Sir Keir Starmer is currently the front-runner in the race to replace Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party. An alumnus at the University of Leeds for a Bachelor of Law, LSTV and The Gryphon sat down with him to discuss his time here, why he’s running for Labour leader and challenged him on what he’ll do for students, dealing with the issue of institutional anti-semitism within the party and Labour’s Brexit policy.
Starmer is the only man still running with four female candidates running against him at the time of this interview – Emily Thornberry, Lisa Nandy, Rebecca Long-Bailey and Jess Phillips. Phillips, also an alumnus at the University of Leeds, dropped out of the race last week.
I’d like to welcome Sir Keir Starmer who’s joining us for an interview today as a candidate in the current race for Labour leader. Thank you for sitting down with us
Keir: Nice to see you and it’s really great to be back at Leeds University. I had three really happy years here so I come back whenever I can.
Of course. Some people might not know this but you’re an alumnus and you studied a Bachelor of Law here. So I guess I’m to start off with an easy question which is what would you say is the most memorable thing you remember from your time in Leeds?
Keir: Oh god there are so many memorable things from my time here. It was an incredible experience for me because I came from a very small town in Surrey to the city of Leeds. It was fantastic. In the second year of studying Law, I discovered international human right’s law which then became the driving force in my career as a lawyer taking me across the world doing human rights cases.
Was there a particular pub or night out that you remember fondly?
Keir: We went to the Union most of the time. Back then, everyone used to drink snakebite. I don’t know if that’s the case now?
No, I don’t think so
Keir: I don’t know why that went on but then also very many other pubs in Leeds and they had the Thursday night disco. Is that still on? Is that gone?
We now have Fruity on Fridays and there’s a pub quiz in Old Bar on Thursdays though there is a new night on Thursdays now.
What would you say has been the biggest changes you’ve seen in Leeds since you graduated in 1985?
Keir: I think the city has really developed. First, there’s the building down on the waterways that’s been going on for many many years but I’d say recently it’s that sort of push on law and financial institutions and now of course, Channel 4. Leeds has become a real magnet for those professions in particular and I think that’s fantastic.
So what made you decide to run for office in 2015 and move from a career in law to one in politics?
Keir: I actually joined the Labour Party when I was sixteen and became involved in many campaigns over the years. I then channelled my energies into human rights and eventually ended up running the Crown Prosecution Service, a public service. There I became acutely aware of the effect of cuts in the public sector and by 2015, I was become convinced that the cuts to our public services were so deep that we were at risk of tearing up everything that had been in place, essentially since the end of the Second World War. I became determined to do something about it and that’s why I first stood for election five years ago. It seems like someone has shoved fifty years of change into those five years but it was only five years ago that I was first standing to become an MP.
Given you have only been in office for five years, what makes you think that you have the experience to become Labour Leader? And then if you won the next election, potentially become Prime Minister?
Keir: I think to answer that we need to know what the challenge is. The challenge is to rebuild our party not just after one electoral loss in December last year but actually the last four in a row. We need to unite our party – there’s far too much division and far too much factionalism. We need to be a very effective opposition to Boris Johnson who I think is going to take this country in the wrong direction and forge a path so that we can win the next election. There’s a huge amount that needs to be done. I think that I’ve got the ability to bring people together and the experience of running a large organisation and the utter determination to take the Labour Party to a place it can win the next election. I’d also like to say that I think the other candidates are really good candidates and I think the fact that they’ve put themselves forward is really important. Every one of us is making a genuine case for our party, for our movement and for our country.
You are currently the Shadow Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union. This makes you responsible for the party’s policy in the last manifesto to legislate a final referendum on the Brexit deal. This policy is widely seen as one of the key reasons Labour lost at the last election, particularly in areas of the country that voted Leave. Would you accept responsibility for the Labour Party taking that position?
Keir: I think we all have to take responsibility for what was a devastating loss. The actual policy position was decided by our conference. It wasn’t my sole decision. We’re a members-led organisation and the members had a say at our conference when we hammered out our final policy position but I’d just say a number of things about that. Firstly, before we got to any question of a further referendum, we had tried for years literally to win arguments on votes on a deal that would work with the EU but we lost those arguments and votes because we didn’t have a majority in Parliament.
The second thing is that I went across forty-four constituencies in the election and actually there were a number of issues coming up that contributed to our loss. There was the question of the leadership of the labour party, rightly or wrong. There was Brexit and I actually think we didn’t knock down the phrase “:Get Brexit Done” hard enough. There were many people too who felt that the manifesto was overloaded, even if they felt there were good policies in it. I’m afraid too that anti-semitism played a part in certain parts of the country. I think it’s very important that we identify and address all the reasons that we lost because otherwise we won’t get past them. We also need to remind ourselves that we lost four in a row.
Students, as a group, tend to vote heavily either towards Labour or left-leaning parties. So how do you plan to win their support?
Keir: I think the most important thing with young people is actually to start listening to them a bit more. I would try to get people involved in politics earlier and I think one way of doing that is to give votes to sixteen and seventeen year-olds. I know that doesn’t apply to students here but I think actually listening to what students or young people have to say is really important. Frankly, if you’re old enough to pay tax at sixteen and seventeen, then you’re old enough to have a say on what the Government does with your tax.
