Source: Sunday Times
Next month, the party anoints its new leader. Donald Macintyre investigates who Keir Starmer is and whether he can unite the warring factions
Last summer at a Labour Party fundraiser in Camden Town, Keir Starmer, the MP for Holborn and St Pancras, took part in a Desert Island Discs-style event. His choice of music — appropriately, from someone who once had violin lessons with schoolmate Norman Cook, aka Fatboy Slim — was catholic. Starmer started with Jim Reeves’s Welcome to My World, in honour of his mother, whose favourite it had been (“I have to assure you I don’t play Jim Reeves most nights,” he explained). Dobie Gray’s northern soul number Out on the Floor and Desmond Dekker’s The Israelites were also played, as were pieces by Shostakovich and Beethoven; Ode to Joy selected less for its EU overtones than for what Starmer described as the “incredible noise” that is the Ninth Symphony.
In between he spoke with unexpected intimacy of his stoical mother, who had suffered from the debilitating Still’s disease and died in 2015. He told how she had once come to meet him from primary school, and he had watched from across the road as she collapsed in the gutter. But he got laughs too, describing his first encounter with his wife, Victoria Alexander. He was a (demanding) QC, about to go into court, and he phoned Victoria — a solicitor he didn’t know — worried that a brief she had prepared might not be “100% accurate”. She reassured him she knew how to do her job and put the phone down, saying: “Who the f*** does he think he is?”
His warmth that night contrasted sharply with his lawyerly, buttoned-up public image. “Wooden” and “dull” are words often used about Starmer. While he has loosened up during this seemingly interminable Labour leadership contest, even his close friend and fellow international lawyer Philippe Sands acknowledges a difference between his “very serious” external persona and his engaging and entertaining private one. While the 57-year-old may not be the model for Mark Darcy in Bridget Jones’s Diary, as is often touted, his good looks are an obvious asset. “He’s my new crush. Been thinking about him quite a bit today,” ran one of the less risqué comments on Mumsnet as he rose to prominence as shadow Brexit secretary. But he doesn’t have the platform speaking skills of Tony Blair or Gordon Brown. And it’s hard to recall a single memorable Starmer soundbite.
Yet barring a seismic upset, the polls suggest he is heading for victory on April 4. “I think people like Starmer because he’s quite politician-y — their idea of what a politician should look like,” said Sarah Jones, 28, a university librarian, after the party hustings in Liverpool in January, at which Starmer was arguably the least interesting of the contenders. As a Corbynista planning to vote for Starmer’s main rival, Rebecca Long Bailey, Jones may be oversimplifying. However, his appeal does primarily rest, as Jeremy Corbyn’s arguably didn’t, on the hope that he can win in the country as well as the party.
Leaving a meeting of about 250 party members in Hove, Angie Heath, 46, a supporter of Jess Phillips before she dropped out of the race, spoke of her apolitical mother-in-law who “thinks Keir is great. He’s …” she searches for the word “… electable.”
But is he? Can he climb what he repeatedly calls the “mountain” — the 124 seats needed to win a majority in what would be the biggest electoral switch since the 1997 Labour landslide? Can the careful, forensic style of Starmer overwhelm the prime minister’s insouciance? Is his mere five years in the Commons a fatal handicap? And can he win from a position well to the left of that other Labour lawyer-politician, Tony Blair?
One lawyer, who has known him since his earliest days at the bar, locates him now as “somewhere between” Ed Miliband and Gordon Brown, who earlier this month handsomely endorsed him by declaring: “A vote for Keir Starmer is a vote for hope.”
If he looks “politician-y”, it’s untypically so, at least in an era apparently so suited to a Trump or Johnson. “The idea that all politicians must now be entertainers I think is interesting, but not right,” Starmer tells me, while insisting he won’t “duck away from the challenge” — making more of his personality and his backstory. His father worked 13 hours a day as a toolmaker to maintain his often hard-up household of a disabled wife and their four children. But, he adds, “it’s a bit odd for a man in his fifties to be talking about his mum and dad quite as much, frankly. In most walks of life, people are judged by who they are. Politics is different … people do, understandably, want to know who you are and what you come from, but it does feel odd. I don’t like it.”
