Keir Starmer: ‘I Had Four Months Off When My Son Was Born.. It Created A Deep Bond’

With an election looming, women are wondering what front runner Labour leader Keir Starmer actually stands for. From the gender pay gap to his relationship with his kids, Starmer speaks out

Keir Starmer

by Anna Silverman |
Published on

Keir Starmer has heard the one about the personality politician before, and frankly, he doesn’t care. ‘I’ve been at this now for nearly four years. I’ve spoken to thousands upon thousands of people. And I keep getting challenged, particularly when Boris Johnson was leader: “Doesn’t the nation want someone who’s a bit of an entertainer? [Don’t they] want someone who looks like this?”’, he says.

‘I can honestly tell you, in all of those discussions, when I say, “What’s the challenge facing you in your life?” nobody has said to me: “I need someone who tells a joke.”’

The Labour leader has a point. He has steered the party from the brink of extinction to a lead of 20 points in the polls (even higher among young women) since he took the reins – with pollsters now saying he’s on track to be our next Prime Minister.

Today, we’re at a primary school in Essex where Starmer, 61, is keen to talk about what Labour would do to help children in state schools develop their creativity. He greets me on the platform at Harlow Town station, flanked by his entourage, and dives straight in with a quip about how he’ll be with eight and nine-year-olds in the morning and back in Parliament later, where people behave as if they’re even younger.

As his team prepare for the firing gun of the election being called, Starmer himself seems relaxed about the campaigning that lies ahead. He’s warmer and funnier than the guy we see on TV and the more serious person I met when I interviewed him last year.

In a navy suit but tieless, he chats to the pupils about his own kids. He has a son, 15, and a daughter, 13, but has kept them out of the spotlight.

Speaking to Grazia later, the former lawyer reveals how he bonded with his eldest by taking four months off when he was born, before he was appointed as director of public prosecutions.

‘I happened to be winding down my job as a lawyer, because I’d just taken up the role of DPP. That means I had about four months between finishing and a sort of enforced period of time on my hands until I became DPP, and I decided not to fill that time but to spend it with him in those very early years,’ he says. ‘I genuinely believe that has created a bond that is very deep, and I tried to do the same with my daughter. Now it’s difficult to do and I understand why many parents can’t do that. But for me, just to spend that quality time [in the] very, very early months...’

Labour say they are keen to fix the shared parental leave system to make it easier for parents to do this. And they have commissioned an early years review into the affordability and availability of childcare with former Ofsted chief Sir David Bell, plus committed to free breakfast clubs. But women are impatient for change right now. If Labour gets in, how soon are we likely to feel any of these benefits? ‘I understand the impatience,’ he says, explaining they’ve kicked off the review and ‘breakfast clubs can be done straightaway.’ He acknowledges that’s just the first step – ‘I don’t think we can say that that in itself is enough, we have got to build on that’ – but that it’s an issue high on his agenda. ‘[Childcare] needs to be affordable. It needs to be manageable. We need to do it quickly.’

He says he’d like voters to see more of him as a father but is wary. ‘I’d like to show more of my relationship with my children, whilst at the same time protecting them. We never name them or do photo shoots because I want to fiercely protect them from the public glare so they can live their lives in the way that they want. What that deprives me of – and anybody looking in – is the imagery that goes with a father with his children. And for me, that’s important because they are my pride and joy.’

On how his wife, Victoria, who works in occupational health, feels about becoming ‘first lady’ if they win, he says, ‘She is very grounded is Vic. She’s sassy. She’s gorgeous, but she’s absolutely rooted. She will continue with her job in the NHS. She loves it.’ He and Victoria might be on the same page when it comes to the privacy of their children, but is there anything they bicker about? ‘Not a lot,’ he says. ‘We work things through together. We don’t really bicker. I’m not saying there’s never a cross word. I don’t think that’s believable.’

Speaking of bickering with a spouse, I mention the reaction Prime Minister Rishi Sunak provoked earlier this month for a video he and his wife, Akshata Murty, did for Grazia on how they divide chores. Sunak said he rearranges the dishwasher after his wife loads it, which ‘creates more work’.

