Piers Morgan’s Life Stories, ITV

The Political Party Podcast with Matt Forde

“You should get Keir to do more of these non political and more personal interviews,” I said to his press officer after he spent ten minutes talking to me and Jacqui Smith about his memories of the year 2020. We saw a very different side to the politician who many feel is somewhat charismatically challenged. He was funny, witty and entertaining – far from the slightly monochrome character we had previously seen in the normal political interviews politicians undertake each day. I had seen this in an hour long interview and phone I did with him in March last year during the Labour leadership contest. I was more impressed than I perhaps wanted to be.

When I saw the Labour leader had agreed to do a ‘Life Stories’ interview with Piers Morgan, I understood why. He had had a good first nine months as Labour leader but since Christmas something has gone wrong. Not only have Labour failed to make headway in the polls, Starmer’s own personal ratings have fallen way behind those of the Prime Minister. Being Leader of the Opposition during a pandemic is no easy task, and it’s not easy to make an impression when it’s been impossible to go out and meet the public or speak to live audiences. Starmer is criticised not only for not producing many (if any) new policies and failing to explain what Labour in 2021 stands for. He’s still in part haunted by his Brexit stance in Corbyn’s Shadow Cabinet. People in red wall seats have long memories judging by the results of the May elections.

A new strategy was needed. Deborah Mattinson, the doyen of the focus group, hasn’t yet started her new job as Starmer’s Director of Strategy but I imagine she, along with Ben Nunn, his Head of Communications, have been instrumental in getting him out doing more personal interviews. Forst it was the Matt Forde Political Party podcast recorded live at the Garrick Theatre in front of an audience, and then it was Piers Morgan’s turn. They were both very personal interviews and both quite different. The first was full of humour and gags and the second will be remembered for its intensely emotional sections. Both were hugely enjoyable and both could prove to be seminal moments in Keir Starmer’s leadership of the Labour Party, not least because they demonstrated to his handlers that he’s rather good in this kind of environment and can be trusted not to drop a bollock or appear false.

Piers Morgan is a brilliant interviewer in these kind of situations. Contrary to popular opinion he doesn’t go into these interviews wanting his subject to either cry or walk out. If you believe that, you misread him. What he’s very skilful at is putting people at their ease and getting inside their heads. He understands that there’s a reason his ‘victim’ has agreed to do the interview and it’s important that they are allowed time to explain themselves. On Good Morning Britain he was quite happy to be a bull in a china shop. Here, he’s avuncular, empathetic and understanding, and it makes for bloody good TV. I watch all his ‘Life Stories’ unless his guest is someone I particularly loathe. Even when it’s someone I can take or leave, I usually find the interviews enjoyable and I find out things I never knew before.

Matt Forde is also a brilliant interviewer, but very different to Piers Morgan. When he interviewed me on his podcast last year he got me to reveal things I hadn’t told any other interviewer before. It’s probably the best interview I have ever given, and that was in large part due to Matt. He’s such an enthusiast for politics and his guests that he makes them trust him. It really is as if you’re having a one to one heart to heart. The fact that tens of thousands of people will soon hear your words is far from your mind as you explain your latest personal faux pas or controversial viewpoint. In his chat with Starmer he gets him to open up in a very different way to Piers Morgan. Starmer becomes a bit sweary and tells some hilariously funny anecdotes. The audience clearly loved him, and although in this case the live audience was bound to be well disposed towards him, the listener to the podcast will have done too, even if their own politics are very different.

Tony Blair won elections because he was able to build a wide electoral coalition. He didn’t frighten moderate Tories, who warmed to him. He knew that he could communicate to swing voters over the heads of all the political programmes and interviewers. He had the ability to connect that few politicians before him had had. Keir Starmer and his advisers would do well to adopt the same approach. It worked with Piers Morgan and Matt Forde and I suspect you’ll be seeing a lot more of Keir in places you never expected to see him.