Yet Starmer isn’t quite the professional automaton he sometimes appears. On a wet Monday night in January, leaving a meeting of Labour members in east London to catch the Tube home to Kentish Town, he admits to me he had found it a struggle to concentrate. He was back on the campaign trail having taken time out while his mother-in-law was in intensive care after a fall that would lead to her death two weeks later. Just before going on stage, he had spoken to his wife, who was distraught, as were his son, 11, and daughter, 9, for whom their grandmother had been a regular babysitter. It brought back memories of his father’s death in 2018, when he was struggling to apply the brakes on Brexit. “I think I’m finding it harder to watch my wife go through this,” he tells me.
Starmer made no public reference to his family’s anguish until a Manchester hustings in late February, when he was goaded about a remark he had made in a recent interview. “I had been trying to be the best husband I could be to my wife, the best dad I could be to my grieving children. Then I’m asked, ‘What’s the most exciting thing you’ve ever done?’ And I’m judged on that. I know who I am.”
In a previous era, a politician as ambitious as Starmer might not have taken time out from the campaign of his life to care for his grieving family, but his sense of priorities probably endeared him to many members. Nor did it stop him ramming home that night, and at scores of other meetings, some clear messages: the scale of the December defeat; the frustrations of opposition; and, above all, the need for “unity” and an end to “factionalism”.
That he can do this without ridicule underlines another respect in which Starmer is not a typical politician. As the Labour peer, fellow QC and Starmer supporter Charles Falconer puts it: “He has not, as most politicians on the way up do, defined himself by political rows.” In this campaign, he has studiously refrained from attacking Labour figures on the right or the left, including Corbyn — to the frustration of his more centrist supporters, Blair included. He doggedly insists he worked “very well” with Corbyn, despite the chasm between them on Europe. This has led to accusations that he is “pandering to the left” for tactical reasons. These have been compounded by his commitment to “common ownership” of the railways, water and the energy sector, to abolish student tuition fees and bring in a “Prevention of Military Intervention Act” to stop “illegal” wars. “I think Keir may be making a mistake, with this tacking to the left thing,” says Trevor Phillips, who first met Starmer, then director of public prosecutions (DPP), when he was chairman of the Equality and Human Rights Commission and became a friend. “His appeal to unity is very dangerous, because he’s compromising with people who don’t compromise, who want control … I think he is more careful than he needs to be, stronger than he imagines he is.”
This may be true. But while it’s difficult to be sure at this stage what is tactical and what isn’t, Lord Falconer insists that “his emotional instincts are closer to those of decent Momentum members than you would think”. Certainly, there is little in his background to suggest otherwise.
Growing up in Oxted, Surrey, Starmer passed the 11-plus and was sent to Reigate Grammar School by his staunchly Labour parents, who were keen for him to have the best education. The school went private when Starmer was 14, but the parents of existing pupils were not required to pay fees (which Rod and Josephine Starmer could certainly not have afforded). They pushed him to attend scholarship Saturday sessions at the Guildhall School of Music when he would have preferred to be playing football, a lifelong passion.
At 16, Starmer discovered active politics and helped to found a Young Socialist branch. Fellow member Jon Pike recalls: “I thought, blimey, he’s pretty cool. It was clear that he was a person of some substance and value.” Starmer was prominent in keeping the branch out of the clutches of Militant, the Trotskyist (and anti-EU) sect that dominated the Young Socialists nationally.
Starmer — the first in his family to go to university — wanted to study politics at Leeds. His parents urged him to choose law instead because, as he recalls, “you’ll get a decent job”. Helena Kennedy, who led him as a young counsel in several cases, remembers Starmer’s parents at a party to celebrate his taking silk. “I spoke at the event about Keir’s commitment to the most disadvantaged who came before the courts. His work on death penalty cases and asylum for refugees, on gay rights and anti-racism. His work with me on battered women. His mum was there in a wheelchair and she was beaming, and his father had his arm round her and they said how proud they felt. But then Keir’s dad sobbed and sobbed. Life had not always been easy, but here was their son trying to get justice for people.”
Starmer took to student life in Leeds — not just the Labour Club, but also the Thursday night union disco, with its heady blend of indie music and snakebite, a fearsome lager and cider mix. With a first-class law degree, Starmer went to Oxford to take a bachelor of civil law. He immersed himself in Labour Party politics and was a member of a loose left-wing grouping around the short-lived publication Socialist Alternatives. The first issue, in the summer of 1986, contained a strong endorsement by Starmer of printworkers in dispute with Rupert Murdoch after the union-busting move of his papers — including The Sunday Times — to Wapping.
