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Keir Starmer: The sensible radical

The former human rights lawyer aspires to unite not only the troubled Labour Party but the country. But who is he? And what does he really want?

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On 6 March, before the coronavirus pandemic paralysed Britain and upended the normal rules of the nation’s politics, Keir Starmer travelled to York to address a meeting of his supporters. It was the ninth week of Labour’s protracted leadership contest, and the ninth week the shadow Brexit secretary and former director of public prosecutions had spent on the road, preaching his gospel of unity to party members. 

These are not like Jeremy Corbyn rallies. There are no queues around the block – the auditorium of the Yorkshire Museum, a stately Victorian complex set in a city-centre park, was half full. In a room upstairs, several dozen activists had spent the afternoon phone-banking for Starmer’s campaign – he comes bearing boxes of Krispy Kreme doughnuts as recompense. His campaign team – several of whom have been seconded from the offices of the 88 MPs who nominated him for the leadership, in search of a saviour or merely stability after four draining years of Corbynism – were happy with the turnout: it was, after all, a Friday night. Unlike Corbyn, Starmer was on time, and dressed smartly in his campaign uniform of a navy blue suit and white shirt, always tieless: he is 57 now, without quite looking it (he confesses to moisturising nightly). 

Starmer tends to speak in a language of moral absolutes, but his speech that evening was neither a Corbynite meditation on good and evil, nor a clarion call for a new kind of politics. Rather, it was a straightforward elevator pitch. With a flair and levity that seems to escape him on television, he told members that he was the best person to take on – and defeat – Boris Johnson. “I really do think that man is dangerous,” he said. Corbyn and his politics, he told them, had been unfairly maligned by the press – but had still lost Labour December’s general election. He could break the cycle.

Joining Starmer and his small campaign team was Caroline Adam, a retired publican from Perthshire, and her husband Stuart, a retired computer systems engineer. The couple had met Starmer at a hustings hosted by Sky News in Dewsbury the previous week. Caroline told Starmer and his rivals that she was blind, and asked: “What one thing can the candidates tell me about your personalities to help me vote for you?”

Rebecca Long-Bailey, the shadow business secretary and Corbynite heir-designate, cast herself as “down to earth… northern… grounded”. Lisa Nandy, the campaigning MP for Wigan, spoke of her courage. Starmer, who is predicted by most polls to beat both on the first round of voting, took a different tack. He invited Adam to spend the day with him in his constituency of Holborn and St Pancras, a wedge of a seat stretching from London’s Covent Garden to Highgate, so that they might get to know the real Keir Starmer. “I’m the sort of person who, when I see something that’s wrong, or an injustice, I can’t walk by it,” he told the couple. 

Yet few will profess to knowing the real Keir Starmer. Some even contend that his leadership campaign has been an exercise in hiding from view. His pledges over the course of the campaign have, at times, seemed contradictory: he will not “oversteer” away from Corbyn’s radicalism on the economy, but he will curb the leadership’s worst excesses, win back lost ground in the south, as well as the north and Midlands, and exorcise the demons of factionalism from Labour’s ranks. Officially, Starmer calls it the politics of unity: a word that is emblazoned across his campaign material and baked into almost every line of his stump speeches. Corbyn’s enforced departure presented Labour MPs, the trade unions and its membership with an existential choice: does it continue along the road that led to a fourth successive election defeat, or veer away? If Long-Bailey’s pitch is the former, and Nandy’s the latter, then Starmer’s aim is to convince members that they can have both. 

“When I’m making my case for unity and bringing people together, people think that I’m not choosing sides,” Starmer told me. “Actually, I’m trying to take both from the last Labour government, and from Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell, and build from what I think is important from that in a unifying way. Because I  actually think that is the only platform going forward. And that’s for real. I genuinely think that.”

“Genuinely” is a favourite word of Starmer’s. He insists he is committed to the radical, anti-austerity politics that in 2015 unlocked something long repressed on the British left and, in the preceding decades, had sustained him as a campaigning barrister. Yet there has been fierce debate within the Labour Party over what his vision of unity means for the Corbynite left he has courted assiduously, and for those on the right of the party, who have invested much of their hope in him.

