What does Keir Starmer believe?
He wants to be the man who unites the Labour party. But to understand Starmer, we should look not to his political career—but to his legal one
On a winter’s evening in 1986-7, a 24-year-old law graduate called Keir Starmer was shown into a book-lined Dickensian office in the heart of London’s ancient legal quarter in the Inner Temple. He was there for an interview, hoping to take the first step up the professional ladder by becoming a pupil barrister.
“He was obviously brilliant,” recalls Gavin Millar, now a QC at Matrix Chambers, who interviewed the young Starmer that evening along with Stephen Irwin, now an appeal court judge, and Peter Thornton, later to be chief coroner of England and Wales. “I remember very clearly that he gave a powerful and thorough critique of the prison system and how it didn’t work,” Millar says. Starmer duly got the job.
Today, as the 57-year-old stands on the threshold of election as the next leader of the Labour Party, it is natural to wonder what a possible future Starmer government might do about the chronically resource-starved crime factories that Britain’s still-failing prisons have become. Yet this is merely one among the many ways in which a focus on Starmer’s legal career may illuminate some of the elusive answers to the question of how he would lead Labour.
It will be a major upset if Starmer is not declared the winner of Labour’s prolonged leadership contest on 4th April. He has been the front-runner since the contest to succeed Jeremy Corbyn officially began in January. He has led in the polls, in nominations from MPs, in support from affiliates and trade unions, and by winning the backing of more than 360 constituency Labour parties, far more than all the other candidates together. He is 7-1 odds-on favourite to win with the bookies.
Yet Starmer is in many respects an unknown, both to his party and to the wider public. He was first elected to the House of Commons in May 2015, succeeding Frank Dobson as MP for Holborn and St Pancras, the seat in which he lives with his wife Victoria, a solicitor, and their two children. Starmer has been in Westminster for less than five years. He has never served in government and he lacks deep roots in the unions. He would be the least experienced parliamentarian to lead Labour in a century.
The most remarkable thing about Starmer’s victory would be what it says about the Labour Party. He would be the choice of a party that has been damaged and wracked with disagreement on Brexit policy, even though it has been Starmer’s hands-on frontbench responsibility for the last three years, because his Remainer leanings are popular. He would also be the choice of a party whose membership, largely as a result of Corbyn’s influence, is well to the left of any previous Labour Party—even though he was never part of Corbyn’s inner circle.
And yet, across that wider party, Starmer seems to have become the right person in the right place at the right time. That is why it matters to discover what his past—and in particular his professional past—tells us about how he would actually approach the job, and what his prospects of success would be.
Starmer was born in Southwark in September 1962 and grew up in Oxted on the Kent-Surrey border. His social origins have inevitably been much trawled over during the campaign—critics have sneered at Starmer’s depiction of himself as the son of a south London factory toolmaker and a nurse. They see it as an attempt to appear more working-class than, as a highly successful barrister, he really is. Yet Starmer’s early upbringing is full of labour movement resonance. His father’s job as a toolmaker places him squarely in what used to be called the aristocracy of labour. Skilled manual wage-earners, like Rod Starmer, were the backbone of Britain’s old industrial prosperity, and extremely prominent in the labour movement. Among the skilled, the men who possessed their own tools were the labour movement’s nobility, while the men who made the tools were the peerage.
“Characteristically,” Eric Hobsbawm wrote, “the tool-room was to remain the last stronghold of the craftsman in the semi-skilled mass production engineering works of the 20th century.” So in class terms, Starmer is mined from one of the motherlodes of Labour politics. It should be no surprise that his parents named him after Keir Hardie.
Starmer was formed as an adult by Margaret Thatcher’s 11-year rule. He did his A-levels at Reigate Grammar School in the summer of 1981 when the Social Democratic Party was becoming an existential threat to Labour. He was a student at Leeds University, which he left with a First in law, at the time of Labour’s near-death experience under Michael Foot in 1983. He was in the north for the 1984-5 miners’ strike, when Yorkshire was the epicentre of the battles between the Thatcher government and Arthur Scargill’s mining union.
