Video transcript — Made in Leeds: Keir Starmer discusses his time at university

Transcript for the video Made in Leeds: Keir Starmer discusses his time at university embedded in the Made in Leeds Spotlight.  

[Upbeat music plays. Sir Keir Starmer is shown walking along a Leeds street, then meeting students at the University of Leeds.] 

Text appears on the screen: Sir Keir Starmer says his time at Leeds changed his life. The Labour leader returned to his old university in October 2023. 

He met the graduates of the future, and recalled how Leeds helped form who he is today. 

[Keir is shown sitting in a cafe, Coffee on the Crescent, in Hyde Park, Leeds, being interviewed.] 

Interviewer: Keir, welcome back to Leeds, how does it feel to be in this particular part of Leeds at the moment? 

Sir Keir Starmer: It’s fantastic... this is memory lane, I love it around here, spent many many happy weeks and months and years in this part of Leeds and lived just around the corner so it's fantastic to be back. 

Interviewer: I know, and I mean one of the things that I was really interested to talk to you about was your time at Leeds in this particular area, because being a student and those being your formative years, that sort of informs who you become as an adult, so can you tell us a little bit about what it was like living on Chestnut Avenue, going to the Hyde Park, the Favisham, and the people you came across during those times? 

 Sir Keir Starmer: It was fantastic, it was absolutely forming of me in terms of who I am. I came from, basically, a village on the Surrey/Kent border, so we had a field at the back of our house with a stream and cattle, and it was very very rural, and then I headed 200-plus miles off to Leeds, to a city.  

And it was just incredible, the different senses, the diversity, the incredible bars of the city, and I instantly fell in love with Leeds and I've been in love with it ever since.  

I come back as often as I can, but it absolutely formed me and changed my life, really.  

Interviewer: Was there something particularly about Leeds that drew you to apply to come to the University? 

Sir Keir Starmer: Two or three things. One, I really wanted to go to a city that was diverse, the idea of living in a city, the different tastes, smells, the bars, different cultures, so I really wanted to come to a big city. 

We’d been when I was younger, we used to go to the Lake District on holiday but we'd come through Yorkshire sometimes and stay in Yorkshire for the odd night so I knew I really loved Yorkshire.   

And it was a really good law faculty, so putting all that together I chose Leeds and I've never looked back.  

Interviewer: In terms of Leeds the city, obviously you're a massive music fan, were there any particular gigs during your time at Leeds that really sort of capture that memory of that time, being a student? 

Sir Keir Starmer: Well I rocked up from rural Surrey with sort of fairly long hair, and a Boomtown Rats album under one arm and a Status Quo album under the other and met John Murray here, who's one of my lifelong friends, in probably, I think it was the first or second week of being here at university.  

He introduced me to independent music, and particularly Orange Juice, Aztec Camera, all those bands that were playing here — The Smiths of course — and that took me on a journey to a much wider range of music.  

So that played a central part, we were always at gigs in and around Leeds, always at events in and around Leeds, so that had a huge impact on me as well. 

I got my hair cut and started to look a bit better. 

Interviewer:  Well I've seen some of the pictures in the eighties, it feels very New Romantic, shall we say. One of the things that I was wondering as well, is bands like The Wedding Present... 

Sir Keir Starmer: So The Wedding Present, David Gedge was a friend of ours, and John Murray, my friend, had to lend his guitar to the band in the early days because they didn't have a spare guitar.  

So we grew up with all of that as well.  

Interviewer: So you were the ones that... I mean, are you going to take credit for The Wedding Present, potentially?  

Sir Keir Starmer:  No. 

[Interviewer laughs.] 

Sir Keir Starmer:  I mean it's fantastic to see them, you know, so many years later still doing fantastic stuff. Yeah, it was really, in so many ways, Leeds was really formative of me on my journey. 