The coronavirus crisis has rendered questions of internal politics irrelevant for the foreseeable future. But they will return. When Starmer wins the leadership on 4 April, he will assume office in the midst of the gravest crisis since the Second World War. Some Conservatives expect his first task will be uniting something much bigger than the Labour Party: the United Kingdom itself. “When Labour have a sensible new leader,” George Freeman, the Conservative MP and former minister, said on 24 March, “Keir Starmer should be invited to Covid cabinet, Cobra, and joint No 10 briefings.” 

Rather than at least five years of opposition, Starmer’s reward for winning the Labour Party leadership could plausibly – if one squints a little – be a seat in a national government. Even if not, politics – and particularly the politics of opposition – has changed utterly. With the Conservatives deploying the full force of the state to underwrite the  British economy through the pandemic, the economic arguments that have preoccupied the left have been suspended.  Instead, Starmer’s immediate challenges are personal: tests of character and judgement. 

But what does he “genuinely” believe? And can he unite not just a Labour Party wracked with factional warfare, but the country too?

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Born in Southwark, south London in 1962, Starmer was the second of four children to Rodney, a toolmaker, and Josephine, a nurse forced to give up work by Still’s Disease, a debilitating autoimmune condition. He spent his childhood in a ramshackle, pebble-dashed semi-detached home in Oxted, Surrey, where the Starmers kept donkeys in their garden. Devout in their leftism, his parents named their second son after Keir Hardie, Labour’s first parliamentary leader. “When I was at school, at about 13,” he later recalled, “I thought, why couldn’t they have called me Dave or Pete?”

The young Keir inherited his parents’  politics. He spent his teenage years at Reigate Grammar, a selective state school where he took violin lessons with Norman Cook, later Fatboy Slim, and his friends included Andrew Cooper, later a Conservative peer, and Andrew Sullivan, who would make his name as a conservative controversialist in the US. Mention of Sullivan brought Starmer out in a broad smile: they are still in touch. “We fought over everything, Andrew and I,” he said. “Politics,  religion. You name it.” 

Sullivan was an unrepentant Thatcherite, while Starmer was, in the words of another schoolfriend, “left, left, left”. The pair would begin their debates on the 410 bus to Reigate, and they did not end until they had returned home. Yet Starmer was neither pious nor a dullard. “Keir was rowdy, laddish, wild,” a fellow classmate recalled. 

Starmer joined Labour in his early teens and led the East Surrey Young Socialists. At that time, Militant’s tentacles enveloped much of Labour’s youth movement, but Starmer resisted them. According to Jon Pike, an Open University academic and east Surrey contemporary, Starmer had no truck with Bennite Euroscepticism, or the tankies who haunted hard-left meetings. “European internationalism has always been very strong for me,” Starmer told me. 

At Leeds University he read law (postgraduate study at Oxford followed) and experienced a deeper political awakening.  “I got profoundly interested in human rights: this sense, that meant a lot to me, that the countries at the end of the Second World War had joined together and said, ‘never again’.”

Starmer, an ardent Remainer, made his peace with Brexit at the outset of the leadership campaign. But the pro-Europeanism that has manifested itself through his efforts to soften Labour’s Brexit position – first through his legalistic “six tests”, the device that enabled Labour to vote against Theresa May’s deal – comes from a place of deep conviction.

His politics are continental but are not the “bland centrism” criticised by supporters of Long-Bailey. “He was very much what Europeans would now call a red-green,” said the QC Gavin Millar, who interviewed Starmer for his pupillage in 1987 and later shared rooms with him in a set of Middle Temple chambers run by Emlyn Hooson, the radical Liberal MP who had defended the Moors murderer Ian Brady. Growing up, Starmer had never knowingly met a lawyer: Geoffrey Robertson, another QC and pioneer of the progressive bar, described how he turned up for the interview in a cardigan, was “nervous and awkward”, and “looked about 14”. By then Starmer had moved into a flat above a brothel in Highgate, where he devoted himself to work. Stacked high about his room were boxes of Socialist Alternatives, an obscure and atrociously written Trotksyite pamphlet, for which he was once a co-editor. 

