Keir Starmer wants to put a suit on the Labour party, smarten it up and send it back out to face the electorate. But first he needs to persuade the membership to give him the top job. If recent polling is anything to go by, he’s almost certainly going to cruise it.
I’d been promised an hour-long interview with Starmer, which shrank steadily as the date approached. First, it was whittled down to 45 minutes. Then, when I arrive at a community centre in Starmer’s constituency of Holborn and St Pancras, a harried aide tells me that it might be more like half an hour.
When Starmer arrives at the venue, he’s swiftly bundled into an International Women’s Day event. I watch as he scans a briefing document, before delivering a speech without notes, name-checking the activists in the room. Afterwards, a gaggle of schoolgirls swamp him with the ardour you’d expect of a BTS meet-and-greet. His aide smiles apologetically. I watch Starmer disappear under a crush of glad-handers and think: ‘He’s not going anywhere soon.’
When it comes down to it, I shut down his friendly attempts to make small talk – no time for that – and get to it. Starmer is positioning himself as the person to consolidate the left and right wings of the party into a unified political force. He’s been careful not to trash the Corbyn project too much on the campaign trail, partly out of self-protection – he served as Corbyn’s shadow Brexit secretary – and also because Starmer needs left-wing votes. But many Momentum members believe that, if elected leader, Starmer would drag Labour to the centre-ground. How would Starmer reassure people on the left?
“I would ask people to look at my record, my track record over many, many years where I have fought for the powerless against the powerful,” Starmer, 57, responds. After studying law at Leeds, Starmer worked at Doughty Street Chambers, becoming a QC in 2002. During that time, Starmer worked to abolish the death penalty in Commonwealth countries, represented the MI5 whistleblower David Shayler and the McLibel activists in the longest case in English legal history, and even persuaded a Salisbury court to let the druid Arthur Pendragon swear on his sword, Excalibur, in lieu of a Bible.
One of his cases involved a woman in Trinidad who was sentenced to death for poisoning her husband’s curry. She was waiting to hang when Starmer took her on. “We managed to overturn the penalty of death on her and she was ultimately released from prison, at which point she wrote to me to thank me, and said she would cook me a meal next time I was in Trinidad,” he laughs. “I haven’t taken her up on that just yet.”
After his human rights work, he was appointed Director of Public Prosecutions in 2008. His legacy as DPP can be read both ways: Starmer introduced a merits-based approach for rape cases and helped secure justice for the family of Stephen Lawrence, but he also prosecuted benefits cheats, a move some have criticised for feeding into a right-wing moral panic. When I ask him about it, he’s defensive. “As DPP you don’t personally pick the cases you want to do… I had 8,000 staff and we were making thousands of decisions.”
So: in his 20s and 30s, Starmer was a bit of a social justice warrior. But the passage of time – and a big job like Director of Public Prosecutions – has a way of mellowing even the Robespierres amongst us. Starmer once edited a left-wing magazine Socialist Alternatives in his youth. (If you haven’t heard of it, that’s because no-one read it.) Does he still consider himself to be a socialist? “I still see myself as a socialist,” he insists. “Whether I still agree with everything I did or said in my 20s is another matter… You gain experiences as you go along, but I would still call myself a socialist.”
In person, Starmer projects a sort of high-functioning competence. He knows who I am before we meet and remembers personal details about me that have been mentioned to him by his team. Aides say that they never worry about sending him into interviews, because he doesn’t come unstuck. The worst thing people will say about him is that he’s earnest, a bit of a swot. Starmer once didn’t notice he was being burgled, because he was engrossed in his books. (“I was living in a very grotty flat in north London where you could open the front door with a credit card,” he says. “I was busily studying away, and my flatmate came back half an hour later having just met two people walking out with our telly.”)
Starmer is the clear favourite, projected to win an outright majority in the first round of voting. He lacks the wild charisma of a Blair or an Obama, and his public speaking can be lacklustre, although of late he’s demonstrated more vim. (Starmer’s performance in the Channel 4 leadership debate was noticeably peppier than his stiff 2019 conference speech.) But being dull isn’t necessarily a bad thing: by 2024, the public may well have had enough of Johnson’s crumpled bonhomie, and favour an officious bureaucrat who can knock things into shape. His campaign has been part-crab-walk between the right and left wings of the party, part masterclass in saying as little as possible other than the word “unity,” which he utters approximately 8,000 times a day, at hustings across the country.