Edward Fitzgerald QC, joint head of Doughty Street, the celebrated chambers where Starmer worked for almost two decades, remembers a “young, very seriously left-wing and very idealistic” Starmer joining the chambers’ forerunner, 1 Dr Johnson’s Buildings, in 1987. According to Fitzgerald, a “famous story” about the 24-year-old Starmer’s initial interview was that he quoted the old maxim “property is theft” while expressing reservations about sending non-violent burglars to prison. Whether or not this is apocryphal, “one or two people thought, ‘We can’t have this terrible lefty in chambers’, but his pupil master Stephen [now Lord Justice] Irwin intervened and said, ‘He’s absolutely brilliant and he may have got carried away.’ ”
Starmer later became famous for the “McLibel” case, in which McDonald’s sued Helen Steel and David Morris for distributing a factsheet attacking the company. He advised pro bono and eventually represented the pair at the European Court of Human Rights, scoring a landmark ruling. However, he cut his teeth as an international human rights lawyer, winning reprieves at the privy council for prisoners facing the death penalty in the Commonwealth. There was no doubting Starmer’s abolitionist passion. Once, in the Caribbean, Fitzgerald recalls, “we had to restrain him from a fight with some American who was advocating the death penalty rather loudly in the bar. Keir said, ‘I’m going to go and get him.’ ”
Falconer says that Starmer at this stage would have thought party politics “careerist” and that “the way he could make a real difference was as a very talented left-wing lawyer”. As he did, not least by bringing cases against the last Labour government on behalf of asylum seekers and others, and vigorously opposing the Iraq War for violating international law. In a delicate reference to his old boss and friend Tony Blair, Falconer adds that Starmer experienced “the disappointment of what had happened when … lawyers of the left became politicians”.
So why, at the peak of a distinguished career did he change direction? Starmer says he was “always political” and his practice was increasingly “strategic” — challenging policies rather than merely representing their victims. But Fitzgerald thinks a “watershed” was his appointment as human rights adviser to the Northern Ireland Policing Board, which oversaw aspects of the Good Friday agreement. Five years of immersing himself in the tensions of policing the annual Orange parades, was “probably when he got the taste for politics in a world wider than the bar”. It prompted him to apply, as a radical barrister who had never prosecuted a case in court, to be DPP.
That job — and the knighthood he accepted for it — caused him to be regarded as an “establishment” figure by some in Labour, but Starmer was a reforming DPP. Besides a string of high-profile prosecutions, he published humane guidelines on assisted suicide. The left has complained that by applying the Fraud Act instead of social security legislation, he raised the maximum sentences for benefit fraud to 10 years. However, Nazir Afzal, who was chief prosecutor for the northwest, says this was not directed at individuals who had cheated an extra £50, but at “organised gangs, some of them part of the DWP [Department for Work and Pensions] system” and operating “pretty much on an industrial scale”. Starmer, Afzal maintains, was the “brightest lawyer I ever came across”.
The groundbreaking guidelines Starmer issued in the wake of the Jimmy Savile revelations, and the successful Rochdale abuse prosecutions he authorised, triggered a much later controversy. Among others, the broadcaster Paul Gambaccini, who was wrongfully arrested, claimed they later led to overzealous pursuit by the police of false sexual abuse claims against public figures. The guidelines stipulated that witnesses should be assessed on the credibility of their evidence rather than whether they would look like “model victims” in court, a proposal caricatured as suggesting witnesses claiming abuse should automatically be believed.
When I put this to Starmer, true to form he goes over the guidelines’ history in detail. In Rochdale, police and prosecutors had in “good faith” previously decided not to prosecute members of grooming gangs because their very young girl victims were abusing drink and drugs, and in some cases had not gone straight to the police and had continued a relationship with their abusers. This meant that “the more vulnerable you were, the less likely the criminal justice system was to be able to provide you any protection”. But, he adds, “the idea that the guidelines simply said ‘believe the victims’ is just mythical nonsense”.
After leaving the Crown Prosecution Service in 2013, he could probably have followed his predecessors by becoming a Labour peer, but, says Falconer, “he had absolutely no interest in that”. Instead, the weekly meetings of permanent secretaries and his regular contact with ministers had entrenched his appetite for government. “He could see the importance of elected politicians,” adds Falconer.