The coercive forces of the Thatcherite state were the main targets of his ire, most often the police. In one piece, written from the picket line of the anti-Murdoch, Wapping printers’ dispute, Starmer asked “the question of the role the police should play, if any, in civil society. Who are they protecting and from what?” 

He did not hide his politics at the bar. In 1990, Millar, Robertson and Starmer were among 30 barristers who left chambers in the Inns of Court and set up a new, radical practice on Doughty Street, north London. They wanted to break the establishment cartel and defeat the Thatcherite hegemony – unassailable in parliament – in the courts. “He was very interested in environmental politics: public order, protesting, and street campaigning,” Millar said. 

Critics say Starmer’s emphasis on his work representing trade unions and environmental campaigners is a selective telling of his legal career, but Millar disagrees: “He would take very, very left-wing positions quite happily in those days. The clients he represented were on the left… He was bona fide. The context tells you why: Thatcherism, the miners’ strike, industrial conflicts, cuts to public sector and welfare budgets. It was a terrible, terrible time. Our reason for being there was to fight it.”

Starmer agrees with Millar’s account. 

Is he still a red-green? “Yeah!” Then, as now, he was among those who believed that Labour could succeed only by uniting what Hilary Wainwright, the leftist sociologist and journalist, called the “fragments” of liberation movements (what would now be described as identity politics) with the traditional working class beyond parliament. Or, as Starmer later put it to Tony Benn in an interview for Socialist Alternatives, it needed to become “a united party of the oppressed”. 

In that respect, Starmer has more in common with Corbyn than many of his supporters would admit: both are of the extra-parliamentary left, and neither has reversed his views on much. “I don’t think there are big issues on which I’ve changed my mind,” he said. “The big issue we were grappling with then was how the Labour Party, or the left generally, bound together the wider movement and its strands of equality – feminist politics, green politics, LGBT – which I thought was incredibly exciting, incredibly important. Broadly speaking, I think the Labour Party has done that very successfully.”

As a young barrister, Starmer devoted his energies to human rights cases, often on behalf of trade unions or against the police. He defended criminals sentenced to death in the Caribbean, where he is still lionised by the legal establishment. He remained an activist advocate, writing extensively on civil liberties for the Haldane Society of Socialist Lawyers, alongside progressive luminaries such as Michael Mansfield and Helena Kennedy. He also worked pro bono for Helen Steel and David Morris – the so-called McLibel Two, whose environmental leaflets prompted a 15-year legal battle with McDonald’s, ending in their victory in the European courts. Starmer, fresh-faced and floppy-haired, appears in  McLibel, a 1997 documentary about the pair’s epic struggle. “He was sweet, sincere and obviously super-clever, but self-deprecating and witty too,” Franny Armstrong, who directed the film alongside Ken Loach, told me. “I never heard him discuss party politics, but actions speak louder than words: he spent years working, unpaid, to defend ordinary people’s right to criticise  multinational corporations.”

Yet Starmer felt a nagging dissatisfaction. “Gradually, I got frustrated with individual cases, because win or lose, you’re only changing things for the individual that you’re representing,” he said. He turned to strategic litigation, picking and choosing cases in a bid to effect wider changes to the law. “I was still a human rights lawyer railing against the system from the outside.”

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Those who know Starmer best were unsurprised by his move to electoral politics. “I feel I’ve always had very deep politics in everything I’ve done,” he told me. “I channelled it into cases, but in the end I came back almost to where I started when I was a teenager: in the end, you can only do  it through national politics, which means being in parliament.” 

Once a radical whose modus operandi was to muzzle and constrain the state, Starmer was now seeking executive power. 

To explain this, he references his time in Northern Ireland, where, between 2003 and 2008, he worked as a human rights adviser to the Policing Board – a body set up under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement to oversee the work of the new Police Service of Northern Ireland, the replacement for the much-maligned Royal Ulster Constabulary. Part of its remit was ensuring that the new police service was genuinely representative of both the Protestant and Catholic communities. It was there that Starmer learned the value of working with the state, rather than against it. 

“That really exposed me, for five years, to working on the inside of an organisation… Some of the things I thought that needed to change in police services we achieved more quickly than we achieved in strategic litigation… I came better to understand how you can change by being inside and getting the trust of people.” 

