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21 February 2024

Keir Starmer’s thirst for power

A landmark new biography portrays the Labour leader as a man with an entirely abnormal drive and a narrow-eyed focus on winning.

By Andrew Marr

After ditching the £28bn price-tag on his green prosperity plan, then ditching his Rochdale by-election candidate, February was a tough month for Keir Starmer. Catastrophe? No – but a bad series of jolts. Meanwhile, as he circulated and gladhanded with foreign leaders at the Munich Security Conference, you could see him almost beginning to accept the notion that this is real – that he will become prime minister, and all that makes the question of his political personality an ever-more urgent one. It may be the biggest in British politics right now: who is he? Where is his core?

Difficult questions: how does anyone who doesn’t know him already go deeper than the slightly awkward public persona, the stiffly disciplined hair and the furrowed brow, the focus group-tested phrases? Starmer is not a natural exhibitionist. Over the course of this year we will hear, from discredited right and hard left, the case for the prosecution – that this is a politically empty, indecisive man, controlled by others. Piffle, I think; and here, in Tom Baldwin’s Keir Starmer: The Biography, the first detailed study, is the case for the defence.

Baldwin, formerly a Times journalist, senior adviser to Ed Miliband, and Labour communications chief from 2010 to 2015, makes no claim to impartiality. This book began with Starmer being persuaded to write an autobiography (Baldwin was to be the ghostwriter), and then unpersuading himself. If it isn’t quite formally “authorised” – Baldwin did not get unfettered access to papers, for instance – it is avowedly friendly. Starmer talked to him, a lot, but at times you can almost hear his teeth gritting.

In its outer framework, Starmer’s isn’t an unusual story. An upbringing in a family struggling for money and with too many health problems; the tough, football-mad son, helped by inspiring teachers, working his way to a secure middle-class profession; the (not very) wild years of parties, rock bands, snakebite, foreign holidays and girlfriends; the grotty first flat; the settling down to hard study; the circle of close football friends; the brilliant choice of wife, Victoria, a fellow lawyer and then occupational health worker; the family always coming first. And topping all this off, the reward of proper professional success – the oaks and bays of becoming a KC, running an arm of government, being awarded a knighthood, entering parliament at the 2015 general election.

If none of this is exactly typical, it is a trajectory any jobbing novelist might tap out while building a stock character. The story of Starmer stands out only in two ways.

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First, there is a lifelong interest in social justice, formed by the economic insecurity of his family and driving his choice of legal specialism. Human rights law was relatively obscure when he chose it and is by no means the easiest or most lucrative legal byway. There are also occasional oddities such as his brief engagement in “Pabloism” – a deeply obscure and unsuccessful branch of Trotskyism, despised by mainstream Marxists as “impressionistic”, revisionist and unrevolutionary.

Second, Starmer displays, from the football field to the by-election campaign, an entirely abnormal drive and narrow-eyed focus on winning, a character trait which re-emerges throughout this biography. A former girlfriend, Philippa Kaufmann, emphasises his almost fanatical work rate: he has “this attitude that there’s absolutely no obstacle that will get in his way and defeat him. Take one step forward after another – and you don’t complain.” She says much of this came from his mother Jo: like her, “Keir gets up and keeps going, he just does what he needs to do. But there’s not much reflection and no stopping, which can make life difficult for others around him because there really aren’t many people made of that kind of stuff.”

Starmer (front centre) wearing eyeliner and ‘projecting a romantic vision of some kind’ with student flatmates in Leeds

If this sounds boring, or worse, chilly, then Tom Baldwin’s biggest gift to his subject is the thick clutch of anecdotes which make it clear that Keir Starmer is also an unusually empathetic, caring, decent man. He is the guy who makes the hospital visits others would find reasons to dodge; who listens attentively to stories of personal misfortune and finds ways to help; who sticks by old friends when others might find glamorous new ones. We must assume he is no saint, and this account is shorn of any truly embarrassing adolescent or other useful episodes to adorn the Daily Mail; but he is somebody you would want as a friend, in-law or neighbour.

This comes, Baldwin makes clear, from his family background. Starmer made it into a secure professional life; his three siblings did not. And as he has said, his toolmaker father “always felt undervalued because he worked in a factory. He felt people looked down on him. And he wasn’t wrong about that. People have their dignity and it needs to be respected.” Early years gave him a class perspective, a politics distinct from those of Tony Blair. Starmer again: “My political project is to return Labour to the service of working people and working-class communities. There may have been times in the recent past where Labour was afraid to speak the language of class at all – but not my Labour Party.”

His friend Nick Thomas-Symonds, the frontbencher and political biographer, argues that Starmer is far more working class than either Clement Attlee or Harold Wilson; and indeed his cabinet, featuring triumph-over-circumstance stories such as those of Bridget Phillipson, Angela Rayner and Wes Streeting, would be the most working class in British history so far.

