‘When the whistle goes, it doesn’t matter what you do for a living’: Keir Starmer on his one escape from politics

In an increasingly frenetic schedule, where the country’s many problems occupy most of Keir Starmer’s thinking at almost every minute of the day, there is still one fixture the Labour leader “insists” upon. That is his Sunday game of football.

“It’s block-booked in the diary,” the Labour leader tells The Independent. “So, once I’m on the pitch, I’m able to put work completely out of my mind and concentrate completely on the game. It’s a complete switch-off, because you’re playing the game, you’re in the game.”

It’s almost the inverse of Sir Alex Ferguson, given the former Manchester United manager used to find that horse racing was the only interest he found immersive enough to make him temporarily forget about football. For Starmer, football is one of the few interests that allows a necessary mental break from leading the opposition.

The recent twist, however, is that football itself is occupying more and more of his party's work. Wednesday 8 February was supposed to be the day that the government’s white paper on proposed football reforms came out, only for that to again be delayed. Although reforming the game’s financial inequality is a rare issue where there is cross-party support, especially on the call for an independent regulator, Starmer accuses Rishi Sunak’s government of a “dithering” that could endanger clubs given the “urgency” of the game’s economic imbalance.

The Labour leader believes football itself could become a manifesto issue for the next election, where his party would push for a “fairer” game but also the provision of available and affordable playing surfaces.

Speaking to The Independent at a constituency sports centre about his relationship with football, Starmer discusses:

Starmer is meeting staff to learn more about the uptake in inclusive football. His touch shows he isn’t a politician just using a game he has no affinity for. Starmer isn’t just a fan either, as a season-ticket holder at Arsenal. Even some of his political opponents have privately acknowledged that the left-footed midfielder is a “seriously good player”.

“I’ve played football pretty much every week since I was 10 years old,” Starmer says. “It’s just the simple joy of being on the pitch kicking a ball, that spark. I get the occasional game of five-a-side as well, sometimes a staff game, but that’s increasingly difficult. The regular slot is 90 minutes, eight a side, with a group of friends, some of them I went to school with, that I played in other teams with, or that we’ve picked up along the way.

“That’s one of the brilliant things about playing football. When the whistle goes and you’re on the pitch, it doesn’t matter what you do for a living. The question is whether you are a decent individual and part of a team, do you know what it’s all about and are you going to get on with it.”

It would be easy at this point to offer the line from the legendary Liverpool manager Bill Shankly about football being a form of socialism, but Starmer makes a point of noting its rare communal power off the pitch, too. It’s all the more striking at Arsenal now, given his team are doing well again.

“That feeling when there’s a goal - if it’s Arsenal, it’s 60,000 people - all different jobs, all from different backgrounds, everyone gets to their feet at the same time with a single emotion. It’s a choreography that’s very difficult to replicate.

“There’s something simple about the shared emotion of football that is very special.”

Keir Starmer watches the men’s World Cup match between England and Wales (Getty Images)
Keir Starmer watches the men’s World Cup match between England and Wales (Getty Images)

This social power is also what has made football such a political issue, especially as the sport reaches ever greater levels of cultural importance. One of the rare poll boosts for Boris Johnson in his final 18 months as prime minister was the failure of the European Super League - an existential threat to the game as we know it which provoked a furious response from the football community and sparked government intervention, and was eventually quashed in court.

But Starmer makes a point of insisting the former Conservative leader should get no praise for the Super League’s collapse. Indeed it wasThe Independent which first reported that Johnson met with Manchester United’s former executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward in the days before the ill-fated project was launched.

“It was once he worked out that he was against it rather than for it. I mean, as with Johnson it’s a bit like everything else, he wrote one paper for it and one against and then changed his mind. I don’t think he should take credit for what happened there, but it was a very good thing that got thwarted.”

That is in part because the Super League represented a threat to what Starmer believes is the most important element of football. It’s the game’s community value.

“Clubs are very much place-based. They’re a magnet for their shared communities, but they also do a huge amount for their community. If you take Accrington, where’s the one place where everyone can come together? It’s the football stadium for Accrington Stanley at three o’clock on a Saturday afternoon.

“It’s that real sense of place, ‘this is my team, my community’. And they do fantastic things for their community.”

If you care about your community and youth safety, you should really be interested in football. It matters

Keir Starmer

It is why Starmer believes the white paper and an independent regulator are so “urgent”, given the existential threat the sport’s economic imbalance poses to so many clubs.

“Football in this country is very strong - but it’s not fair. And, as a football fan, I want fairness. That’s at the heart of the discussion about where we go next. It’s why we are pushing so hard for an independent regulator.

“There’s a frustration because, whatever the other problems the government’s got, on the question of an independent regulator or the changes we need to make to football, there’s a political consensus. Therefore, even if they’re struggling with their backbenchers on other bits of business because Rishi Sunak isn’t strong - he’s weak - on this issue we can move forward. But they’re dithering.

“Meanwhile, you’ve got record transfers this January at the top of the game, and on the other hand clubs struggling. Historic clubs like Derby County, Oldham Athletic and Bury have all suffered.

“Fans want reform. The government just needs to get on with it.

The [Tracey] Crouch review came out 14 months ago now, there’s never been an issue as to whether there’s political support, and you’ve had Rishi Sunak promising something by Christmas, that didn’t happen, you’ve got dithering and delay. I think we just need a bit of grip here. This government’s got a real problem with grip now. It’s 13 years in, in my view it’s a failed project, they’re clapped out, they’re out of ideas on pretty well everything politically and even dithering on something which actually is achievable and deliverable.”

It’s put to Starmer whether it’s obscene that Premier League clubs spend so much in a cost-of-living crisis.

“I think so long as we get the fairness, then we should celebrate the strength of the sport. The question is not just the size of the transfer fees this January but how much is going to clubs down in the lower leagues fighting for survival and, through that, into their communities.

“Even now, the sporting bodies are still arguing about what is the percentage the lower league clubs can get. If they can’t resolve that, we need to get the independent regulator in to crack on with it.

“So, if we can have the fairness to filter this down, then actually it’s those place-based communities that can be the recipients of some of the money that is there in football. I don’t want to take away from the Premier League, because it is fantastic to have that quality of football, but I think the independent regulator is pretty urgent because some of these clubs could well go under while the government is dithering.”

Labour’s plans for football would go deeper than redistribution of resources. It would be about “the bottom up” and ensuring ample playing surfaces across the country. That also points to why Starmer feels football shouldn’t be viewed as one of the more frivolous items on the political agenda.

“I don’t agree with that because we do a lot of work on youth safety and one of the features is what are the realistic options for young people, particularly those aged 10 to about 16 in that period after school. If you’ve got football or sport and you’ve got facilities that are available at a price people can afford, that is something that can be a focus. If you don’t have that because there isn’t the money or there isn’t the inclination, you end up with young people grouping on streets and that leads to all sorts of things happening which wouldn’t otherwise happen. So, if you care about your community and youth safety, you should really be interested in football. It matters.

“And simple things. In the winter, you need floodlights.

“I’m a great believer that it’s what happens in place in the community that matters most, and that’s where we’d want to put maximum support, to make sure that in each place there’s the pride that comes with football, there’s the facilities and the opportunities that come with football, for boys and girls, young women and young men. We would be pushing hard on access for girls and young women, alongside boys and young men - and inclusive football as well."

There is that same spark as when he touches a ball.

“One of the things we did here was we’ve got the inclusion team, doing coaching for inclusive football. Because it’s that basic joy of stepping onto a pitch and kicking a football is deep in our humanity and there for everyone.”