I was the first in my family to go to university so it wasn't just coming from a sort of rural, pretty working-class background — my dad worked in a factory, my mom was a nurse, nobody had ever been to university — so it was a huge sort of step for our family for somebody to go to university and then for me to arrive here with the music, the taste, the people, the buzz of the city, it was really incredible. 

Interviewer: That's one thing I wanted to ask you about as well, because obviously, you know, being from the south and being from Surrey is quite a stark comparison to what it's like in Leeds in the north.  

How has that informed who you are as a person, and basically, you know, having a little bit of both, knowing the south and knowing the north as well as you do? 

Sir Keir Starmer: Well, I think three years here was something which went, I suppose, deep into my bones and I've carried that bit of Leeds with me ever since. But because I loved it here so much, I've kept up the connection.  

So I probably come back to Leeds six or seven times a year, if we are on the move with the team, anywhere really across the north or northeast,  then I'll always base myself in Leeds on the way.  

John Murray, my friend, lives in Leeds so I come and see him, and I was on the faculty, on the Advisory Board for the University. I’ve tried to keep those links ever since I was here. 

So it wasn’t just three years — pretty intense years — it's also something I feel I carry with me, have carried with me for all those years since I was here.  

Interviewer: I mean it's amazing, actually, looking at your time with Leeds since graduating, because you've been a student volunteer, you've opened the Liberty Building where the School of Law is, you’ve been given an honorary doctorate, as you said you’ve been on the Advisory Board — I think the only thing that you haven’t been is Chancellor at the moment...  

[They both laugh.] 

Sir Keir Starmer: I’ve got one or two other jobs in mind before I look at that. But it’s been fantastic to be associated, and it was a really fantastic moment to graduate when I graduated with my law degree, but also to come back for an honorary degree was really special as well.  

So it’s a really strong link, and you know, that law degree set me up for the journey I’ve been on in my career ever since, so I owe a lot to this University. 

Interviewer: I wanted to ask you a little bit about that day of graduation, there's a fantastic photo of you and your parents outside the Great Hall when you graduated, and you can see they're brimming with pride.  

You said you were the first in your family to go to university and very much someone from a working-class background, can you just tell me how it felt, in that moment, graduating? 

Because it feels like something that has had a real impact on you. 

Sir Keir Starmer: It was a really special day, and if you look at that fantastic photo you'll see that my dad's got a suit on. He never wore a suit, he worked in a factory, that suit came out of his wardrobe once every five years or more.  

[The screen shows a photograph of Sir Keir Starmer in graduation robes, standing with his parents. His dad is wearing a suit, and his mum is wearing a dress.]

Sir Keir Starmer: My mom had a dress specially made for the occasion, so it was huge for them to come up to Leeds and see their son graduating with a law degree. 

 It was really, really special for them and for me as well. It was sad as well, because this was the end of my three years at Leeds, I was about to go off, and that was, you know, all the friends I’d made that you see on graduation day... So it’s a bittersweet moment, because it's a proud moment, it's the accomplishment, you’ve got the certificate in your hand, but also you're moving on, and so there was a bit of that.

But for my mum and dad it was a fantastic day. And that’s why they put their best clothes on and came up here and I think in that photo you can see in the smile, and in the, you know, the way that they are looking out, just what it meant to them. 

Interviewer: Absolutely. Before you came up I decided to do a little bit of digging and a little bit of research, I was able to find in our archives the co-winner of the 1984 Hughes prize which was a Mr K Starmer, and I was wondering if you could tell me a little bit about what it felt like to be recognized with that accolade in your third year. 

[The screen shows an typed document showing Mr K Starmer listed as the winner of the 1984 Hughes prize.] 

Sir Keir Starmer: Well the three years here were so interesting, because our family didn't know any lawyers, I'd never met a lawyer I'd never been in court, I didn't really know that much about what lawyers did.  

And I came here and suddenly there were the solicitors and the barristers, so I started thinking ‘oh, okay’ so because we didn't mix with lawyers, we didn't know anybody who was a lawyer. 

