JANET STREET-PORTER: Stop banging on about your childhood struggles, Keir and Rishi! Voters don't care about your dads' working-class credentials – it's their OWN hardships that really matter in this election

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When Sir Keir Starmer told the people of Grimsby this week that his dad ‘worked in a factory’ they started laughing. 

But the audience at this election debate weren’t mocking the story of an ordinary man struggling to make ends meet, they were simply tired of hearing the Labour leader’s back story trotted out once again to prove how in touch he is with common people. 

It’s become a panto routine with diminishing returns. He left home over half a century ago, but he’s still banging on about it.

The disgruntled people of Grimsby were not impressed by this particular trip down memory lane because they have probably spent more time on factory floors, in soul-destroying warehouses, and on assembly lines (if they can actually get a job) than either of the two potential Prime Ministers, a banker and a barrister. 

Not many of those in Grimsby, a place where everyone is dressed as if they’re going to the gym, but no one is.

Sir Keir Starmer (pictured) told the people of Grimsby this week that his dad 'worked in a factory'

Sir Keir Starmer (pictured) told the people of Grimsby this week that his dad ‘worked in a factory’

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak addresses the audience during a Sky News election event

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak addresses the audience during a Sky News election event

Keir Starmer with his parents, Rodne (far left) and Josephine (centre left), taken on his wedding day to wife Victoria Alexander (far right) in 2007

Keir Starmer with his parents, Rodne (far left) and Josephine (centre left), taken on his wedding day to wife Victoria Alexander (far right) in 2007

Starmer was clearly furious at this public mockery – claiming his values were formed by this blue-collar upbringing. 

His father Rodney was a skilled toolmaker who had to struggle to pay the family bills, and his mother, a nurse, suffered with a chronic arthritic disease and was seriously incapacitated. 

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Sadly, she died before he took his seat as an MP. The Labour leader has said his father was ‘difficult’ and remote, and not demonstrative or openly supportive, but he was clearly a key influence in his life.

He even told the audience that as a schoolboy that he was so embarrassed by their threadbare carpet, he never took friends back home after school, adding ‘on occasion we wouldn’t pay bills, so I know how that feels’.

Let’s separate the heart-warming myth and folksy stories from the reality – Rodney Starmer owned a small business, was the company director of the Oxted Tool Company, and rented a workshop. 

There were no managers, and he worked alongside the employees. Not exactly the factory setting you might have been expecting.

Starmer says his dad felt he didn’t get the respect he deserved when out socially, because people went a bit quiet when he revealed he worked in a ‘factory’. 

As a skilled craftsman, he felt undervalued and disrespected. Surely that was his problem, not ours? 

In my experience, skilled workmanship is generally highly valued, regardless of your background. It’s true that the business struggled sometimes and money was tight, and after a flood the Starmer family couldn’t afford to redecorate their home for months.

Starmer has returned to the subject of his childhood at every opportunity since he became Labour leader, touring factories and canteens telling anyone who will listen how it influenced the values he holds today.

Starmer (pictured in Grimbsy) was clearly furious at this public mockery - claiming his values were formed by this blue-collar upbringing

Starmer (pictured in Grimbsy) was clearly furious at this public mockery – claiming his values were formed by this blue-collar upbringing

In fact, his background is more or less the same as mine. I grew up in the lower half of a terraced house in inner London, with a dad who was a jobbing electrician, who later studied at night-school to become an engineer so he could work in an office.

We had an outside toilet, were only granted access to the house bathroom on Sundays between 2 and 4pm and my mum (like Gareth Southgate’s) was a school dinner lady. 

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I passed my eleven plus, went to grammar school just like Starmer and was the first person in my family to attend university. You might wonder why my working-class credentials haven’t seen me leading the Pensioner Power party or coaching the England football team.

Like Rishi Sunak, I grew up without Sky television – in fact, we didn’t have a telly at all until I was 14. I didn’t have pocket money unless I carried out chores, and that stopped when I got a Saturday job at 14. I didn’t have a bike either. Or a mobile phone – they hadn’t been invented.

I left home at 18 determined to lead an entirely different life, not to care what the neighbours thought, to make my own career and not ever need a bloke to pay for anything.

In my humble opinion, your parents have little or no influence on the person you have become by the age of 40, so why does Keir Starmer keep banging on about it?

Tin baths and no carpets don’t turn you into socialists. Starmer’s background seems exactly like that of the former Tory PM John Major. 

Both men grew up in Surrey and John Major’s dad also had a small business, making garden ornaments. Keir Starmer and John Major both passed their eleven plus exams and went to grammar schools which subsequently became private. Both grew up in homes where money was short. When Major’s dad had financial difficulties the family had to flog their house in suburban Worcester Park and move to a flat in Brixton.

Working class connections – bits of your childhood which tie you to ordinary blue collar workers – like having an outside toilet and no telly have been highly prized by potential Prime Ministers and used as bait to attract voters. 

Unlike Starmer, Major got few O levels, left school at 16 and went on to become a banker, whereas school swot Starmer went to Leeds and Oxford universities and became a highly-regarded barrister before standing as an MP.

Remember Maggie Thatcher proudly touting her credentials as a grocer’s daughter to stand as a fresh voice against the snobby Tory wets who mocked her accent and her sex? 

Starmer's background seems exactly like that of the former Tory PM John Major (pictured speaking at an event in March 2024)

Starmer’s background seems exactly like that of the former Tory PM John Major (pictured speaking at an event in March 2024) 

Maggie Thatcher's dad was an Alderman and preacher and she went from grammar school to study chemistry at Oxford, working in the food business before entering parliament (picture: Margaret Thatcher in 1978 after becoming Britain's first woman Prime Minister)

Maggie Thatcher’s dad was an Alderman and preacher and she went from grammar school to study chemistry at Oxford, working in the food business before entering parliament (picture: Margaret Thatcher in 1978 after becoming Britain’s first woman Prime Minister) 

In fact, Maggie Thatcher’s dad was an Alderman and preacher and she went from grammar school to study chemistry at Oxford, working in the food business before entering parliament.

Rishi Sunak has told us his working-class parents shaped the man he is today. They were both professionals – his father was an NHS GP and his mother ran the local pharmacy. 

After attending Winchester private school (fees currently over £50,000 a year), he went to Oxford and Stanford Universities before working as a banker. Now, Sunak is reduced to talking about growing up ‘without Sky’ to show us he’s just a regular guy.

The telling and re-retelling of your childhood as a way of making friends and winning votes is nothing new. But since Covid, the country has become seriously disenchanted with politicians in general. 

The political class earn decent salaries, have expenses, second jobs and plenty of perks. Voters have seen the cost of living soar, they can’t afford to buy a single starter home, let alone get an allowance for a second flat in a constituency. So the gap between us and them has never been greater.

Talking about the state of the family carpet 50 years ago doesn’t make our current situation any more bearable. Nobody is mocking anyone who works in a factory in 2024, they are laughing at the notion we will vote for you because of what your dad did rather than your policies.