In the 2017 and 2019 Labour manifestos, there were pledges to abolish tuition fees for students. If you became Party Leader, would you argue for this to be put into the next manifesto?
Keir: I would. I think it was a very important manifesto commitment to students and I also think we should ensure we do the same for other areas [of education] but not at the expense of taking money out of our earlier years. The difference you can make in a child’s life is much more determined by the 0-5 in the primary school years than it ever is in the university years. So I’d keep the commitment but it would have to be matched by a commitment to younger years.
And would that include abolishing any debt for students who had previously paid tuition fees?
Keir: Well we were looking at that. We would have to look at that again in 2024. My nephew has got, like many students have, huge debt as a result of studying. I think that the idea that studying is only for the benefit of students and not society is completely wrong in my view.
According to the National Union of Students, average University accommodation rents accounted for 73% of the maximum student loan last year compared to 58% in 2011-12. How do you plan to support students who are faced with increasingly unaffordable housing?
Keir: Well that’s a far too high a proportion and we need to bring that down. What I would do is to work with students’ unions on ideas and ways of reducing that but that is far too high a percentage.
The University has recently committed to closing the gaps between all BAME students and White students from 12.7% in 2017/18 to 5.5% in 2024/25 when it comes to student success. We revealed earlier in the year Black students are awarded First class degrees four times less than White students in particular.
There are higher non-continuation rates amongst BAME students as well as Mature, LGBT+, Disabled and non-A-level students. Do you think Higher Education institutions should do more to tackle inequalities amongst students?
Keir: Yes, totally supportive of that and in the 21st century, the fact that where you’re born, your race, your class and your gender still matter much more than they should in terms of your opportunities is plainly wrong so we need do more about it. I’m actually on the Advisory board here at Leeds University for the Law faculty so therefore I can be directly involved in it in that capacity.
One serious issue that many students face during their time at University are mental health issues relating to course workloads. At Leeds, there are support services provided by the University Union and the University. Will you pledge to do more to support Universities in tackling the student mental health crisis?
Keir: I think not just Universities, across the piece, much more needs to be done on mental health provision. There’s not enough money, it’s not joined up enough, and it need to be dramatically changed. I’d like to see mental health and physical health put much more on a par and joined, whether it’s inside Universities or outside the Universities. The way we deal with mental health is a moral disgrace and we need to do much more about it
Do you think there’s any policies in particular that would be effective at tackling the student mental health crisis in particular?
Keir: Well I think the support that goes in is hugely important and we have to look at what the causal factors are in the first place. I’m very glad that Leeds has the support that it has but it’s been very slow in the coming at most Universities.
Students who seek help are sometimes referred to local and NHS services. However many services in Leeds are under pressure. Leeds NHS IAPT have a 5-8 month wait for Step 3 CBT/Counselling. Market Place, a counselling service for young people has a three month wait for individual counselling. Four services in Leeds, Leeds Women’s Counselling and Therapy Service, Leeds Mind, Journey – a Personality Disorder service programme, and Support after Rape and Sexual Violence are all currently closed for new referrals with some having wait times for over a year.
How do you plan to support local mental health services, and in particular specialist ones?
Keir: They clearly need more money, more provision and more resources. Having to wait a year, is that what you said, for a referral beggars belief frankly. That is far far too long. It’s just another example of how cuts to public services have decimated the support that’s necessary to so many people.
In March last year, a Jewish Labour student wrote an article detailing why they were leaving the party. In it she said:
“It feels like the Jewish community has pleaded for the Party to change but instead it keeps being rebuffed and humiliated. All of this points to a severe institutional problem. Labour should be, and once was, the natural home for Jewish people. In my opinion, it is no longer.” How do you plan to make sure anti-semitism doesn’t have a place in the Labour party?
Keir: If you’re anti-semitic, you shouldn’t be a member of the Labour Party. If I was leader, I would lead on this from the top, I wouldn’t put it somewhere else. I would lead on it from the top. We need rule changes and I’ve argued for various rule changes. We need to embrace and understand what the Equalities and Human Rights Commission say when they finally report and rebuild our trust with the Jewish community. This is not complicated. If you’re anti-semitic, you shouldn’t be in the Labour Party and that is the absolute position I would take as leader of the party. I don’t want any of our activists or members to knock on a door again and be met with an answer that people aren’t voting Labour because of anti-semitism and I want everyone who has left the Labour party because of antisemitism to feel comfortable coming back to our party.
Why then did you decide to remain in the Shadow cabinet despite these concerns over Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership?
Keir: To argue about them and make my case. One thing you get if you’re in the Shadow Cabinet is the opportunity to argue for change. That’s why I did in the Shadow Cabinet, to argue for changes to the rules, to our approach to the commission, to have an open approach. But I didn’t just do that in the Shadow Cabinet. I did it on the radio, on the television, on the Marr show, on Radio 4, making that argument and trying to change our Party for the better.
Thank you for joining us today and best of luck with rest of the election.