Despite being beaten by an Old Etonian with ‘de Pfeffel’ as his middle name, the Labour Party has descended into a rather predictable round of the Four Yorkshiremen, with competing factions arguing variously that voters in former ‘red wall’ seats will only return to Labour if it is led by a northerner, a woman and preferably someone who grew up in a cardboard box.
Sir Keir Starmer doesn’t appear to be any of those things. He may end up being the only man standing against a group of female contenders. He is a Northerner only in London terms, and as former Director of Public Prosecutions, doesn’t sound like he’s come from a tough background. He has spent the past few days trying to overcome this great disadvantage as much as he has tried to articulate what he would actually stand for as Labour leader, telling the Today programme that ‘my background isn’t what they think it is’. Earlier on this year, when he was clearly preparing the ground for a leadership campaign, he told a fringe at the Labour Party conference that it wasn’t even fair to say he was part of a London elite of politicians, pointing out that his family hadn’t even lived in north London and had instead been based on the Surrey/Kent border. This is, in case anyone had failed to notice, even further south than north London.
But Starmer is right to defend his background as it isn’t what people say it is. His father worked in a factory as a toolmaker and his mother was a nurse. She was in and out of hospital with a rare illness which eventually forced her to stop working. Starmer was the first in his family to go to university. He is from a humble background.
What makes him seem as though he has had the same comfortable upbringing as the stereotypical politician is that he has learned to look the part. This isn’t something that occurs to those who aren’t worried about their social status because they are already from the sort of backgrounds that regularly send people into professions and even Parliament. You might not, for instance, try to lose your strong regional accent when you come to London if your background means that you already feel you belong. But if you are the first in your family to enter higher education, then you immediately feel very conscious of your difference. It makes you feel as though you don’t fully belong, as though people might find it easier to find you out if you are conspicuous. And so you learn to fit in.
Contrast Starmer with Jess Phillips, who is far more regularly written up as being ‘working class’ and yet is in fact the daughter of public sector workers (her father was a teacher, her mother deputy chief executive of the NHS Confederation and chair of an NHS trust). The difference is presumably that Phillips hasn’t felt the need to sound and look like she fits into the smooth political world because she already knows that she does. She benefits from this confidence now, as it shows a certain happiness in her own skin, but it is as much a function of her accident of birth as anything else.
The path into politics often irons out individuality from people who fear they won’t fit in. If you’re from a manual labouring background and you become a lawyer, as Starmer did, then you might find it easier to imitate your legal peers than try to go against the grain. By the time you get through the various social and professional networks which direct you into the House of Commons, you end up sounding just like everyone else. The pressure is even stronger for women, who are already working against the perception that a Member of Parliament is a man. When I was interviewing female candidates for my book, Why We Get The Wrong Politicians, I discovered that many of them had been advised to change their wardrobes so that they looked more like politicians. One said: ‘I’ve had to spend money on those funny dresses you wear on Sky News just so I look like a politician.’ Sarah Champion, elected for Labour in a by-election in 2012, was told on being selected that she had ‘unparliamentary hair’, which she eventually decided meant she wasn’t a man. One Conservative remarks that ‘there’s a terrible pressure to look posh in this game, and so the women who’ve come from humble backgrounds change themselves to fit in. You’d never guess, for instance, that Claire Perry [the Tory MP for Devizes, elected in 2010 and sometimes described using the mockingly posh term ‘jolly hockey sticks’] was educated at a comprehensive.’
But once you’ve got through all the hurdles which require you to look the part, you suddenly discover that it is far more beneficial, particularly in the Labour Party, to sound and talk as though you really are one of the Four Yorkshiremen. Regardless, of course, of whether the wider electorate really gives a damn about where you were born.