Starmer had already decided to read law while he was still in the sixth-form. But the particular way he moved to the Bar was a more directly political choice. He applied for pupillage in the chambers headed by the former Liberal MP Emlyn Hooson because it had already attracted a group of more radical younger lawyers who were starting to reshape the legal system in ways that have endured.
“Keir’s purpose when he became a lawyer was not to make a fortune, or to build a glorious reputation,” says Millar. “Most of the work in those days was legal aid work. Some of it was pro bono. His purpose was the same as all of us in that generation who had been radicalised by Margaret Thatcher. We wanted to change the world, and we wanted to do it by using the law to entrench stronger human rights and civil liberties. That was absolutely true of Keir too.”
The radical Bar was not invented out of thin air in 1987. Radical barristers of the earlier 20th century like the Communist DN Pritt, Labour’s John Platts-Mills and Gerald Gardiner, and liberals like Louis Blom-Cooper and John Mortimer had a significant place in the firmament. But it remained a fairly isolated one. The generational movement that Starmer joined in the 1980s would go on to reshape a profession hitherto embodied by the character Mortimer created for TV, the claret-quaffing Rumpole of the Bailey. For many, this physically involved setting up new sets of London chambers outside the traditional inns of court. In 1990, Starmer was part of this exodus, joining Doughty Street Chambers, newly founded by Geoffrey Robertson and a gallery of other progressive barristerial luminaries like Ed Fitzgerald, Helena Kennedy and Ken Macdonald.
Starmer cut his teeth in things like public order cases involving the right to protest. He assisted some high-profile campaigners, including in the McLibel trial, and did a lot of unpaid pro bono work on Caribbean and East African death penalty cases in which colonial-era rights of appeal to the UK courts were still available. In the argument that was crystallising among radical barristers at the time, between those who were keen to entrench a code of human rights in the law and those who were suspicious of codes and preferred to wrest the advantage within the existing common law, Starmer was always firmly in the former camp—and he still is.
Other characteristics he brought to the job have also remained with him to this day, his contemporaries confirm. He was meticulous. He had integrity. He looked at the detail. He planned things out. He was extremely orderly. He was very good at spotting the winning point in a case. “Keir is the hard workers’ hard worker,” Millar says.
In the early days he was politically red-green, other friends recall. He was not as preoccupied as some other barristers of that time—most famously Tony Blair—with the Labour Party or with politics. “I still find it hard to think of him as a politician,” says Macdonald today, “because he is so completely decent.” Maybe part of that response is that Starmer wasn’t really seen as a star courtroom advocate, unlike his close friend Fitzgerald or the rather older Michael Mansfield.
No one I spoke to disputed Starmer’s intellectual excellence as a lawyer, which was crowned by becoming a QC in 2002. One or two, though, thought that he lacked the flair to swing a jury—or more importantly now an electorate—with his oratory.
“There’s something slightly missing where the rousing stuff might need to be,” says one legal admirer who chooses to remain anonymous. “Keir’s real speciality is getting it right. He can unpick an argument brilliantly, but he’s not such a natural at the passion behind the argument.” Today this is one of the most frequently heard doubts about Starmer’s political skill set.
In 2003, Blair’s attorney general Peter Goldsmith persuaded Ken Macdonald to become the new director of public prosecutions (DPP), putting him in charge of the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS). With the Human Rights Act now on the statute book, it presented an opportunity to use state powers to advance compliance with the new code across a broad sweep of legal issues. But prosecution had hitherto been something of a taboo area for radical lawyers, many of whom saw themselves as defenders of citizens against state power. Yet at the start of the 21st century, especially in the slipstream of the Human Rights Act, the UK’s most senior judges, led by Lord Bingham, were also showing themselves ready to make rulings that safeguarded individual liberty. It was a liberal hour in the law, which arguably culminated in the 2019 prorogation judgment by the supreme court, a body that itself was the product of the reforming era. As a result, several radical barristers crossed the traditional line to become judges or, in the case of Starmer, to succeed Macdonald as DPP in 2008.