Does Starmer feel the pressure to show the man, not just the politician, on the campaign trail? ‘I feel I show my human side all the time. Do we all have to stack the dishwasher? Yes, we do. Do we all have to change the bedding? Yes, we do. But I’d never go up and check or criticise my wife when she does it.’ Still, he’s clear on who wins on the domestic front. ‘My wife does it much better than I do and there’s no doubt about that,’ he says of dishwasher stacking. ‘But happily we don’t live in a household where we go around criticising each other for the chores, we’re just very glad when the other one’s actually done it.’

Despite his huge lead in the polls Starmer can’t afford to be complacent: a quarter of women are yet to make up their minds about who to vote for, according to a recent Women’s Budget Group survey. Women have been disproportionately hit by the cost of living crisis. They’re more likely to be in insecure jobs. The gender pay gap is 14.3%. The cost of childcare is career-destroying. So what would Starmer say to a woman whose pay has stalled and who can’t imagine being able to buy a house?

‘Labour’s plan for growth will be centred on equality for women. We’ll ensure women entrepreneurs can thrive. We’ll build the modern childcare system that working people deserve, starting with free breakfast clubs, and, as part of our New Deal for Working People, we’ll modernise equal pay laws. Growth has to mean more money in the pockets of families,’ he says, picking up on his shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves’ promise that she will be the first chancellor to close the pay gap if Labour get in.

‘Firstly, I completely recognise the disproportionate impact the cost of living has had on women. We’re absolutely going to fix this. Obviously, that starts with fixing the economy to make sure it works for everyone,’ he says. ‘We want to build 1.5m houses. That begins with changing the planning laws, because at the moment the average age for buying a house, the dream that so many have, is late thirties. That’s not good enough. But also we’ve got the legislation on the books for employment rights, which is going be hugely important for women in particular. It’s more than just protection. It’s about proper respect and dignity of work, which really, really matters.’

Labour have also promised to halve violence against women and girls. But with campaigners warning that we’re facing the decriminalisation of rape thanks to falling prosecution numbers, why should anyone feel any more confident in reporting rape under Labour? ‘[We] would introduce specialist rape courts to get these cases to trial, install a rape and sexual offence unit in every police force and introduce legal advocates to uphold the rights of victims of rape in court,’ he says.

He might be comfortably in the lead but he’s fielded criticism this past year from those annoyed at his U-turns, from keeping the child benefit cap to the £28bn green policy climbdown. And the conflict in Gaza is shaping up to be one of the most divisive issues of the day. Labour called for an ‘immediate humanitarian ceasefire’ in Gaza on 20 February following a rebellion from some of Starmer’s MPs who had wanted him to call for one much earlier. Today, Starmer – who was quick to address antisemitism in the Labour party when he became leader – doesn’t shy away from what he calls a ‘humanitarian catastrophe’.

‘My starting point on the awful situation in Gaza is to ask myself, what’s the right thing to do in principle in the awful situation? We’ve got a terrible combination of hostages still being held at gunpoint, now for many, many months. We’ve got tens of thousands of Palestinians killed, disproportionately children.’ He says he’s driven by finding a long-lasting solution. ‘So what’s the right thing to do? What is consistent with getting to a ceasefire that allows hostages out, humanitarian aid in and opens the door to a political path to a two state solution, which in the end is the only way that this is going to be resolved.’

What of long-standing Labour voters who say they have been put off because of his delay? ‘By and large, I think that people who’ve been pushing for a ceasefire do so for the same reason I want a ceasefire. We’ve called for an immediate humanitarian ceasefire. We all want the same thing. I understand the emotion behind it because people can’t bear to see the suffering. I think this is one of those rare occasions where almost everybody has the same shared human reaction, which is this is just intolerable. It has to stop. So I completely understand why people have pushed hard on this and I share that emotion. But simply saying something doesn’t make it happen. And my job is to make it happen.’

Before he returns to the classroom, I ask him to sum up how he’s changed in the past year since we last met. ‘I’m more determined than ever,’ he says.

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