On the cold but sunny Saturday of those Liverpool hustings, two local matrons, unaware of the nearby proceedings, walked the promenade looking across the Mersey to Birkenhead. Both voted Labour in December, out of sheer habit. So who did they think should become the party’s new leader? “Not interested,” said Janet Maher, 71. “They’re all a lot of crap. All politicians. All out for themselves.” Was there any politician she had admired in the past? She paused: “Harold Wilson was all right.”
She prompts an interesting question. Is there an affinity between Starmer — of whom these two women have barely heard — and Wilson?
“What people find frustrating is that I’m not prepared to hug a political figure from the past,” Starmer tells me. “I’ve always made decisions for myself. I’ve never needed somebody else’s prompt.”
Yet the parallels are striking (see panel, below) — above all, their obsession with party unity, with bridging a right-left divide as corrosive in the 1950s as in the 2010s. Indeed, it was for his unifying role that Starmer chose Wilson on Channel 4’s hustings when he was finally obliged to name a predecessor he admired. At times Starmer has carried his passion for unity to extremes. In the Sky TV hustings last month, he had to be pushed reluctantly into saying that Rebecca Long Bailey had not complained as vigorously about the party’s handling of anti-semitism as he had. Alone among the candidates, Starmer refused to sign a Labour Campaign for Trans Rights “pledge card”; saying with studied inoffensiveness that he doesn’t want trans rights to be a “political football”.
Although Labour ultimately failed to halt Brexit, his pursuit of party unity enabled him to navigate his risk-fraught passage through the previous parliament without getting embroiled in a stand-up row with Corbyn. He may have been helped by what one former Blair government figure claims is a certain “emotional detachment”. But according to Falconer, his approach to Corbyn was that of a lawyer “who can’t ever say that my client’s the most appalling f***wit, because that’s not allowed. Do not mistake that, though, for him thinking that Corbyn was a good thing.”
Certainly, while he has promised his Corbynite rival Rebecca Long Bailey (and his other rival Lisa Nandy) places in a Starmer shadow Cabinet, he has notably — unlike Long Bailey — not done the same for Corbyn. In 2015 Starmer voted for Andy Burnham as leader. In the abortive 2016 coup against Corbyn, he resigned with 43 other frontbenchers. Three months later, he accepted Corbyn’s offer of the post of shadow Brexit secretary because, “the members had decided that Jeremy Corbyn should lead our party, and I accepted that decision. I was deeply conscious that we needed the best response we could put forward on Brexit, and I wanted to do that for the party.”
This omits another factor, of course, that it would improve his chances of eventually leading a party in which Corbyn supporters were a majority. It is instructive about his self-belief, though. Phillips suggests that from his days as DPP, “he was really good at managing the different forces involved. And, essentially, persuading people that the best way to solve any problem was to leave it to him.” Falconer goes farther, saying for all the testimonies from his former Doughty Street colleagues that he is a “team player”, he is essentially a “loner who thinks things through for himself”.
Although a staunch pro-European, Starmer originally believed a second referendum to be impossible, and his crablike move towards it exasperated some prominent remainers. Dianne Hayter, Labour’s Europe spokeswoman in the Lords, says the remainers underestimated the strength of feeling against a second referendum, which Starmer exposed through painstaking soundings with his fellow MPs. “What I saw Keir doing, which I thought was extraordinary, was holding the PLP [Parliamentary Labour Party] together because it was deeply divided and you never knew about it,” Baroness Hayter says.
It was not until September 2018 that he infuriated the pro-Brexit hard left, including Len McCluskey, Unite’s general secretary. Starmer inserted a much-applauded sentence into his party conference speech saying the option of remain must be part of the referendum commitment he had by now successfully argued for. On Brexit, he made an alliance with John McDonnell, whom he persuaded that running the Treasury would be vastly easier if Britain were still in the EU. According to Sands, Starmer and McDonnell came to enjoy strong mutual respect. “The relationship with John McDonnell is very important. Keir’s a bridge builder. He’s incredibly strategic.”
Nervous as such “bridge building” makes many in the neo-Blairite wing, one of its gurus, Peter Mandelson, professes to be “relaxed” about Starmer’s stances to date. “The crucial question is whether he can pass the Kinnock test if he wins,” he says. “People will feel the grown-ups are back in charge, but that will mean wresting control of the party, as Kinnock did when he engaged in hand-to-hand combat with the hard left and saw off Militant.”