In 2008 he became the ultimate legal insider: director of public prosecutions (DPP). His appointment by Gordon Brown’s government came as something of a surprise. Starmer had been no friend to New Labour, as much as he admired its domestic policy. Its authoritarian streak sat uneasily with his civil libertarian instincts. He marched and provided legal opinions against the Iraq War, and challenged New Labour’s policies on welfare and asylum seekers. Nor had he ever prosecuted a criminal case. One of the bar’s most dogged opponents of state power was now responsible for the delivery of criminal justice and 9,000 staff. 

He would leave office after his five-year term in 2013 with his reputation in the legal world unharmed and arguably enhanced. At the beginning of his tenure, the Conservative MP Dominic Grieve was among the Tories who censured Starmer after he implicitly criticised David Cameron’s plans to rescind the Human Rights Act in government. By the time Starmer’s term ended, the two had forged such a close working relationship that Grieve, who had since become Cameron’s attorney general, spoke at his leaving party. They would later work  together to thwart a no-deal Brexit.

It was at the CPS that Starmer learned – as he puts it to Labour members – “how you effect change across a big organisation”. The contrast with Corbyn, whose closest brush with executive responsibility before his election as Labour leader was the chairmanship of Haringey Council’s planning committee, barely needs emphasising. Yet Starmer’s Corbynite critics question the durability of his principles, pointing to a series of controversial decisions he made in office. 

Starmer decided against prosecuting the police officers responsible for the killings of Jean Charles de Menezes, the Brazilian electrician shot dead on a Tube having been wrongly identified as a terror suspect following the London attacks of 2005, and of Ian Tomlinson, the London newspaper seller pushed to his death at the G20 protests in 2010. Under his leadership, the CPS charged anti-austerity protesters for staging a sit-in at Fortnum & Mason in 2012; one academic accused Starmer, who once defended the rights of acid house ravers, of criminalising peaceful assembly and protests. 

Detractors also note his eye for a tabloid-friendly policy announcement, and the fluency with which he could speak the moral language of the right. A 2013 interview in which Starmer unveiled new prosecution guidelines that threatened welfare fraudsters with up to ten years in prison has haunted his campaign. He has sought to use his legal career to burnish his credentials as a man of firm socialist principle, but his critics believe it exposes him as that most contemptible of Labour archetypes: the class traitor.

His team have preferred to emphasise his decisions to launch prosecutions against News of the World journalists over phone hacking, and against MPs for their abuse of the parliamentary expenses system. Some of his supporters, however, are similarly anxious about the legacy of his time as DPP, namely in his leadership style. “We’ve already had one command-and-control, centralising leader,” said one shadow minister. “We can’t afford another.” 

Former CPS colleagues disagree, and recall Starmer as a consensual, collaborative director whose first major decision was to give up his official car, which he believed was an unnecessary extravagance at the height of a financial crisis. “You can criticise him from the left, or the right, or from any particular perspective about a decision to prosecute or not prosecute,” said the barrister Gavin Millar. “That’s what happens: you expose yourself to that. All you can do is temper the role with your understanding of human rights principles, and he did that.”

Yet the major lesson Starmer drew from his time as DPP was political, rather than personal. One of his responsibilities was restructuring the organisation to deal with cuts to its budget, and austerity had taken a steep toll on the justice system. “The sort of postwar settlement of what a welfare state with public services that properly functions… I couldn’t see how that would survive with the level of cuts, and if something wasn’t done about it, we were going to lose something that we’d almost taken for granted for decades.” 

As the coronavirus crisis deepens – and with it the strains on the NHS and social security system – Conservative MPs fret that Starmer might capture the mood of the hour with a similar message. Though some in Labour believe Starmer has been slow to respond himself, he has pushed Boris Johnson to do more, and faster. Starmer wants every Briton’s income to be guaranteed by the government, statutory sick pay to be trebled and businesses cutting jobs to be directly subsidised to prevent further layoffs. “He’ll sharpen up the Labour operation to an extent that we’ve forgotten is possible,” said one minister. That is part of the reason that some Tory MPs are willing to entertain the idea of a national government: it will spare them Starmer in opposition.

