Interview: Keir Starmer on Covid-19, child poverty, football and a pint at The Pineapple
- Credit: PA
Finding himself holding the government to account in the worst crisis of a generation, Sir Keir Starmer says his first three months as leader of the opposition have been a “roller-coaster journey”.
In the second week of lockdown, the Holborn and St Pancras MP was emphatically elected leader of the Labour Party, recording his victory video out of his living room with a camera and microphone for company.
In his newfound political bubble, he has assembled his shadow cabinet over Zoom as he challenged the government on PPE, testing and care homes.
Meanwhile, back at home in Kentish Town, with his wife an NHS worker Mr Starmer has taken on the daily school run, picking up his kids at 3.30pm.
“We’re in the middle of a crisis so I’ve got on with the job,” he says.
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In an interview for the Ham&High, the former head of the Crown Prosecution Service opens up on juggling his public and private faces through the pandemic.
He discusses child poverty in Euston, councils’ financial struggles, footballing life as a “midfield general”, and his longing for a return pint at his favourite pub.
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Constituency work ‘exploding’
As the country’s troubles have soared, Mr Starmer’s constituency work has likewise spiralled.
His caseload in Holborn and St Pancras has “exploded”, doubling over the last three months compared to the same period last year.
“Many of these people have never come to us before,” he says.
“That may be businesses that are struggling or people who are very worried about their jobs.
“But the issue I’m most concerned about is the people who are hardest hit already.”
Mr Starmer says in his local surgeries the people he most commonly sees, and who he is “deeply conscious” of, are residents in overcrowded accommodation.
“Quite often there’s mum, dad and two or three children in a one-bedroom flat,” the former shadow Brexit secretary says.
“You can only imagine what that is like week after week during lockdown.”
Virus ‘picks away’ at inequalities
Mr Starmer has challenged Boris Johnson over child poverty in Prime Minister’s Questions.
In Holborn and St Pancras, the number of children living in working poverty rose by 7.6 per cent between 2014/15-2018/19 – the second highest increase of London constituencies.
Euston Foodbank, meanwhile, has seen a 76pc rise in the number of children being fed emergency parcels, which Mr Starmer calls a “huge cause of concern”.
“The rise in child poverty is a combination of low, fragile wages and people who are now more economically vulnerable than they were before.
“This coupled with the constraints of lockdown and the housing situation that people find themselves in,” Mr Starmer says.
“This virus picks away at existing inequalities and where you’ve got cumulative inequalities, like in Camden, then the cumulative impact can be very high.
“Unfortunately we’ve got a prime minister who doesn’t want to confront the reality of child poverty but we are not going to let him off the hook on this.
“We will keep on at him until something is done.”
‘Duty’ to change
Public Health England (PHE) has documented the health, social and economic disparities of Covid-19, including mortality rates being twice as high in the country’s most deprived areas.
Following its findings, Mr Starmer is “very worried” coronavirus is widening a class divide.
On the disproportionate impact to Black and minority ethnic communities, he says he’s “frustrated” the government “acknowledges” their disadvantage without taking “practical measures” to address it.
“At every twist and turn [of PHE’s findings] what you see is a disproportionate impact on those who don’t have equality at the moment,” Mr Starmer says.
“I’m really worried this will exacerbate and it’s one of the reasons that we’ve got to determinedly argue for a better settlement coming out of this virus than going into it.
“In other words, we cannot go through this and then say it’s business as usual.
“We’ve got to take this as, not really the opportunity, but the duty to tackle inequality in a much more meaningful way.”
Councils need ‘urgent’ help
Mr Starmer says the community response to Covid-19 has been “absolutely incredible” - but he fears for financially troubled local authorities working “flat out”.
“The government’s got to do the right thing,” the Labour leader says.
“As leader of Camden Council Georgia Gould was told by [housing secretary] Robert Jenrick that the government would support the work they were doing in response to coronavirus.
“Local authorities took the government at its word and now it is breaking its promise and they need to make good on it.
“Councils are facing the prospect of either bankruptcy or having to cut back services.
“The government needs to address the situation urgently.”
With back-to-back Zoom meetings taking up 12-14 hours of some of his days, Mr Starmer says he’s struggled to switch off from work in lockdown – yet he’s savoured the extra time with family.
Of the juggle between politicking and parenting, he says: “On the one hand there’s the public-facing side [of the job].
“And then on the other, like everybody else, you’re worried about a family member, the pandemic and health issues.
“So I’ve had this very public element at the same time as picking the children up from school, which actually has been really good.
“I mean I haven’t had the chance to pick the kids up from school for a very, very long time, so that’s been quite nice.”
In normal times, Mr Starmer’s escape is football.
Like his Labour predecessor Jeremy Corbyn, he is a big Arsenal fan and Mr Starmer says he’s excited to get back to the Emirates to see a game.
“We’re struggling this season; there’s no pretending otherwise,” he admits.
But “even more” than watching his beloved Gunners, Mr Starmer says he “can’t wait” to get back competing himself.
Every week before lockdown he played 8-a-side football at Talacre Community Sports Centre.
“I’d like to describe myself as a midfield general,” he says. “But when I do that in the company of those that I actually play with, I think they would disagree.
“They might say ‘well once upon a time’... But in my head I’m a midfield general.”
As Mr Starmer’s thoughts briefly wander to football and familiarity, he insists the future remains uncertain, the virus still at large and loneliness widespread.
The former human rights lawyer thinks true “normality” won’t arrive without a vaccine, stressing the need to strike the balance between reviving a flailing economy and avoiding a second peak.
However, he says he understands people’s “yearning” to resume their routines - glimpses of things to look forward to.
Mr Starmer, similarly, is itching for two particular rituals ahead of July 4 when the lockdown eases again – a haircut at his barber in Dartmouth Park and a beer at The Pineapple in Kentish Town.
“The Pineapple is my local and it’s the best in my view,” he says.
“I’m very much looking forward to being back there, at a proper community pub, and having a pint as soon as I can.”