January 19, 2024 - 10:00am

Would you want to get a pint with Keir Starmer? From watching ITV’s Keir Starmer: Up Close on Thursday night, the viewer might come away thinking that this is the most important question to be asked of a prospective prime minister. The programme was so concerned with pinning down “the real Keir Starmer” that it set aside any question of policy or the Labour leader’s plan for power, in favour of scoring him on the normal bloke-ometer. The show’s title prompts the unspoken second half — and Personal. The problem is, you can put a magnifying glass on an ant but it will still scuttle out of view.

Starmer, for those interested in this approach, does come across as fairly normal. He is a political Wife Guy, clearly devoted to Victoria, but also keen to keep his family out of the media glare. His passion for football appears genuine, rather than SpAd-concocted. The closest we get to understanding Starmer’s approach to politics is when he concedes that he has been “ruthless” in moulding Labour in his image and pouring the last dregs of Corbynism down the drain. Yet this speaks more to his pragmatism and desire for power than it does to anything resembling a guiding philosophy. 

Anushka Asthana, ITV’s deputy political editor, was given extensive access to the UK’s likely next PM. There he is backstage in Liverpool, warming up to get glitterbombed; there he is walking to the Emirates; a trip to his local pub, an intimate coffee where he talks about his kids. Asthana addresses the camera at the end of the half-hour programme: “After three months of following him, what have we learnt about the real Keir Starmer?” The question is rhetorical, but on the evidence presented last night those three months feel somewhat wasted.

In one of the recorded interviews, Starmer tells Asthana that he holds “no personal animosity” towards his opposite number, Rishi Sunak. But he adds that the two men “wouldn’t be mates” outside of politics, as they come “from totally different worlds”. The distinction he is trying to draw is that Sunak is a Winchester-educated Goldman Sachs alumnus, and that Starmer is — little-known to the wider public — the son of a toolmaker. Sunak would no doubt retort that he is the son of an immigrant pharmacist.

Questioned about the praise he bestowed on Margaret Thatcher last month, the Leader of the Opposition, after some garbling, said that “what she had was clarity of mission, and purpose.” Starmer does have one extremely clear mission, in that he really, really wants to enter Number 10. 

One telling scene involved a focus group being asked to describe Starmer in a single word. That you can probably guess the first word to crop up was “boring” reveals much about how we assess our politicians via generic personal descriptions: think Sunak being confronted with a word cloud showing that his public image only really boiled down to being rich. Maybe Starmer is boring; but the media’s obsession with a politician’s personality, or lack thereof, has supplanted interrogation of what said politician plans to do. The ITV programme existed purely for vibes.

There was barely a squeak over the course of the half hour about immigration, and how Starmer might differ his pitch from the Tories’ Rwanda plan, apart from a throwaway line about Britons wanting “control over who comes in and out of the country”. He said something equivocal about wanting to redistribute wealth, but not going too hard on the bankers he’d quite like to win over. Positions on housing and education were dealt with in a single sentence, before we got back to the properly important stuff: so, what were you like at university, Keir?

Starmer evidently doesn’t want a Corbyn-style cult of personality. Going back on manifesto pledges and obfuscating policy stances hasn’t inhibited his route to Downing Street, but if there were viewers who wanted to know what he intends to do for the country, they would have left none the wiser. 

is UnHerd’s Assistant Editor, Newsroom.