Celebrating his first-class degree in Law from the University of Leeds with his parents Rod and Jo in 1985

So why has the public not noticed much of this? The most obvious explanation is the long tourist route through that stuffiest and least popular of professions, the law. As Sir Keir Starmer KC says to his biographer: “There is no version of my life that does not largely revolve around me being a human rights lawyer.”

But, again, this isn’t quite what it seems. Starmer made his name in cases that were neither easy nor popular –  notably the mid-1990s “McLibel” trial of two anarchists representing themselves because there was no money; and the cause of workers being repeatedly injured in a paper factory. After this, he didn’t travel around the world to stinking jails or dusty court houses to defend alleged murderers facing the death penalty because he has a “bleeding heart” or a naïve misunderstanding of human wickedness but because of the injustice of offenders being undefended. He says the death penalty “horrifies me”.

Baldwin quotes the barrister Ed Fitzgerald, who has defended many unpopular cases and explains: “It would be terrible if we stopped defending people because they’re unpopular. The legal process is an attempt to civilise our emotions of revenge. Anything that’s against lynch law seems to me to be a good thing.” Starmer adds himself: “I’m proud to live in a country where almost everybody accepts principles about people being free from arbitrary arrest and imprisonment, how they should not be tortured, and – above all – that they should get a fair trial.” There are values underneath the starch.

That legal world remains clammily present in Starmer’s political personality. His friend, fellow human rights lawyer and writer Philippe Sands, explains that barristers develop “this special ‘court voice’… we are trained to remove passion, personality, and the core of ourselves because, in front of a judge, you have to be as neutral and understated as possible. A courtroom is not a safe place to relax, kick back and be yourself – if you make a mistake there can be dismal consequences.”

Sands tells Baldwin that it took him a long time to find his voice again outside of law and he thinks Starmer is going through the same decompression: “He will be cautious if he doesn’t know he’s in a safe place… Standing in front of the media is not safe, so the barriers go up. I think sometimes he sounds too defensive, and he just needs to be himself.”

Making the ambitious leap from defence barrister to director of public prosecutions  (DPP) brought Starmer closer to the establishment, particularly in Northern Ireland, an experience that remains important to him. The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) gave him a taste for administration but also involved him, for the first time, in cases that offended the liberal left – the decision not to prosecute the police marksman who killed Jean Charles de Menezes in 2005, for instance, or his handling of the death of the newspaper vendor Ian Tomlinson during the 2009 anti-capitalism protests in London, or the wave of prosecutions that followed the August 2011 Tottenham riots.

Those cases, as well as conspiracy theories suggesting he was involved with MI5 and MI6, meant that once he entered politics, Starmer was already well blooded in hostility from right and left. Some people who have been MPs since their early twenties have had an easier ride. The phone hacking case against the News of the World brought him the enmity of the Murdoch empire. Others thought he colluded with Washington over the Julian Assange case. Baldwin concludes: “Did Starmer become more sympathetic to institutions of the British state such as the police and security services than many people, including himself, had once expected? Undoubtedly, yes. But does that make him the pawn of some sinister and secret right-wing spy network? No.”

The most toxic suggestion, thrown across the floor of the Commons by Boris Johnson, is that Starmer was responsible for the failure to prosecute the paedophile Jimmy Savile. This case, he says, never came close to crossing his desk, though he commissioned an independent report into the CPS’s failures, published during his final year as DPP in 2013.

So this was by no means a humdrum, grey, or somehow values-free life, before Starmer became an MP in 2015, aided by his neighbour Ed Miliband, then the leader of the party. Repeatedly, his political career has been marked by personal tragedy: during that campaign he lost his mother, Jo, who had fought all her life against the brutally degenerative Stills disease; and another friend – the wife of his closest friend John Murray.

Elected for Holborn and St Pancras in north London at the relatively late age of 52, he had assumed that Miliband would win the 2015 election and that he might become a minister quickly. Time’s winged chariot has been at his back ever since. “I thought Ed was going to win. Five years of opposition felt a very long time, it’s like a prison sentence. There is nothing that reduces you so much as knowing you can only make noise and not change.”

That sense of powerlessness was reinforced by two events far outside his control – the arrival of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader and the Brexit vote in 2016. And now we are really at the heart of the story. The questions that still reverberate are: was Starmer all along a plotter, trying to reverse the result of the Brexit referendum; and was he a genuine Corbyn backer in his shadow cabinet? To put it brutally: during those convention-upending years in British politics, what did he believe?

Baldwin explains how the two, Brexit and Corbyn, became inextricably mingled for Starmer. He acknowledged how Corbyn, another north London neighbour, had “cut through” with his radicalism, even among the apolitical mates with whom he played football on Sundays. But he did not admire Corbyn personally. He stayed only in order to wage a parliamentary fight for a softer Brexit.

