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Keir Starmer by Tom Baldwin — Labour’s not so accidental leader

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One of the most common criticisms of Keir Starmer among those in and around Westminster is that the Labour party leader is not very political. It is a peculiar line to take about a man who is odds-on favourite to be UK prime minister before the end of the year. And yet this assessment runs all the way up to his party’s deputy leader Angela Rayner, who describes her boss as “the least political person I know in politics”.

This quote from a new biography of Starmer sums up the central mystery of the man who eludes his allies and his enemies. One minor example perfectly captures what political professionals would see as his shortcomings. Just minutes before he spoke to a National Farmers Union conference last year, the man routinely depicted as a north London lawyer mused to his staff: “Did you know my first job was on a farm. Is it worth me mentioning that?”

Starmer is, for a politician, a rather puzzling figure. He does not want to talk about his “back story”. He does not really “do” emotion. He is not politically performative and apparently does not instinctively see all the angles. A style that allies see as methodical and lawyerly is viewed by critics as overly deliberative. Nor can he be easily placed in any one of the Labour party’s many factions.

More important is the lack of clarity of what he would do as premier. His positions have shifted over time, not least over Europe, and voters are left wondering how leftwing this once young radical will be. Is he a leftie lawyer of caricature or a securocrat? If he wins, it will be with a vague policy agenda.

But if all this fosters among some the notion of an almost accidental leader, what you cannot help noticing as you pore over Tom Baldwin’s highly readable biography Keir Starmer is just how many of the accidents turned out to the Labour leader’s advantage. 

Starmer is a shadow Brexit secretary who uses a party conference speech to become the de facto leader of Labour’s Remainers at a moment when it is clear that being so could be a moderate’s only pathway to the leadership. Later, as leader he effectively expels his predecessor, the hard-left Jeremy Corbyn, when the latter refuses to toe the new party line on antisemitism. Both incidents were, according to Baldwin, unplanned until they were almost upon Starmer. And yet each has proved essential to his success. Perhaps Starmer does not think 10 chess moves ahead, but once he has decided his gambit, those who try to test his conviction find out he is more ruthless than they expected.

Even so, the calculation is there. Unlike most of his current allies, Starmer joined Corbyn’s shadow cabinet in 2016. His key political insight was that the next leader would not be one who had refused to serve under Corbyn. In the words of one old ally, he “relentlessly moves in only one direction. He never goes backwards.” 

Starmer on a visit to a housing estate in north London in 2018, with (from left) shadow home secretary Diane Abbott, head of Camden council Georgia Gould and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn © Getty Images

Starmer’s lack of ideological baggage frustrates those trying to understand the man. Baldwin’s book, the first serious and semi-official biography, will be scoured by those trying to get a handle on someone even the author admits he finds “hard to fathom” at times. Baldwin, a Labour-supporting political journalist and former director of communications for the party, has got closer than most, not least because the book began as an autobiography with Baldwin acting as amanuensis until Starmer cooled on the idea. But while this is an overtly sympathetic book, it is no hagiography. 

By far the most interesting chapters are those describing Starmer’s very difficult early life in Oxted, Surrey, the son of a nurse and a toolmaker. His childhood is a story of a chronically and seriously ill mother; a cold, difficult father with time only for his wife. Labour politics ran through the household and many of his values were fixed there, but only after Rodney Starmer’s death in 2018 does Keir discover a scrapbook of all his achievements kept by his proud but uncommunicative father. A cuter politician would make much of this back story yet Starmer has always struggled to play that game, even if he has got more used to this part of the job. 

Starmer as a baby . . .
. . . and as a young boy
In the 1980s, working in his flat above a sauna and massage parlour . . . 
. . . and Starmer the QC, outside the Royal Courts of Justice in London in 2006

Baldwin opens with an account of Starmer dashing to see his dying father in hospital, but when he arrives the future leader finds he has no heartfelt last words or display of affection. The image is clear. A dutiful but emotionally closed man. Those who know Starmer well describe him as gregarious, funny, grounded and football-obsessed, a committed family man who simply separates work from private life. Even so, one can see his father’s impact on his style.

What is clear is that Starmer finds self-advancement easier than self-promotion. With hindsight, his trajectory looks well planned. After university and the Bar, he surprises even close friends by moving from campaigning human rights lawyer to public prosecutor from 2008-13, the job that became the launch pad for his political career (and earned him his knighthood). No doubt he saw how much more can be achieved from the inside but he also used it to build his public profile. His time as DPP is where Baldwin mounts the most active case for the defence over contentious decisions for which Starmer has been criticised.

Then there is another of those happy accidents. A friendship with near north London neighbour Ed Miliband — Labour’s pre-Corbyn leader — paves the way for him to stand for his local constituency. When significant administrative internal party obstacles arise, they are miraculously cleared for him by the leadership. At some point you have to stop writing off good fortune as luck.

From there we watch as Starmer’s hazy political values are hardened and honed by the realities of opposition. For many this shows a lack of principle, not least as he ditches the Corbyn agenda, but allies see it as putting aside the half-formed views of those who do not trouble themselves with implementation, winning or the complexities of power.

In recent weeks and with much reticence, Starmer has watered down Labour’s best-known policy, a proposed £28bn annual investment in clean energy. But again the inner man is visible here. The policy looked increasingly unaffordable and he judged it an obstacle to victory. What is clear from his career is that, while he seeks power for a purpose, his ideals will always be subordinate to the practicalities. He will be a leader elected without clarity on many key positions, but the hope among supporters is that he will become more bold on a range of issues, from Brexit to public spending, as the economy improves.

If Starmer continues to puzzle, Baldwin has peeled back more layers than anyone else. The Labour leader comes across as a man of decency and as much integrity as premier league politics permits. But he is also a man who hates losing, and his defining traits are determination and ambition. We will have to wait till he is in office to discover just how much his ambitions for the country match his expectations of himself.

Keir Starmer: The Biography by Tom Baldwin William Collins £25, 448 pages

Robert Shrimsley is the FT’s UK chief political commentator

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