What Obama told Starmer: Open up and be yourself

LONDON — Even U.K. Labour Party leader Keir Starmer’s closest supporters had become frustrated by his inability to open up in public.

But something has changed recently. Thanks to a little help from a former president, the hot favorite to become the next British prime minister has begun sharing, even allowing himself to become emotional about his late parents in a TV interview.

The man who urged Starmer to talk more openly is former U.S. President Barack Obama.

The two were introduced through David Lammy, the shadow foreign secretary and a friend of both men, who told POLITICO’s Power Play podcast that Obama’s key message to the Labour leader was to be authentic.

“Obama’s approach is always seated in authenticity,” Lammy told host Anne McElvoy. “We have seen Keir Starmer talking a lot more about … his mother — his mother struggled terribly with illness for many, many years, his father cared for her — [and] talking about his backstory, much more comfortably than perhaps we saw a few years ago. And I know that Obama had strong views that Keir should do that.”

Lammy, who like Obama attended Harvard Law School and met the former president at an event for Black alumni, said that during a series of zoom calls, the advice given was that 21st-century politicians must “communicate who they really are.”

On hearing Starmer speak about his own paternal relationship, Obama began “interrogating Keir further.” | Carl Court/Getty Images

Obama visited Prime Minister Rishi Sunak in Downing Street while in London on Monday, and also found the time to meet Starmer before going out to dinner with Lammy and his wife Nicola.

Absent and distant fathers

According to the Guardian, the Labour leader began talking to Obama in 2021, when Lammy arranged for the former president to act as an informal adviser.

Lammy was quoted in a recently published biography of Starmer by journalist and former Labour aide Tom Baldwin as saying that the party leader “got quite emotional” when discussing his father with Obama.

Rodney Starmer was a toolmaker who was “totally committed” to caring for Keir’s mother Josephine, who lived with Still’s disease, a rare and debilitating illness. 

When Starmer began discussing his father in conversations with Obama, “Barack just came alive,” Lammy told Baldwin. The former president’s “Dreams from My Father” bestseller from 1995, in which he discussed his relationship with his largely absent father, accelerated Obama’s political rise. 

On hearing Starmer speak about his own paternal relationship, Obama began “interrogating Keir further,” Lammy said, believing that the story could become the “architecture for a genuine campaign” based on the sense that working people were being overlooked by the political classes. 


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Before Obama’s intervention Starmer had seemed reluctant to discuss his father, describing him only as a “difficult man, a complicated man,” who “kept himself to himself,” his son said in a 2020 interview

But at the start of 2022, the Labour leader began to open up, with a speech outlining his vision of a new “contract” with the British people based on “security, prosperity and respect.”

“My dad always felt undervalued because he worked in a factory. He felt people looked down on him, and he wasn’t wrong about that,” Starmer said.

Shadow ministers and party advisers have often said they’d like Starmer to unbend. Angela Rayner, Labour’s deputy leader, said last year she believes he “undershares.”

The Labour leader expanded on his relationship with his dad in Baldwin’s book before appearing to get emotional discussing their relationship in a televised interview last week.

Opening up

Starmer told Sky News his relationship with his father was “more distant” than it otherwise might have been because of his father’s deep commitment to caring for Josephine.

Starmer recently had to contend with a deepfake audio that convincingly — but falsely —purported to expose him abusing party staffers. | Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

“This is a difficult one,” he said. “My mum was very, very ill and she needed somebody in her life who was totally committed to her and her health and would put her above everything else. And my dad did that — he would give up everything for my mum.”

Obama, who was forced to tackle the “birther” conspiracy theory during his rise to the White House, has also discussed with Starmer the importance of warding off malign narratives presented by others by telling his story himself.

Lammy told POLITICO: “Barack Obama has been really clear on misinformation, disinformation, the challenge for politicians to communicate who they really are with a lot of noise. 

“He’s one of the voices … that’s encouraged [Starmer to speak candidly]. And I think we’ve seen more of that in recent months.”

Starmer recently had to contend with a deepfake audio that convincingly — but falsely —purported to expose him abusing party staffers.

By speaking out about himself, aides hope he can make a more direct connection with those he hopes will propel him to No. 10 Downing Street in the general election due to take place this year.

Former U.S. President Barack Obama urged Keir Starmer to talk more openly about himself. | Leon Neal/Getty Images

Bonding with voters

One senior Labour adviser, granted anonymity in order to speak frankly, said of Starmer’s decision to be more open with voters that “it’s … about how we restore that trust in politics because it’s at an all-time low.”

The tenuous grasp on the truth of former Conservative Prime Minister Boris Johnson from 2019 to 2022 led to “a plague on both your houses” mood in the electorate, the adviser added.

“To show that politics is a force for good, we decided to show the characters and personalities behind.” 

Starmer’s office believes the public wants to get to know the candidates to be the next prime minister, and that while he has been party leader for nearly four years, making that connection has proven challenging.

He’s no Johnson, who when he became Tory leader and PM had already been a TV personality and a high-profile mayor of London, and remains popular with many voters despite the many scandals that accompanied his premiership.

“He’s not been in politics for 20 years already. When he came in as leader he didn’t have a big public profile. So we’ve had to do a lot, quite fast,” the Labour adviser said.

“You can take issue with Mrs Thatcher’s prescription, but she had a big manifesto for change and set about a course that lasted for over two decades.” | Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

What about Trump?

Also on the Power Play pod, Lammy discussed how he would handle the thorny problem of dealing with Donald Trump should the latter re-take the White House in November, having previously described him as a “racist KKK and Nazi sympathizer.”

Seeking common ground, the shadow foreign secretary said he thought “Hillbilly Elegy” by Republican senator and Trump ally J.D. Vance “was just a wonderful book.”

“These are themes in my own political story and you are able to bridge those themes, even though of course myself and J.D. Vance are sitting on different sides,” Lammy said.