After a decade in the political wasteland, members of Britain’s main opposition Labour Party have chosen a moderate, unflashy lawyer as their new leader. Their hope is that turning the page on the socialist radical Jeremy Corbyn, who was resoundingly rejected by voters last year, will see them re-take power.
Keir Starmer, 57, offers dry competence and seriousness after a turbulent five years under the firebrand Corbyn. At a time when the U.K. is grappling with the global coronavirus crisis and its own exit from the European Union, a steady hand could prove popular.
“Maybe being boringly competent is a magical thing — because we haven’t got many boringly competent politicians at the moment, particularly in government,” said Steven Fielding, a professor at Nottingham University and historian of the Labour party. “People just flock to him like a safety raft from a sinking ship.”
Starmer faces one urgent decision before he embarks on his long-term mission. First he must decide how far he should support Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s strategy for countering the pandemic and how stridently he should speak out against the government’s mistakes. There has been speculation that he could even join a government of national unity to see the country through the crisis, as happened in World War II.
In the years ahead, Starmer’s defining task will be to revive a battered opposition party, broken by its worst election defeat in 80 years, and then persuade Britain’s 47 million voters that he is the prime minister the country needs to put itself back together.
Starmer was born in 1962 in south London to a nurse and a toolmaker. He was the first member of his family to go to an academically selective grammar school. After studying at the universities of Leeds and Oxford he began the 30-year campaigning career in human rights law that would set him up for front-line politics.
He represented peace activists and environmental campaigners, and led a legal challenge against the sinking of an oil rig.
Gavin Millar, a top lawyer who interviewed the young Starmer for a junior position in the late 80s, remembers him as “very radical” with strong views about the law. In a legal world of high intellects, Starmer’s first-rate brain stood out, but so too did his commitment to the protesters and activists fighting the powerful during Margaret Thatcher’s decade of Tory rule.
The two shared an office, where Starmer, who loved indie-pop bands such as The Smiths, was known for working long hours. “I got a lot of two-in-the-morning emails from him,” Millar said.
During the course of Starmer’s legal career, Millar saw him become more measured and less “strident” in his outlook. But, fundamentally, his commitment to social justice remains as strong as ever, Millar said. “I don’t think the passion has changed at all — that is a constant in Keir.”
In 2008, Starmer took on one of the biggest jobs in the justice system, director of public prosecutions and head of the Crown Prosecution Service. Perhaps his biggest case was overseeing the highly controversial and ultimately successful retrial of two men for the murder of black teenager Stephen Lawrence in 1993.
After being given a knighthood — he now prefers not to use the title “Sir” — he was elected as Labour member of Parliament for a London district in 2015. Brexit gave Starmer his big chance in politics.
As Labour’s Brexit spokesman, he was constantly appearing in the House of Commons, picking apart Theresa May’s ill-fated attempt to negotiate a divorce deal with the European Union, and working with like minded opponents of a no-deal split across party lines.
Yet in the 2019 election campaign the Brexit policy he helped Labour to devise was partly responsible for the party’s dire result. He wanted a second referendum that would give the electorate the chance to vote to stay in the EU, but Corbyn declared that Labour would remain “neutral” and would not back either the leave or remain side. Voters wanted to move on and Johnson won with his pledge to “get Brexit done.”
Labour’s 2019 defeat was also a rejection of Corbyn, whose unpopular leadership turned voters off.
Starmer was the favorite to succeed Corbyn from the start, as Labour members apparently decided they needed to put their hopes of winning ahead of any emotioal attachment to the former leader’s old fashioned left-wing ideals.
“It feels to me like a real sea change in the party, a new seriousness,” said Labour MP Stephen Timms, who hosted a phone canvassing event for Starmer in his constituency. “I think Keir is going to be a serious contender for the leadership of the country.”
While the face is different, many of Starmer’s policy pledges were first adopted under Corbyn. They include putting up income tax on top earners and bringing rail, mail, energy and water into common ownership. Starmer has promised to oppose austerity and introduce a compassionate migration system with free movment across the EU.
Labour has now lost four elections in a row and with Johnson sitting on a comfortable 80-seat majority in Parliament, the odds favor a fifth defeat in 2024. Yet the coronavirus pandemic seems certain to reshape the country and shake up politics across the world. There is a chance that when the crisis eventually ends and the next election comes, the country will want new leadership.
“We can only win if we are united and relentlessly focused on the future,” Starmer said in his first rally of the leadership election campaign on Feb. 16. He made it sound easy. In reality, the task he faces is still huge.
The Labour Party remains dysfunctional and unpopular and that must change if it is to defeat Johnson’s Tories, said Tim Bale, a professor of politics at Queen Mary University in London. “There’s clearly a case for some pretty brutal surgery, to the point of actual amputation,” said Bale. “It’s whether he’s prepared to actually wield not only the scalpel but the bone saw.”