Mandelson insists it is not the broad membership of Momentum, but the “ideological cabal” that runs Momentum, and, along with party officers close to McCluskey, the National Executive, that needs to be “seen off”. He adds: “I think he will do that because he wants to be prime minister, which he can’t be unless he sorts out the party and makes it trusted and credible again. That’s the sine qua non, the door he has to go through to do everything else.”
Another key test will be his choice of shadow cabinet. Wilson was almost mathematically precise in balancing right- and left-wingers. Starmer’s campaign team shows that balance. In the core group, Kat Fletcher and Simon Fletcher (unrelated) are highly able figures who worked for Corbyn, but left his office well before the 2019 election; and Morgan McSweeney worked for Liz Kendall, the Blairite candidate in the 2015 leadership election. Who Starmer picks as shadow chancellor, however, is a matter of endless speculation; Wilson’s chancellors were all broadly of the Labour right.
Starmer believes the economy should have a “moral purpose” and that “transformative change is needed — tinkering around the edges isn’t going to make a difference”. His rallying cry at the launch of his leadership bid was that the “free market model doesn’t work”. But he’s also a mixed economy man who had good relations with much of business while on the front bench. His criticism of the 2019 Labour manifesto was that it was “overloaded, and people didn’t believe it was deliverable”. Yet he says the next manifesto “has to be future-looking. It’s got to have answers to tomorrow’s questions, not yesterday’s questions, on how well an incoming Labour government can get its arms around the new economy.”
Wilson offered just such answers in his famous October 1963 speech, a year before his first general election victory, promising to forge a new Britain in the “white heat” of a technological revolution. Wilson’s speech projected Labour as having understood how the country had changed, while — as relevant today — appealing to private sector workers who were deserting the party. Starmer has yet to define such a comprehensive vision; he will need to, if he wins on April 4, to complete the journey from top-flight barrister to national leader. “I think he can,” insists Sands, “but I think the question is going to be one of charisma and humour. I know, and people who know him well know, that he’s got it.”
Starmer hasn’t addressed a specific pitch to the “red wall” of Labour seats captured by the Tories in December (where, as elsewhere, a majority of constituency parties have backed him as leader). He repeatedly says Labour needs to regain seats in every region to win. While acknowledging the “collective failure to come to grips with de-industrialisation” in “traditional working-class areas”, he tells me, “we must never overlook the fact that there are working-class communities across the country, including in our cities. And if you go into any of the estates in Camden, you’ll see working-class people of all backgrounds and colours.”
On foreign policy, he says a review of arms sales is needed “from top to bottom” and he’s likely to differ sharply with the present US administration. “One of the most important things for a post-Brexit UK is to reassert values of peace, of justice, reconciliation and compliance with international law,” he says.
On the home front, he has been robust on social inequalities; he often points to a 10-year discrepancy in life expectancy between Somers Town in his constituency and nearby Primrose Hill. But — in a hint of revisionism — he has also said Labour needs to project itself as a party of “opportunity” as well as “solidarity”, recognising that “people want to get on … and I’m not sure we’ve done enough of this in recent years”. This remark was made in east London at Stratford’s Old Town Hall, where Keir Hardie, who helped to found the Labour Party, and after whom Starmer is named, was returned for the first time as an MP. He was replying to a member who asked, in view of an “unfortunate sense of entitlement” among some in Labour to the votes of its long-time supporters, “why so many of them had voted Conservative”. That the question was asked in various forms several times during this sombre, closed party meeting, underlined the palpable sense of shock at the scale of December’s defeat.
If the Starmer experiment fails, a real question mark hangs over the party’s future. Some of the seats Labour needs to win back have Tory majorities of more than 10,000. If the party can’t win those seats at the next election, who would then be willing to be a Labour parliamentary candidate, asks Hayter. In her view, for the party — and, she believes, for the country — Starmer looks like “the last hope”.
Is Keir Starmer the new Harold Wilson?
Like Harold Wilson in the 1960s, Starmer is determined to bridge the right-left divide in the Labour Party. But the similarities don’t end there. Both Starmer and Wilson were educated at English grammar schools; both were brilliant academically — and both had fathers who were forced to shift workplaces as recession bit. Both, unusually for politicians, had been civil servants — Starmer as director of public prosecutions; Wilson at the Ministry of Fuel and Power. Both made their bid to lead Labour from the left of the party; and both resigned from frontbench jobs, only to return to starring shadow cabinet roles under leaders with whom they were out of sympathy. Wilson chose chancellors from the right of the party — will Starmer do the same?