In March 2004, a full-page photo on the cover of Varsity crowned a bright-eyed Wes Streeting as the new president of Cambridge University Students’ Union, winning by a margin of just twenty-two votes and promising “big reforms”. The image paints a picture of Streeting that has clung to him throughout his political career – of the ‘professional politician’ charting a path directly from student Labour clubs to the Houses of Parliament.

It is a journey that has left Streeting on the brink of becoming the first Labour health secretary for fourteen years, at a time when the NHS needs reform more urgently than at any time since its creation in 1948 by fellow Labour health secretary Nye Bevan.

Streeting’s rise in the Labour Party – entering the Shadow Cabinet for the first time in 2020, five years after he was first elected as Member of Parliament for Ilford North – has occurred in parallel with the party’s move away from the radicalism of the Corbyn years to Keir Starmer’s centrist approach. Streeting’s support of Starmer, and opposition to Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, has seen him become a target of vitriol for activists on the left, facing the ire of pro-Palestine protesters and Just Stop Oil.

Varsity's front page on the day of Wes Streeting's SU presidential victoryVarsity Archives

However, speaking in mid-May, before Rishi Sunak called the general election and as students first began camping on King’s Parade in support of Palestine, Streeting acknowledges that were he a student today, he “possibly” would have taken part in the Palestine protests himself. Streeting notes that when he was at university the SU tried to “focus on the academic, welfare and access side of students’ needs and leave debates about foreign policy to the many student political societies” but that “student protests and part and parcel of student life” and that he is “fairly relaxed” about them “as long as students are making their point respectfully and peacefully and mindfully of how the war will impact on different parts of the student body”.

Weighing up every word carefully, Streeting also admits that he briefly quit the Labour Party in 2003 and attended protests at university against the Iraq war. “I totally understand why students and the public at large are protesting against the enormous number of civilian casualties in Gaza and for an end to this bloody war […] I want to see an immediate ceasefire, the return of all the hostages and a serious international focus on bringing about a Palestinian state that I think most reasonable people want to see and I’ve long campaigned for,” he says.

“I’ve always had this working class inner voice that says anything they can do, you can do”

A key theme of Streeting’s autobiography, One Boy, Two Bills and a Fry Up, is an absence of feelings of imposter syndrome throughout his life – something he calls his “working class inner voice that says anything they can do, you can do”. Streeting grew up on a council estate in Stepney, East London and his book describes him witnessing his parent’s choosing between heating their flat or putting food on the table.

Streeting encourages current students who share a similar background to him to “seize every opportunity you have” as “you have the most amazing opportunities right on your doorstep.” He recounts that the only time he has felt imposter syndrome was his “biggest regret” from Cambridge when he “bottled” auditioning for the Footlights and the ADC in first year despite a background in school drama. “The reputation of Cambridge performing arts and the fact that people like Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie had trod the boards at Cambridge […] I found that overwhelming,” he confesses.

Streeting’s persistent warmth towards his college, Selwyn, is clear. He “absolutely loved” organising the Selwyn Snowball and he believes life at the College also helped his parliamentary career. Having never met someone from private school before university he says Selwyn “very quickly helped me to shake off my own conscious and unconscious bias against people from more affluent backgrounds […] they were normal people, they had their own fears and insecurities.”

Coming from a working class, state-educated background, Streeting is particularly interested in discussing recent changes to Cambridge’s admissions policy, arguing that the University should have a driving mission to be “academically elite without being socially elitist”. Earlier this year, Cambridge scrapped formal targets for state school admissions numbers. Streeting recognises the complexity of the admissions system but argues that some changes could be positive.

“Some of the progress that’s been made in Cambridge admissions in terms of the state-to-private balance has been achieved by recruiting more students from high-performing state schools in more affluent areas, but that hasn’t necessarily meant greater diversity of admissions from lower socio-economic groups […] so I wouldn’t have a concern about the University looking more intelligently at those sorts of things,” he says.

“I think students and young people are getting a terribly bad deal […] this is a time when a powerful student voice is needed”

Streeting is more tentative around the topic of tuition fees, stating that he had “always argued for an alternative funding system,” including opposing top-up fees in 2003 and proposing a graduate tax as president of the National Union of Students (NUS). He carefully hints that the Labour Party is “actively looking at higher education funding” and how it impacts students “particularly those from poorer backgrounds”.

He says higher education funding is a “fiendishly complicated” challenge for Shadow Education Secretary Bridget Phillipson – “I’m glad I’ve only got the small challenge of working out how we take the NHS from its worst crisis in history to making it fit for the future again,” he jokes.

Throughout the interview, Streeting repeatedly refers to the importance of student voices in politics – a topic he admits is close to his heart due to his previous role as NUS president. So does he regret that the voices of students and young people in politics are weaker than he was involved? “As a parliamentarian, I don’t feel actively lobbied or engaged by student voices, which is a great source of sadness to me […] I think that’s largely self-inflicted.”

Referring to the ongoing crisis of antisemitism in the NUS, Streeting says it means the organisation “lacked relevance with its own student members and also with decision makers”.

“I think students and young people are getting a terribly bad deal, both in terms of cost of living pressures, young people’s mental health, the housing crisis, graduate prospects […] this is a time when a powerful student voice is needed,” he says.

Should Labour form the next government after this year’s impending general election, Streeting will become the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care in Sir Keir Starmer’s government. Health issues have recently attracted attention in Cambridge, with cases of ADHD among students having doubled in four years as the University cut funding for students seeking autism and ADHD diagnoses. Last year, a Cambridge GP wrote a letter to The Times claiming students are “actively seeking” diagnoses to get extra time in exams.

“The NHS is the greatest institution this country has ever built. That central principle […] is under threat like never before”

Streeting says that further research into the issue is required: “We’ve got to make sure that they [diagnoses] are not being abused.” “I think we’ve got to look really carefully at rising numbers of diagnoses […] and ask some questions from first principles. Why are cases rising? Is that because autism and ADHD are more prevalent now? Or is it because they’re better understood so people are coming forward recognising symptoms? […] I’m naturally concerned if the consequence of the University’s decision is that cases of ADHD and autism are going undiagnosed, and students aren’t receiving the support they need.”


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This issue is just one among a huge breadth of challenges that Streeting will face if he is the next Health Secretary. Does he worry about being directly responsible for the NHS in a time of crisis? “The NHS is the greatest institution this country has ever built. That central principle of a national health service free at the point of use is under threat like never before […] so I’m daunted about the scale of the challenge but also excited by the possibility of stepping out from the shadows to deliver the first transition from opposition to government the Labour Party has achieved in 27 years”.

Varsity’s 2004 front page story stated that Streeting’s Cambridge election victory was due to his “guerilla-warfare” campaign. Twenty years later, Streeting’s background as a student politician and his love of campaigning shines through.

He is keen to stress Labour’s message for students as the interview ends: “I know that among younger progressive voters there will be areas where people disagree with Labour or think we’re not radical enough or not going far enough and people might be tempted to splinter off to smaller parties […] I hope that when students go to the polls later this year, they give change a chance and give Labour the opportunity to serve.”