A softer Brexit, or the betrayal of Brexit? Quoting Alastair Campbell ­– and himself involved in the People’s Vote campaign for a second referendum – Baldwin convincingly argues that Starmer was no enthusiast for reversing Brexit. Campbell, meeting Starmer for clandestine breakfasts, reports being “incredibly frustrated” by him. Far from Starmer being a liberal Remainer, “he’d always be going on to us about how he wouldn’t even countenance a new referendum before every option for a soft Brexit had been exhausted”.

Eventually, of course, those options were exhausted. After negotiating an internal fudge in which Labour would come out for a new public vote, without being explicit that it would include the option of staying inside the EU, Starmer then ad-libbed to the Labour conference in 2018 that “nobody is ruling out Remain as an option”. Cue wild applause.

This incident, which produced furious reactions from Jeremy Corbyn’s team, many of whom wanted a left-wing version of Brexit,  a so-called Lexit, still echoes today. Tories, including the then prime minister Theresa May, saw it all as a self-interested, cynical trick by Starmer to ingratiate himself with Remainers and prepare for a leadership contest as soon as Corbyn failed. This is the origin of the “Brexit betrayer” and “flip-flopper” attacks now coming almost daily

The defence is that Starmer was not trying to ingratiate himself or force the party into an anti-Brexit, second referendum position; but was merely defending the difficult internal compromise he had negotiated the previous day: “I was trying to fix the problem.” He had not been at the forefront of calling for a second vote; and had indeed been more disciplined than most around Corbyn.

Nevertheless, many looked at the episode and decided that he was a man who had emotionally broken with the Corbyn leadership and decided to fight for himself. They included the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier who wrote in his diary in 2018: “Listening to him, I get the feeling that Keir Starmer will one day be UK prime minister.” Barnier later tells Baldwin: “At the beginning, he was wise enough to stay close to Corbyn and, while everyone else made mistakes, he was careful. From the first time we met, I thought there was something about him.”

Now, nobody would call this a heroic episode. It chimes with the careful way Starmer, whose leadership campaign had been quietly planned by the so-called Arlington group of friends even before the 2019 election defeat, was prepared to woo members by talking left – and then, having won, ditch the commitments he had made. It chimes with his cautious, legalistic, step-by-step pushback against anti-Semitism inside the party. And it rhymes with the brutal dispatching, awkwardly late, of the £28bn green prosperity plan.

Dishonesty or strategy? Devious, or necessary? Of course, it can be both.

The problem for Starmer’s detractors is that it is impossible to imagine a journey for the Labour Party from 2019 to 2024, from the leftist wilderness to the edge of power, that could have been accomplished by stirring “Here I stand” speeches, and unchanging positions, always in the daylight.

Ed Miliband argues that “Keir is in nobody’s faction. I think he is bemused by the labels – he is nobody’s ‘-ite’,” but this does not mean he cannot be ruthless with people he sees as unhelpful in the party. Another ally: “Keir is like a ratchet. He relentlessly moves in only one direction, he never goes backwards.” And the consequences can be severe for opponents. Michael Crick, the journalist who specialises in analysing candidatures, says the left has been “almost annihilated” in Labour selections under Starmer; out of some 200 candidates, perhaps only five left-wingers have been chosen.

But if, under the unrelenting media scrutiny and against the most successful electoral machine in western Europe, you think Britain needs a plausible alternative; and that that alternative should be ready to govern now, you have to accept the Starmer zigzagging, crabwise, relentless advance as the way forward. He always gets there later than you hope, seldom saying quite as much as you hope; but he always gets there.

If you scrub off the barnacles – the legal obligations, the biding-his-time years before the leadership, and the anxious caution under the guidance of Rachel Reeves’s fiscal orthodoxy, what do we have left underneath?

Keir Starmer’s own explanations can sound banal: “I have always been motivated by a burning desire to tackle inequality and injustice, to stand up for the powerless against the powerful. That’s my socialism. If I see something wrong or spot an injustice, I want to put it right.” But in politics as in life, the real answers are more often about character than ideology. Tom Baldwin’s portrait is of a tough, conscientious, and kindly man with the right values, a genuine dislike of class snobbery, and a huge, unusually focused drive. From what I know, this is an accurate portrait.

He is not a particularly inspiring speech maker. He is not as fast on his feet, as adroit and deft, as a born politician, or even one who has been in the game all his life. But he is not empty and he is not cynical.

If you want a culture wars warrior, Starmer is not your man. If you want a radical socialist who seeks to overturn capitalism, Starmer is not your man. If you want an entertainer, a comedian, a tweeter, Starmer is not your man. If you want to rerun previous leaders, Wilson or Blair, or someone who runs an agile team firing on all cylinders, sorry, Starmer is not your man. But if you want a leader who might start to heal the sinews of an enfeebled state and anaemic economy, and who will work in the interests of the relatively powerless, then he may very well be who we need.

Tom Baldwin’s “Keir Starmer: The Biography” is published by William Collins

[See also: Rochdale’s by-election brings the Gaza war to Britain]

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This article appears in the 21 Feb 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Fractured Nation