As the Tories demonstrated in 2019, keeping your head down and not saying much is better than belching new policies constantly. But the problem with glomming up on the campaign trail is that it makes people worried about all the things you aren’t saying. Starmer wants to be all things to all people: the moderate voice of reason and the person to uphold Corbyn’s legacy. His leadership pledges are pretty radical: abolishing tuition fees and Universal Credit, and renationalising rail, mail, energy and water. To further allay Momentum concerns, Starmer has recruited former Corbyn lieutenants Kat Fletcher and Simon Fletcher to work on his leadership team.
But when I ask him whether he’ll commit to upholding Corbyn’s policy commitments in a 2024 Labour manifesto, he equivocates. “What Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell have brought to our country in the last few years is making us more comfortable with [a] radical vision,” he says. “But the 2017 and 2019 manifestos were different under different leaders, because things change… Our movement has to forge that programme for 2024, and of course it will be different, because it’s got to face the late 2020s and 2030s. [But] that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be radical.”
Some Corbynistas are reassured – in a major coup, Starmer was endorsed by Laura Parker, Momentum’s former national coordinator. But most aren’t. Some commentators speculate that the forthcoming EHRC report on antisemitism, due later this year, would give Starmer cover to purge Momentum figures from Labour’s National Executive Committee, under the guise of cleaning house. Others believe that Starmer will shunt Labour to the centre ground if – when – he wins. They look at Starmer, and see another Blair in the making.
“I think bandying tags and descriptions around and dividing ourselves is a very bad thing,” Starmer says. “People constantly ask me, ‘Are you Ed Miliband, are you Tony Blair, are you Jeremy Corbyn, are you Gordon Brown?’... I don’t want to be a past Labour leader, I want to be the next Labour leader, and I think that means putting some of those labels on one side and asking ourselves what somebody is saying, and where do they want to take us.
“In the last few years, too often we’ve said, ‘What bit of the party are you from?’, rather than, ‘What are you saying? I think if we dropped the first question and said, ‘What are you saying?’, we’d make real progress.”
Part of the problem is that, no matter what Starmer says and does, the optics aren’t great. Labour has never had a female leader in its history; the Tories have had two. Starmer looks like the actor you’d pick to play the PM in a BBC primetime drama – if that drama was made in the 90s. (Of course, to many voters, the fact that he is a white middle-aged man may be a bonus.)
It doesn’t get much more establishment than his knighthood, awarded in 2014 for services to law and criminal justice – no matter how much Starmer tries to play it down. When Starmer appeared on Good Morning Britain, Piers Morgan pointedly referred to him as “Sir Keir Starmer” throughout.
To many voters, Starmer is just another sharp-suited Remainer lawyer who doesn’t understand the north, let alone know how to win it back. He has tried to counter this characterisation of himself as a metropolitan yuppie by carefully emphasising his working-class roots. (Starmer’s father was a toolmaker and his mother worked for the NHS – both have now passed away.) When I ask him about the false impression many have of Starmer as the privately-educated son of middle-class professionals, he becomes more animated than at any other point during our interview.
“The idea that a person who’s been in a professional career for years – in his 50s – now has to tell people what his mum and dad did, is odd,” he says, leaning forward. “I stopped telling people what my mum and dad did when I left school! …But I have to tell people my dad worked in a factory and my mum was a nurse, because otherwise people assume that I was probably the son of a judge or diplomat or something. It shouldn’t be this way. Most other people don’t do that. In other walks of life people don’t go around telling each other what their mum and dad did, or feeling like they have to legitimise themselves.”
The scale of challenge facing Labour at the next election is huge. No British political party has ever come back from this position to win an outright majority. Would Starmer consider making an electoral pact with the Lib Dems? “I don’t believe in electoral pacts,” he responds. “I think we need to stand Labour party candidates and fight the next general election as the Labour party.”
Left-wing political parties have always faced an existential dilemma: head or heart? Support the candidate you believe in, or the one you think is electable? Many Labour voters will be pondering their ballot papers with something akin to dismay. They will be thinking that it would be nice to have a female leader or a more radical candidate – but not if it means another decade of Tory government. To many members, that may be reason enough to vote for Starmer.