Keir Starmer faces toughest grilling yet… from Year 6 Jewish primary school class

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Keir Starmer faces toughest grilling yet… from Year 6 Jewish primary school class

EXCLUSIVE: The Labour leader answered questions from pupils during a visit to the Independent Jewish Day School in Hendon, London, ahead of Rosh Hashanah

Lee Harpin is the Jewish News's political editor

Sir Keir Starmer meets pupils from Year 6, during a visit to the Independent Jewish Day School in Hendon, London, ahead of the Jewish New Year Rosh Hashana

Picture by: Yui Mok/PA Wire/PA Images
Sir Keir Starmer meets pupils from Year 6, during a visit to the Independent Jewish Day School in Hendon, London, ahead of the Jewish New Year Rosh Hashana Picture by: Yui Mok/PA Wire/PA Images

Pupils at a modern orthodox Jewish primary school in north London took part in a fascinating question and answer session with Labour leader Keir Starmer, prompting the often cautious politician to share revealing new details about both family and political life.

Starmer visited the Independent Jewish Day School Academy in Hendon, on Friday morning, spending nearly 45 minutes encouraging the 10 year-olds to put questions to him.

The in-coming High Holy Days were on the agenda as a Labour camera team filmed clips for the party’s Rosh Hashanah video to the community.

With Jewish News invited along to observe the exchanges, the Labour leader proceeded to respond frankly to the often highly intelligent questions from the 10 year-old pupils.

“You may, or may not know that my wife’s dad is Jewish, and their family came from Poland,” he informed the class, having been asked by one pupil if he was “interested in Jewish culture”.

“We are very very keen for our children to understand the culture, and the particular history of our family,” Starmer continued. “It’s fascinating, and it is interesting.

“There is the mix of looking back and remembering. All of these traditions are about remembering the past, a very particular way of remembering history, I think.

“Going through traditions,  that reminds us of what happened in the past, which is always good to know.

“But also most importantly to make sure that lessons are learned as we go forwards.”

Starmer later said:”I was given a grilling by Year 6 pupils this morning on everything from fixing our NHS to how PMQs works.

The enthusiasm and potential of the next generation is inspiring. Labour will smash the class ceiling so their talent and ambition is matched with success.”

Prior to his arrival, the children, along with their parents had been informed that there would be a “special visitor” to the school that morning.

Pupils were given a final practice on raising hands when wanting to speak, shortly before the Labour leader entered the room.

Behaviour was exemplary once the special guest walked into the room, with class remaining surprisingly attentive throughout, despite the presence of someone from the often unglamorous world of politics.

Starmer later confirmed to the class that Friday night dinners at his home, “the coming together as family” are “one of my favourite parts of the week”.

Keir Starmer meets the school leadership team at to the Independent Jewish Day School in Hendon, London,

The offered him the opportunity “to shut out the rest of the world” as he spent precious time with those closest to him, outside of the Westminster.

He said of the Jewish cultural experience:”There’s a lot that ought to be shared more widely.”

Asked whether “it is stressful being an MP?” he then replied:”Yes it can be.”

But he added:”But it’s a lovely thing being an MP because as you probably know if you become one you represent an area, a constituency, in my case it’s Holborn and St Pancras.”

But he then admitted:”It can be stressful as well …things go wrong and people expect you to fix everything.

“And because in addition to being an MP I’m the leader of the Labour Party, it means that there’s lots of other things that need to be sorted out.”

The Labour leader told the class that for Rosh Hashanah next weekend he would be at home.

“You’ll all celebrate with your familes, I take it?” he asked the class, who responded excitedly with positive nods.

“Going into a new year, it’s always good, isn’t it..” continued Starmer, who added he preferred eating pomegranate to apple and honey at the dinner table.

“That’s why looking back (over the past year) is so important,” he reasoned.

“You look backwards and think about the things you wouldn’t do again, that allows you the space to go forward.”

With the prompting of assistant headteacher Lady Deborah Kestenbaum all in the classroom were asked to turn their thoughts to Rosh Hashanah, and the central theme of improving yourselves as people.

Everyone, including Starmer, raised their hand when asked if there was something they had done wrong during the previous year, and could improve on going into the next.

“We all need to do things better after Rosh Hashanah,” continued the teacher.

“Not exactly make new year’s resolutions, but we have to think about how we can help other people more.”

Starmer asked for suggestions on things he could take away with him from the meeting and consider trying to implement himself as a politician.

One pupil suggested we “let dogs be taken into schools.”

Starmer joked:”We are beginning to think through what should be in the next Labour manifesto – but letting dogs in schools hasn’t come up yet!”

More seriously one pupil called for “more help for the NHS” while another said they would hope for a “cure for Parkinson’s.”

Unprompted, some pupils were also keen to ask Starmer about politics.

Responding to a question about how many votes he had got at the last election, he replied:”Not enough. ”

He explained that in his role as MP for Holborn and St Pancras he had been lucky enough to have “got a lot of votes.”

But Starmer continued:”But across the country the Labour Party didn’t get enough votes which is why we lost the election,  and why we still have a Conservative government.

“We have got a chance next year to try and turn that around.”

At one stage, explaining how he had been an MP only since 2015, Starmer said:”The next election will be my fourth -. 2015, 2017, 2019 and 2024.

“They are supposed to be every five years, how did we fit  four in!”

In an intriguing break from questions by pupils,Rabbi Yaakov Singer, the school’s Jewish studies head, questioned the Labour leader over the party’s attempts to win back Jewish voters.

“What I would say on that is first and foremost, it was very important that Labour has changed fundamentally over the last few years,” he said.

“It goes back to the question I was asked about votes.

“We didn’t get enough votes because we didn’t deserve to get any more votes than we got.

“So we changed the Labour party to make sure it was inclusive,  it represents all communities, and champions all communities, including Jewish community.

“It’s very important that we make the case that we need to renew and take our country forward. Very many people are struggling at the moment.”

Prime Minister’s Question in the Commons on Wednesdays at noon was unsurprisingly not something the primary school kids, like a fair chunk of adults, admitted choosing to watch.

Despite this Starmer told the class that for any prime minister, taking questions from MPs for over half an hour in the Commons chamber and having to provide them with answers was “quite hard” a job.

Stressing that as Leader of the Opposition it was his job to hold the government to account, Starmer encouraged the Year 6 pupils that consider what it would be like having to stand up and answer questions for half an hour, without knowing what they might be.

“It’s worth thinking about if you are in a leadership position,” he said to the class.

“Do people still argue over Brexit?” the Labour leader was next asked.

“Yes they do, but not so much,” he said.

“There was a time particularly between 2016 and 2019 when everyone was arguing about Brexit all of the time. Almost everyday that was the headlines. Now not so much.”

Starmer then returned the same question to the young man, asking him if he discussed Brexit.

“Yes I argue over video games,” came the reply. “Minecraft.”

The Labour leader said this was a familiar game to him, along with Fortnite.

Starmer was also asked about his career as an MP, confirming that he had been a lawyer and director of prosecutions, previously and also worked in Northern Ireland which, he said, was “tremendous.”

The children then offered up their own career ambitions – with only one dreaming so far of becoming a lawyer.

But the class was revealed to contain a wannabe actress, an author, doctor and even a physicist.

One boy said he had the dream of a footballing career, a dream Starmer said he also once held.

“Hold all those dreams, don’t let anybody tell you you can’t do it,” said the Labour leader.

“But also keep an open mind, because you might change your mind as you go on.”

Read Keir Starmer’s interview with Jewish News next week

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