So I came here and I found law absolutely fascinating and it really drove me. Particularly in the second year when I started studying international human rights law which had an incredible impact on me, in fact, you know, then shaped my career in the early days as a lawyer.  

But as I got more and more interested, grades started improving, and so in the end I ended up with a first-class degree and prizes along the way — but that was just because I was so interested in this thing called law, and how you could use it, and was already thinking, ‘how can I use this in my life to bring about social change’? 

So it was, I arrived not really knowing what a lawyer was, and ended with a first-class degree in law and off to Oxford University to do a postgrad.  

Interviewer: To take you a little bit down memory lane we've actually got a class of 85 photo... 

Sir Keir Starmer: Oh fantastic, is this on the Parkinson steps? 

Interviewer: It is, and I was wondering if you might be able to spot yourself because I think I know where you are but I'm not quite sure. 

[The screen shows a photograph of the class of 1985 on the Parkinson steps, a large crowd of students stretching from the bottom to the top of the steps. It then zooms in and a red circle appears around Sir Keir Starmer in the picture. 

Sir Keir Starmer: Is that me there? 

Interviewer: Yes I think that is, and what was it like with that group of students and that group of academics? How did they help shape you, your career, your incredibly successful career as a barrister?  

Sir Keir Starmer: Hugely. The lectures, but also the tutorials in particular where we were in groups of I think four or five, working with these academics who were teaching us. 

[Sir Keir Starmer looks at the photograph of the class of 1985.] 

Sir Keir Starmer: I recognise them all now, it’s fantastic.  

But also, you know, all of the students in the class, and lifelong friends are in this photograph for me so that's incredible to see. That was, uh... that must have been towards the end I think, that must have been third year I think, maybe just before we graduated. 

But I think that’s me at the back with the red shirt.  

[Sir Keir Starmer laughs.] 

Interviewer: Do you still have the red shirt? 

Sir Keir Starmer: I doubt I still have it, maybe I should dust it off and put it on again. 

[Sir Keir Starmer laughs.] 

Interviewer: Maybe wear it to Arsenal games.  

In terms of becoming a barrister, one thing you’ve mentioned is your very working-class roots and you chose potentially the most middle-class profession ever. You know, the preserved and privileged, in a certain way, of becoming a barrister. 

I was wondering, did you ever suffer with imposter syndrome, and if so, how did you deal with it? 

Sir Keir Starmer: I think growing up there was always this sense that ‘is this really for you’ and I didn’t really know whether the law was for me until I got it.  

I met a lot of people who were pretty confident in their first year and knew exactly what they wanted to do and I didn't, really.   

By the end of the first year, I think I probably thought ‘I'll be a solicitor’ and I was quite interested in staying in Leeds, to work in Leeds, and I think, from memory, in the second or third year I did a couple of interviews just to see what that would look like.  

But then I became really interested in advocacy and arguing a case and it was only really when I left Leeds that I took the decision that I wanted to go down the route of being barrister.  

I went via Oxford to do the Bachelor of Civil Law there, just because I'd become so interested in employment, in jurisprudence, in criminology, in human rights, and wanted to study it.  

But at that point, I wanted to then become an advocate, and to, in particular, specialise in human rights law so that was the combination.  

But you know, the court is a pretty intimidating place to go and work, it's a very odd outfit to go to work in a gown and to have wing collars and a wig on, I mean it's not the most comfortable working gear.  

[Sir Keir Starmer laughs.] 

Sir Keir Starmer: But it was it was fantastic, and I would say particularly to any students that maybe read this or watch this, if somewhere in their mind they think ‘this isn't really for me’, put that to one side, because I did, and then went on the most incredible journey that took me into being an advocate for many years, and then going to work in Northern Ireland on the Good Friday agreement for five years with the Police Service in Northern Ireland, an incredible piece of history, then heading up the Crown Prosecution Service of Public Service with 7,000 staff, and then into politics, and now leading the Labour Party.   

