As Labour party members start to vote for their next leader, Sir Keir Starmer talks to Stylist about how he plans to work with and for women.
Keir Starmer would like you to spend a day with him.
“I think seeing what an MP really spends their time doing, and how they act with friends and family, would be fantastic,” says the Brexit secretary and MP for Holborn and St Pancras. “It would be good for me, too!”
At home, you might catch Starmer reading (he’s just finished A Good Enough Mother by Bev Thomas), or watching a film with his family: he particularly enjoys Paddington 2, because “it’s an injustice when Paddington is locked up, which really gets me going”.
It might seem surprising to hear Starmer giving such a strong opinion on a children’s film, given reports that he “lashed out” when asked about the most exciting thing he’s done. But Starmer had a point in his measured response: that MPs should be judged on their opinions and ideas on substantial matters, and not what they say in response to more light-hearted questions about hobbies or, say, how they eat a bacon sandwich.
Starmer has a long career of tackling big issues: as a defence lawyer specialising in human rights issues, the former head of the Crown Prosecution Service was elected as an MP in 2015. Now, he’s running against Lisa Nandy and Rebecca Long-Bailey in a bid for the party’s top position, after Emily Thornberry dropped out a few weeks ago.
A new YouGov poll shows Starmer is the frontrunner, but if Nandy or Long-Bailey win, they will be the first elected female leader of the Labour party in history.
As a result, Starmer has faced some criticisms for entering the race at all. In January, the Labour party chairman Ian Lavery called on Starmer to “stand aside”, saying: “We need a female leader of the Labour party.” Jess Phillips, meanwhile, has said that Labour will do itself a “disservice” and become a national “embarrassment” if it elects another man as leader.
But Starmer, who calls himself a feminist, insists his decision to run wasn’t about blocking a woman from getting the top job. “Nobody is running because they are a woman or a man. Each of us is sincerely and genuinely putting forward the case we think is right for our party, our movement and our country.”
He’s also said that if he wins, he will appoint his female competitors in his cabinet, adding: “I’ll make sure I have a team with very strong women, so that I’m not doing this for them – I’m doing it with them.”
Though some might bristle at the idea of a self-proclaimed male feminist beating a woman to the Labour leadership, Starmer does have a record of working to protect women’s rights. In 2013, he led an enquiry into changing prosecution guidelines on violence against women and girls, which led to a 15,000 rise in convictions over four years. But, after the recent news that people are calling for family court judges to be better trained for rape cases, Starmer agrees that there is still a long way to go.
“I profoundly believe that asking people to go to a police station to report what has happened is the least likely way to get anybody to report anything,” explains Starmer, who remains “very passionate” about the issue. “We set out all of the changes we thought were needed in the law – bits of it were nearly adopted by the Tories but the whole package hasn’t been.”
Starmer says he could speak about this particular issue all afternoon – and so could we – but we’re keen to know what else the potential Labour leader would do if he was elected.
What do you think are the most important issues facing women in the UK today and how do you plan on tackling them?
It’s a great shame that the Domestic Abuse Bill fell through when the general election was called. Improvement is slow and we’ve already lost time on it. The first thing to do is get it back quickly, and that’s going to require a lot of cross-party work. If the Conservative government won’t be critical on the issue, we will have to use other means of scrutiny through select committees to put the pressure on them and work with outside campaigners.
We also need to address everyday sexual harassment and the gender pay gap, which is still there 50 years after the Equal Pay Act was introduced. And we are championing shared parental leave, having a model a bit like Sweden. I was really lucky when our first child was born. I had just been appointed as DPP (director of public prosecutions) but didn’t take up office for another five months, so I actually had a lot of time with our first child. There is an assumption that it will usually be the mother, not the father, who stays at home and there is a pay issue that comes with that.
I believe in the decriminalisation of abortion in the UK, too: the law needs to be completely reviewed.
You’ve described the housing crisis as a “social justice issue”, what do you mean by that and how would you address this?
Secure accommodation that is safe and fit to be lived in is a basic human right but it’s not treated like that. House prices and renting are going through the roof because council houses have been sold off and not replaced, so I would empower local authorities to build more council housing.
Getting out of renting to buy a home is really difficult and the renting bit takes so much of your income. [Mayor of London] Sadiq Khan would like a licensing scheme for private landlords in London so they can be controlled and the quality assured for private renters. The government won’t allow it, but I think we should. Also, people conceive of housing as ‘oh have you got a dry place to live?’ But, it’s actually about your mental health and your family life.
What are your biggest concerns for the NHS under a Tory government and how do you plan to address them?
My wife works for the NHS: it’s got such dedicated staff, but they’re demoralised because they are massively underfunded and there is too much to do. It needs proper funding, but that’s not enough. There also needs to be an integration of health with social care and mental health care. We’ve been talking about doing this for a very, very long time but until we join them up, I don’t think we’re ever going to solve the problem about the future of the NHS.
Climate change is arguably the most pressing issue facing the UK and the world right now, so how would you tackle that?
I think work can be done at a number of different levels, and it needs to be given a complete priority. One argument is ‘what happens when something is good for the economy but bad for the environment?’ That has got to go: if it’s bad for the environment, it’s bad for the economy.
Decarbonisation has to become a priority, which means the way we build houses and cars have to change. This is a challenging but massive opportunity, as we can use Green Skills to carry out all these changes.
I don’t think the international agreements on climate change are strong enough: the Paris Agreement is important but, in the end, all countries have to do is report in and be audited. There is no real teeth to it. The lesson I’ve learned from being involved in human rights all my life is that unless you have a much stronger international enforcement mechanism, some of this remains aspirational. I would like to be the leader of the Labour party and a Labour prime minister who led on the international stage saying we need a moment when the world comes together to agree a stronger set of standards and enforcement across the globe.
What are your biggest concerns now that we have left the EU and how do you bring people together over Brexit?
My biggest concern is that, whatever he says, Boris Johnson will rupture our relationships with Europe and end up doing a trade deal with Donald Trump. I know he says that’s not going to happen, or that if he does it will be on his terms, but I don’t believe him. It would be a completely different economic model that we are aligned to, and in that economic model the disparity between those at the top and the bottom is ever greater.
Secondly, people voted to leave the EU because the political and economic model is not working for them. So we will only bring the country back together if we look at the underlying reasons why people voted the way they did in the first place.