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In 2013, Starmer was recruited by Ed Miliband, whose soft-left politics resemble his own, to review the party’s justice policies. When the clubbable Frank Dobson, MP for Holborn and St Pancras – as safe a seat as any Labour MP could hope for – announced in 2014 his long-expected retirement, Starmer approached the selection campaign with Stakhanovite focus: he wooed members individually, over coffees and lunches (he organised early and was handsomely funded). He was endorsed by Neil Kinnock and, tacitly at least, by Miliband.

Raj Chada, a solicitor and former leader of Camden Council who ran against Starmer for the selection, said it became obvious very early – as it has over the course of the leadership election – that he would win comfortably: “I learned very quickly that he had broadly the same politics as me. I would have voted for him. I almost thought: why am I standing against him?” 

Had Miliband won the 2015 election, the expectation was that Starmer would reach ministerial office immediately. Instead, his first weeks in parliament were soundtracked by premature leadership speculation, so uninspiring was the declared field of contenders: Labour members started an online campaign in an attempt to draft him to stand just a week after his election. He declined, but immediately found himself on the front bench, where he stayed after the election of Jeremy Corbyn – his constituency neighbour. Along with most of his colleagues, he resigned from the shadow cabinet in an attempt to force Corbyn out in the wake of the EU referendum – which his opponents on the left still hold against him.

In November 2016, he was among the few who returned to the shadow cabinet, as shadow Brexit secretary. Starmer and Corbyn have a cordial working relationship, and make small talk about Arsenal’s fortunes. But at every juncture, Starmer pushed the envelope further than the leadership would have liked. Since his turn at Labour’s 2018 conference in Liverpool – when he not only delivered the policy that committed the party to a second referendum but, without approval from Corbyn, committed to including Remain on the ballot – he has been a marked man for some on the left. Unite’s Len McCluskey – a supporter of Long-Bailey (the union is Labour’s largest donor) – is among those who blames Starmer for the collapse of Labour’s vote in its traditional heartlands in the 2019 election. 

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Starmer the barrister and politician is an earnest, diligent, meticulous operator, critics say to the point of tedium. Predictably, those who know him well say that the popular caricature of the lawyerly bore is unfair. He has a son, 11, and a daughter, nine, with his wife Victoria, who works part-time for the NHS, and met Starmer while working as a solicitor. If he has a hinterland, it is football. His brief snatches of free time, before the coronavirus crisis put paid to live sport, were spent “trying to find a game on the television”. The demands of running for the leadership, however, have meant his two Arsenal season tickets – upper tier, West Stand – have gathered dust of late. But, before the lockdown, his Sunday afternoon game of five-a-side remained sacred. Friends note that, even as an MP, he still sends the round-robin emails, and intends to continue doing so as Labour leader. Starmer is a combative box-to-box midfielder, once likened by friends to Roy Keane. “Chopper Starmer,” as an aide put it.

That sort of benign laddishness was always part of the young Starmer’s reputation at the bar. “His weaknesses were pretty boring,” Gavin Millar told me. “Arsenal, five-a-side football and drinking with the lads, that sort of thing.” His youthful good looks remain the stuff of legend: he has failed to deny that he was the inspiration for Mark Darcy, the dashing human rights lawyer in Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary. “Since the author won’t say, I don’t know.” 

Did he meet Fielding in the Nineties? “I don’t think so. Somebody says there was a connection there, but I just don’t know. But… there’s a lot worse that can be said of you. We’ll live with that.”

As much as his detractors cast him as a Miliband redux, Starmer is rather more like the men and women Labour has lost:  aspirational, suburban, and godless. As a child, he attended church services with his mother. Now, he jokes, The Pineapple – a Victorian pub off the Kentish Town Road – is his church.

An Arsenal fan since boyhood, Starmer knows what institutional decline looks like. Did he want the club’s manager Unai Emery – sacked in November after poor results – out? “No, not particularly. But I’m glad he’s gone, and I hope we're rebuilding. Here politics and football come together: there’s a big rebuild to do at the Arsenal.” 

How, then, does he rebuild the Labour Party? And in whose image?