“Keir has always subscribed to the view that you have to get into the system and not stand outside it” says Millar. “He would want to be on the inside, not out on the barricades.” Starmer was a successful director, Macdonald told me. “As DPP you have to have one big thing you want to do. Mine was to get the CPS into court as professional advocates. Keir’s was to develop a set of core standards and develop policy… on big issues. It was big strategic stuff.” During his tenure Starmer would apply this approach to issues like whether and when to prosecute in assisted dying cases, public order protests and cases involving social media.
Some of the decisions of any DPP are bound to be questioned, often fiercely so. Controversy over decisions not to prosecute, though made on legal grounds, goes with the job. For Starmer, cases of this kind include the decision not to prosecute Tory MP Damian Green over leaked Home Office documents in 2009, which angered Scotland Yard. Conversely, the decision not to prosecute police officer Simon Harwood over the death of Ian Tomlinson during anti-G20 summit protests in 2009 provoked much outrage among civil libertarians. (After fresh medical evidence was examined at an inquest presided over by Peter Thornton in 2011, Starmer later initiated a -prosecution—which failed.) And many are disturbed by Starmer’s eventual decision, made after an inquest had returned an open verdict, not to prosecute police in the mistaken identity shooting of Jean-Charles de Menezes at Stockwell tube station in 2005.
Two cases from Starmer’s period as DPP illustrate in very different ways why this phase of his life has the potential to haunt his political career. In the first case, after the taxi driver John Worboys was convicted on 19 charges of drugging and sexually assaulting 12 women and one charge of rape, the CPS decided not to pursue dozens of other cases in which victims came forward after the conviction. Although the CPS said that Starmer was not closely involved in those decisions (and the original prosecutions of Worboys were made under Macdonald) the prospect of Worboys’s release in 2018 led to widespread attacks on Starmer. Priti Patel, now the home secretary, called it “an appalling reflection on someone who is now a Labour shadow minister of their ‘soft on crime’ stance.”
The other example is of a quite different kind but could prove to be much more important in the long run. In 2012, Starmer decided to prosecute an array of newspaper executives and journalists as a result of the phone-hacking scandal. The two most notable were the News of the World editor Rebekah Brooks, who was acquitted in 2014, and her sidekick (and deputy, successor and lover) Andy Coulson, who went on to be David Cameron’s press chief and who was convicted. Starmer said at the time that the press must obey the law. Many editors, by contrast, believe they are above the law. Since the anguish of the hacking scandal, the press has regained its aggressive self-confidence. If the man who tried to prosecute journalists becomes Labour leader, let alone becomes prime minister, he will be a marked man as far as many titles are concerned.
But there were very skilful and successful prosecutions on Starmer’s watch too. These included the case brought against two of Stephen Lawrence’s murderers and a prosecution of one of the James Bulger killers, in both of which it was crucial to ensure a fair trial in order to obtain reliable convictions. Starmer’s agile ability to think ahead, and to ensure that press and public attention did not threaten the safety of the proceedings, was a key factor in both. Later, when Dominic Grieve became attorney general in 2010, Starmer showed his skills as an administrator, implementing a major programme of cuts and restructuring at the CPS. “He was 100 per cent professional and very good at his job,” Grieve says. “We had a very good working relationship. The restructuring was done really carefully and well, though it was greatly helped by the fact there was no increase in crime at the time.”
At some stage in 2013, around the time when Starmer’s political ambitions began to -surface more publicly, Grieve bumped into Ed Miliband, then the Labour leader, in Westminster’s Portcullis House. Miliband, who had already known Starmer for some time and had encouraged him to stand for parliament, asked Grieve if he was surprised at Starmer’s change of career. Grieve said he was. Miliband then asked Grieve whether he thought Starmer would be any good. Grieve responded: “I do. He’s outstanding.”
