‘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.”

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.”

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.

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

Keir Starmer

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