Leader in, actually, quite a short period of time. Furthermore, his cases tell us about his ideological inclinations. One that features is in 2005 when Starmer famously represented two penniless environmental campaigners who were sued by McDonald’s for libel. The then government ended up reviewing libel laws as a consequence.
At that time, Starmer said of the case “Until now, only the rich and famous have been able to defend themselves against libel writs. Now ordinary people can participate much more effectively in public debate without fear that they will be bankrupted for doing so. This case is a milestone for free speech.”
This rather John Proctor-sounding Starmer is miles away from the one we now know, who not long ago was part of a “second referendum” campaign that would have erased a fair few “ordinary people’s” votes… He should bring this energy back to Labour and discuss not only “ordinary people”, but “ordinary” things, be it council tax, living costs, rather than the Twitter politics that have consumed his party.
Lots of headlines have been focused around the emotional parts of Starmer’s interview. He talks about the death of his mother, Josephine, who had Still’s Disease, adding “For some people it comes and goes, for mum it came and it came and it came again”. He also spoke of his father who was “totally devoted” to her. Elsewhere he talks about his wife, who impressively shuts down one of Morgan’s questions with a joke.
These sections, particularly around Starmer’s parents, are touching – and show a man who has had a lot of hardship in his life – but stayed strong for his loved ones. You would have to have a heart of stone not to sympathise. And yet, on a broader note, I do wonder why we now expect political leaders – and otherwise – to share their personal lives. Is this the Prince Harry effect?
Overall it was a “good” interview because it increased Starmer’s likeability – he even boasts about getting drunk with George Clooney in it. He comes across as someone with thick skin, a sense of humour and unshakeable determination (don’t worry, I’m still a Conservative voter). Will this boost support for Labour?
One challenge will be viewing figures. Apparently Starmer on Piers Morgan was watched by 1.6 million people, compared to Coronation Street’s 3.7 million (on immediately before). You can be as charming as you like, but if no one’s watched it, then meh.
Starmer on Piers Morgan was watched by 1.6 million people – or a 12.1 per cent audience share. Corrie, on immediately before, got 3.7 million, and BBC One drama The Pact – with Julie Hesmondhalgh, who introduced Corbyn at Labour conference in 2017 – got 2.3 million in same slot.
— Patrick Maguire (@patrickkmaguire) June 2, 2021
Then there’s the fact that Labour still doesn’t have a credible proposition, with lots of fractures between party members. A jolly chat with Piers Morgan won’t change that.
Saying that, I rather agreed with Robert Halfon yesterday, who wrote about the importance of Conservative voters not getting complacent around the Labour Party (or indeed other threats).
The issue I spot is that the Conservatives are drifting, as their voters see it, to the Left, with their “green revolution” and the Tory rebellion over the cut to foreign aid. Voters are crying out for lower living costs, and the “conserving” of the nation’s finances and culture. An alternate that’s stronger here – combined with the likeability factor – is the risk.