So that wasn’t a planned journey, when I was at Leeds I didn't think that my career was going to go in that way, but there will be students who just feel ‘well some of these things aren't for me’ and I think that's still a big inhibitor for young people and it's important to put it to one side and go as far as your talents will take it. 

Interviewer: There's something that you've spoken about quite a lot recently in terms of working-class ambition, and one thing I was really struck by, is an interview you gave a couple months ago where you said that if you were of university age today you probably wouldn’t go to university. 

One of the interesting things that happened this morning was I was listening to the Today programme, and there was a student from the University who has a maintenance loan and has parental assistance, in terms of them helping out with costs and stuff, and she says that she struggles to make ends meet and she's certainly not from the extreme poor point,in terms of our students at the University.  

Do you fear that we could have a lost generation of aspirational, working-class  people who just feel that ‘I can't afford university?’ 

Sir Keir Starmer: Well firstly on the working-class aspiration, it is a working-class aspiration to get on in life, to go on and get a decent secure job, get somewhere to live, a house, to own a car, that sort of thing.   

It's what I call the ordinary hope, ordinary working-class hope, which is to get on, further yourself and a sort of inner aspiration that is there, I think, in probably all working-class families. 

In middle-class families as well, of course, but it's particularly this sense of getting on that certainly I had for my family and I know others do.  

I do think it's really hard now. When I left University I didn't worry about getting a job, I knew that I'd be able to get accommodation reasonably okay, and then managed to start buying a flat by the time I was in my late 20s.  

This is really difficult for students now,  many of them have to go back home live with parents because getting on the housing ladder is nigh on impossible, the average age now is late thirties I think.  

So I think it's a lot tougher for students now. You know, I think we need to recognize that, and that's why we've said a lot of things about building the houses of the future, affordable housing to make sure that we can allow that aspiration to flourish. 

Interviewer: One thing that you mentioned a little bit earlier as well is becoming Director of Public Prosecutions — you had the most astounding, astonishing career as someone in the law, and the thing that I've always wondered is, you reached the height of an incredibly tough profession and you decided to then go into an even more turbulent profession of politics.  

Obviously you were named after Keir Hardie, the founder of the Labour Party, was this always written in the stars that you were going to go into politics? 

Sir Keir Starmer: No, no, I didn't think when I was at Leeds that I would go into politics, I didn't think when I was a lawyer that I would go into politics, but there's a thread if you like, because I was passionate about human rights law and so I started as a young advocate but doing individual cases.  

And that would be a combination of cases here in the UK, housing cases, employment cases, cases with people who might not otherwise get representation, and trying on individual cases, to do the best I could for them.  

I did a bit of international work, so when I was at Leeds I did study and recognised we didn't have the death penalty — what I didn't realise was that the former colonies, the Commonwealth countries, because of the constitutions they adopted when they became independent, do have a final right of appeal to the Privy Council in London. 

And therefore people on death row in Caribbean countries were appealing to a court in London and I got instructed to do some of those cases.   

And each of them were individual cases, whether it was employment, or housing, or a death penalty case.  

And after I'd done quite a number of them, I got frustrated that we were only going case by case, we needed to bring about change.   

So then I got into sort of strategic litigation can we pick cases that will change the law for a whole class of people.  

Particularly with the death penalty work, where in one case that we did, we got 490 people off death row in one go because of the change that we brought about.  

That sort of drove me on to then ask myself well could you bring about more change, if you worked within an institution, rather than some litigating... and that's when I went to Northern Ireland and worked with the Police Service in Northern Ireland. To make sure it was human rights compliant, it was a place where both communities, particularly the Catholic community, could feel they had confidence and wanted to join the police and that was a real eye-opener about how you could bring about change, a period of great hope in Northern Ireland.  

