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The man of the moment: Review of Keir Starmer: The Biography by Tom Baldwin

It was less than two years ago that a pair of journalists had the bad fortune of writing a biography subtitled The Inside Story of the Unexpected Rise of Liz Truss. Possibly with this consideration in mind, Tom Baldwin, author of Keir Starmer: The Biography, has chosen as unboastful a title as possible. This book will not go down in history as the definitive life of Starmer. It has a strong election-campaign flavour; the structure is jumpy and unchronological; and, besides, the only complete biographies are posthumous. All the same, there are enough fresh insights here about the mind and life of our next Prime Minister for it to be essential reading.

Baldwin does his best to humanise Starmer and to deflate the view of him as “Mr Boring”. Friends, family, colleagues and exes all give their perspectives on him. As with any biography of a public figure, the accounts of Starmer’s youth and his often grief-filled personal life will evoke sympathy even in his most hostile critics. He is a man deeply committed to his family, who “cries on… shoulders at funerals”, and whose mother died days before he became an MP. The overall picture of him also benefits from little facets of character, like the football mania which has given him a determination to win at all costs. 

Starmer was a born Labourite. He was named after Keir Hardie; his father was a manual worker who “detested Thatcher”; and, as a sixth-former at the time of the 1979 election, he debated Labour politics against Tory classmates. One of his friends remarked offhand that he was a “future Labour prime minister”. In 1985, when he arrived at St Edmund Hall as a postgraduate, he was suspicious of Oxford’s traditions, and spent all of his time studying. He was only mentioned once in the Oxford Labour Club’s newspaper. 

In 1987, Starmer entered the legal profession, and took up his first case defending a shoplifter by asking “Isn’t all property theft?” (Though, as Baldwin is keen to remind us, “None of this should be taken to mean… that he is reverting to some sort of Marxist ideology”). Starmer was also a keen advocate of human rights and some of his greatest hits as a lawyer include co-authoring a 1,500-page tome on human rights in Africa, and working voluntarily to save Commonwealth prisoners from the death penalty. He also gained a reputation for taking “things a little bit to heart when he feels an injustice has happened. Later, in Parliament, colleagues would again remark on this “genuine instinct for justice”. In 2003, he marched against the Iraq War, maintaining, however, that the invasion was carried out in good faith. Between 2008 and 2013 he had a distinguished career as Director of Public Prosecutions. Baldwin details a few of his most important cases, but the controversial decision to ignore “double jeopardy” and prosecute Stephen Lawrence’s murderers must be Starmer’s finest accomplishment.

Yet after his election to Parliament in 2015, cracks began to appear in this rosy man of integrity. Before he had even arrived in the House of Commons he was being tipped as a possible party leader, though he did not stand, and Jeremy Corbyn won instead. Starmer says now that he knew Corbyn wouldn’t last long as party leader. Indeed, Starmer was so troubled by reports of Labour antisemitism under Corbyn that he almost considered resigning over them. He didn’t resign, of course, and, aside from his own testimony, there is conflicting evidence as to how he really felt at the time. What is certain is that he knew leaving the shadow cabinet would damage his chances of becoming party leader “should a vacancy arise”. 

When he did become Labour leader in 2020, he had two main goals. In rooting out antisemitism, he has succeeded commendably. In removing factionalism, however, his approach has been completely wrongheaded. He has scrapped almost every Labour flagship policy and has adopted as many Conservative ones. It is interesting that he should aim to “return Labour to the service of working-class people” by vowing, for instance, to retain the two-child benefit cap. The overall result has been a widespread sense that the Labour Party no longer stands for anything. 

Starmer is obviously imitating the New Labour playbook, though between him and Tony Blair there is one difference. The old joke about Blair, which was true enough, was that he didn’t believe in anything – but at least he believed in not believing in anything. Long before becoming party leader, Blair was saying that Labour needed to pragmatise and shift itself nearer to the centre-ground in politics. Starmer, on the other hand, has within three years mutated from Corbynism to Blairism. He is worse than a chameleon. The expulsion of Jeremy Corbyn, who was in the Labour Party while Starmer was in the cradle, was emblematic of this ideological shift; and even Baldwin seems tacitly to regret Corbyn’s mistreatment. 

Some have praised Starmer for his “pragmatism” – pragmatism being Latin for the suppression of all left-wingers who disagree with you. It has been overshadowed by the tabloid media’s more trivial smears about Currygate and Mr Boring, but there is definitely a draconian streak in Starmer. In Milton Keynes, a prospective Labour candidate was blocked from standing for Parliament after liking a Tweet that called Starmer a “prat”. In 2021, most likely in order to bolster his own support base, Starmer created new rules for party leadership candidacy, which, if they had been in effect a year earlier, would have disqualified all candidates but himself. His real core – the driven footballer who “hates losing” – is growing more and more visible behind that “man of integrity” persona. How else has the human rights lawyer with a keen sense of justice ended up (“accidentally”) calling for water and energy to be cut off from Gaza?

At one point in the book, someone quotes the maxim: “All political careers end in failure.” In the current context a similar saying is relevant: political leaders always fall for the same reason that they originally rise. There is an obvious truth in this. For example, David Cameron came to power by suppressing the Eurosceptics and extremists in his party, and was ultimately brought down by them. If Starmer does become Prime Minister, he will have done so by expunging an entire ideological wing of his party; and it is very likely that, one day, when his career does end in failure, it will be the Labour left who bring him down.

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