Starmer arrived in Westminster in 2015. Such was his status, and so demoralised was Labour by its general election defeat, that there was briefly talk of pitchforking him straight into the leadership contest that resulted in Corbyn’s first victory. Starmer quickly killed the idea. But the episode is a reminder that from the moment he arrived in the Commons, he has been freighted with unusual expectations. Starmer has always acted as if he is well aware of them. At times these expectations have created suspicion about his tactics. But if the leadership campaign of 2020 has been a reliable guide, they have worked to his advantage in the end.
His handling of the Brexit portfolio embodies this. Starmer briefly resigned from the Labour front bench (he had earlier been shadowing immigration policy) immediately after the 2016 referendum vote. His resignation letter very carefully conveyed both his sorrow at his resignation and his loyalty to Corbyn. But it called the referendum result “catastrophic” and said “we need a much louder voice on the critical issues of renegotiating the UK’s place in the world and on mitigating the damaging impact of our exit from the EU.”
When Corbyn was re-elected leader in 2016, Starmer was asked to shadow the Brexit department. Many anti-Corbyn MPs disapproved, but he became a key conduit between anxious backbenchers and the leadership over Brexit, as well as a tribune inside the Corbyn tent for Labour’s Remain-voter majority. At the same time, his membership of the shadow cabinet provided Corbyn and his coterie with a political shield.He was liked and collegiate in the shadow cabinet but not wholly trusted. Few on the backbenches openly embraced Starmer’s strategy of moving Labour crabwise towards a position of supporting a new referendum that might allow Britain to stay in. Remainers were impatient with it, while Corbynites were suspicious—especially after he won wild applause from the conference hall by insisting that Remain would be on the ballot in any Labour-backed second referendum. The former senior Tory minister David Lidington recalls a 2018 meeting in his Commons office to discuss possible Brexit talks between Labour and the government. “I got the impression Seumas Milne [Corbyn’s strategy director] was watching Keir at least as much as he was watching me,” he says.
Still, most on all sides accepted he mostly did what he could to keep the party together, even if it was always a fragile form of togetherness. But in the end, don’t forget, Starmer’s big tent strategy failed.
Within the Labour Party there is respect for Starmer, but not yet enthusiasm. Some—Blair among them—think that he risks being a second Miliband. Others—including the section of the Corbyn wing that has backed Starmer—would be pleased if he is. Most of Starmer’s campaign speeches suggest he will not overturn the Labour apple cart quickly. His approach seems to echo his fellow Labour lawyer Sadiq Khan in his approach to the London mayoral campaign. Yet he may soon find himself at risk of disappointing everyone if he avoids all the difficult decisions.
Starmer’s barristerial skills will certainly help him when he confronts Johnson in the Commons. These contests still matter. They are one of the few ways an opposition leader can guarantee to be on national TV news. Starmer’s ability to do detail gives him advantages over both Corbyn and Johnson. So does the fact he can think on his feet. “At prime minister’s questions you have to combine the forensic and the thespian,” says Lidington. “I can see Keir doing the former very well. But can he do repartee?” Faced with such a self-confident figure as Johnson, Starmer may risk coming over as diligent but not devastating.
Starmer’s approach to Brexit, which itself reflected the way he worked as a lawyer, is the most reliable template we possess for the way he will lead. He will try to keep the party together. But he will do what he did at the Bar, and focus on finding the points where he can win. During the campaign, Starmer warned that Labour risked a generation out of power if it does not unite. But consensus alone will not save Labour, any more than it did over Brexit. Starmer surely knows this.
Nevertheless it is the way Starmer works. As Millar, who has known him for much longer than most, told me: “His modus operandi is unity. He cares about the collective. This is not an affectation. This is how Keir is, and how he has always been.”
But Starmer is also a man who aims to win. He wants a united party, but he wants it on his terms, with him as leader. One anonymous shadow cabinet member told me a story that sums up this inner confidence in a tantalising metaphor. From time to time, a group of shadow ministers would go to see a government minister about some issue or other, not just Brexit. As they walked along the streets of Whitehall to their appointment, a strange ritual would play out among the group. “Somehow, Keir always managed to be walking a step ahead of everyone else,” the shadow minister noticed. “I’ve often tried to get alongside him,” he told me. “But here’s the thing. You just can’t do it.”