That then drove me on to say well, and what about the Crown Prosecution Service, if you really believe in victim's rights —because I was doing a lot of cases for victims of injustice — then why don't you head up the Prosecution Service, and I suddenly had to learn how to pull a lever, that you know, you’ve got  7,000 staff — if you're a lawyer in an ordinary case in court you’ve probably only got a team of about four -  so that was a big step.   

And then finally, the sense of if things are really going to change, the only place that's big enough for that change is politics, which is why I went into politics.  

We did change things within criminal justice, but in the end, the only meaningful change would come through politics, so I put on one side law and rational argument and independent decision-making, and in 2015 stepped into the world of politics.  

And you know, so far, you know, eight, nine years of opposition, which is well — I'm determined to change.

Interviewer: That's the one thing that really strikes me, you weren't expecting to go into politics when you started at Leeds, and you did.  

So thinking about how hard it is for yourself, the scrutiny that you're put under by the media and other people, how do you deal with that sort of scrutiny and criticism from you know, people like the British press?  

Sir Keir Starmer: For me, because I came into politics late, I think I bring a resilience and sense of purpose.   

If you come into politics that late, and you could have done, I could have done other things, then you only do it because you've got a driving sense of purpose. 

This is what I want to achieve, this is, I think, how we can achieve it. 

So that's what takes me forward, this driving sense that we can not just fix our country, but take it forward, and that's why I've been talking about a decade of national renewal which I think we desperately need across the United Kingdom. 

We’ve had 13 years of decline and now is the point where most people think nothing is really working properly. We need to fix that, we need a decade of national renewal.  

That drives me forward, and that sense of service.  For me politics isn't about entitlement, it's about a driving sense of purpose.  

But if you're going to get there… I mean, we landed in a very bad place in 2019, in that general election, the worst result since 1935. I knew when I took over as leader of the Labour Party, I had to change the Labour Party. 

If you lose that bad and you don't look at the electorate and say, ‘what do you think you were doing?’ You change your party, you have to expose the government as not fit to govern, and then you have to say this is the positive case for change, the decade of national renewal.  

And then you know, in direct answer to your question, yeah you have to have shutters on either side because there's lots of noise.  

It's not just the media, almost everybody has a device, and almost everybody thinks they could do a better job than you, it's bit like being a football manager or something. 

Everybody is sitting in the stands saying ‘I wouldn’t have done that, you know’, ‘what about a different formation’.  

So you have to just shut that noise out, you can't get dragged into it.  

But for me it's that driving sense of purpose. And also, I think if you come into politics late, you bring a problem-solving approach. Because outside of politics, in public services where I was, in the private sector as a lawyer, if there's a problem, you tend to identify what it is, get people together and fix it.   

But in politics, we don't have enough of that.  

Interviewer: One thing that's really, really exciting in terms of where you where you are at the moment, in terms of the Labour Party is — we’re talking the end of October, we've just had Tamworth and Mid-Bedfordshire by-elections, you've got Tory commentators like Rory Stewart saying ‘when the Tories are out of power’ on podcasts —and one thing we're excited about here is you could be the University of Leeds' first Prime Minister. 

Do you think you'll be Leeds' first Prime Minister? [Laughs.] You might not want to answer. 

 Sir Keir Starmer: Look, I mean, we’ve worked really hard to get the Labour Party where it is now. We've had some fantastic results obviously, two recent by-elections in Mid-Bedfordshire and Tamworth, but also Selby, not far from here in Yorkshire, and Rutherglen in Scotland, are recent successes. 

So we've done the hard work, and what we've done has been vindicated. There’s a long way to go, and complacency is the enemy, so we have to keep focused on the prize.  

But you know, in a sense, Leeds University gave me such an incredible platform to stand on in my life and my career, which is why I'm so fond of Leeds University.  

The idea of returning one day in a different capacity would be fantastic, but as I said, no complacency, every vote has to be earned every step of the time. But Leeds University’s still a special place in my heart.