For many Labour MPs – and the Jewish community – Starmer’s first test will be his response to the party’s anti-Semitism problem. Starmer has spoken repeatedly of the need for Labour to expel anti-Semites automatically, and in November apologised to the Jewish community after Corbyn refused to do so in a pre-election BBC interview with Andrew Neil. He has a personal stake. Victoria, whose father is a Polish émigré, is of Jewish parentage (her mother suffered an accident and died during the course of Starmer’s leadership campaign). 

“It’s very important that [my children] understand the history of their granddad,” Starmer said. “Occasionally on a Friday night we’ll have prayers with him.” It must annoy him personally, then, when he is told he hasn’t done enough to stand up to anti-Semites in the Labour Party? 

“It does. Particularly because I said stuff on The Andrew Marr Show, on the Today programme, and we had big rows in the shadow cabinet. I think most people who know what really went on don’t make  that argument.”

Starmer has cited Harold Wilson as his favourite Labour leader over the course of the contest: a safer choice than either of the party’s two other postwar general election winners, Tony Blair and Clement Attlee. 

What does he admire about Wilson? “A mundane thing: the way in which he actually managed to hold bits of the party together… he was spinning plates left, right and centre, but he actually steered through it pretty well.” 

Many on the left think Harold Wilson sold out. “Well, I mean… maybe. But I don’t look at that aspect of it. I look at the way he managed. Everybody is determined to make all of the candidates hug some past Labour leader and hold them close as if they hold all the answers… they keep saying: ‘Are you Ed Miliband?’ ‘Are you Blair?’ ‘Are you Corbyn?’ My answer to that is: no I’m not. I’m not a past Labour leader, I want to be the next one. But I genuinely mean that.” 

Genuinely: that word again. Starmer will not yet be drawn publicly on what his leadership will look like, as obvious as his impending victory has been for months. 

He has taken an ecumenical approach to staffing as befits his promise of unity. Simon Fletcher and Kat Fletcher (they are not related), who worked on Corbyn’s 2015 leadership in 2015, are on the team, as is Matt Pound, of the old right pressure group Labour First. Morgan McSweeney, who ran Liz Kendall’s doomed leadership campaign, is likely to be Starmer’s chief of staff. Ben Nunn, his longtime adviser on communications, worked on Owen Smith's leadership campaign.That they have all ended up in the same place either proves that there is something in Starmer’s promise of a post-factional, united party or that something will inevitably have to give, depending on one’s political persuasion. 

The answer will perhaps lie in Starmer’s choice of shadow chancellor. When Jeremy Corbyn appointed John McDonnell, whose politics and personality were then loathed by most of the Parliamentary Labour Party, it marked his intended direction of travel. The left will draw similar conclusions if, as many in Westminster expect, Starmer appoints Rachel Reeves as his shadow chancellor. Anneliese Dodds, the thoughtful Oxford East MP who has served in McDonnell’s team since 2017, is another plausible candidate. In any case, Starmer’s objective is to build a team to win power in 2024, rather than maintain an internal peace in 2020.

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“I have tried to run a disciplined, positive and professional campaign, and I’m going to carry on doing that,” he said. “What comes after that is for whoever emerges as leader of the Labour Party, but I am well aware of the scale of the task. Having lost not just one election, but having lost four, and having lost the last one badly, the rebuild through to probably 2024 is huge. That will  require change.”

Here he does welcome historical comparison, or at least historical inspiration: not just from Wilson, but from Blair and Attlee. “What they had in common was an ability to realise that to win an election, you have to describe the future in a way  that persuades the country to come with you into that future. In other words, you make the case for change… you take people on that journey to say it can be different, and it can be better. Wilson got that: the white heat of technology. Attlee got that, and Blair got that.”

Does Keir Starmer? Some Labour MPs whisper that he could emerge from the present crisis with a commanding lead in the polls, and as a prime-minister-in-waiting, especially if Boris Johnson and the government are perceived to have misjudged and mishandled the response. But this will be new territory for Starmer, this sensible radical, who has always controlled his own destiny. Since becoming an MP, his competence and steely ambition have seen him rise fast in Labour politics. His aim is that of his youth: to return the Labour Party to power. But now he faces an entirely new challenge. What will matter from 4 April onwards is not what Keir Starmer thinks, but what a restive public thinks of Keir Starmer.

Patrick Maguire was political correspondent at the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 03 April 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Spring special