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Book review: Keir Starmer: The biography by Tom Baldwin

10 May 2024

Anthony Phillips reads the life of the lawyer who is party leader

AS TOM BALDWIN points out in this first-rate unauthorised study, Sir Keir Starmer’s working-class background is all important. The now highly successful lawyer and politician knows what poverty is like: a shabby house, bills unpaid, the phone cut off. Life in the three-bedroomed “pebble-dashed semi” was never easy for its six occupants: Starmer’s parents and their four children. Life was both complicated and complex.

Their overbearing father laid down rules for the children. Meals were eaten in silence while he read his newspaper. When, at last, a television was purchased, they were not allowed to watch those popular programmes that other children enjoyed and discussed next day at school. There was never a bond between father and Keir until, after his father’s death, Starmer discovered and admitted that each loved the other. In his funeral eulogy, Starmer described his father as “a difficult sod”, with which other mourners agreed.

Starmer’s mother suffered from an acute form of Still’s disease, a kind of rheumatoid arthritis usually found only in elderly people. She was told she would never have children or walk again; she did both. But she was in constant pain, had many operations, with one leg amputated, in a wheelchair, and unable to communicate. But, during years of suffering, she never complained.

Having passed his 11-plus, Starmer entered Reigate Grammar School before it became independent. He was popular, a successful all-rounder, skilled at sport, as well as music and acting. Football would become a lifelong obsession: both watching and playing. He was the first in his family to go to university — Leeds, to read law. His hard work resulted in a first-class degree and the realisation that what interested him most was international relations and human rights.

A year at Oxford for a BCL allowed him to dabble in somewhat obscure left-wing politics before entering the Middle Temple to train and then practise as a barrister. Throughout the book, all comment on his phenomenal ability for hard work — so much so that he remained buried in his books while two burglars were carrying off his flat’s television and video recorder. It was at this time that Starmer committed himself to regularly supporting Arsenal and became a fish-eating vegetarian.

Baldwin goes on to describe Starmer’s long legal career, starting in Geoffrey Robertson’s Doughty Street Chambers and culminating in his surprise appointment as Director of Public Prosecutions. This was not a natural translation for a defence lawyer, particularly one who had specialised in human rights. Nor were they altogether easy years, as Starmer’s integrity could be subject to attack, something about which he was especially sensitive. Happily, they were made less stressful by his falling in love, marriage, and children.

Keir StarmerNicknamed “Captain Marvel”, the football-loving Keir Starmer leads Homerton Academicals to a cup triumph in 1997. From the book

At the end of his widely appreciated five years as DPP, Starmer felt that, instead of interpreting and implementing the law, he wanted to make it. He sought selection as the Labour candidate for his home constituency of Holborn and St Pancras. He expressed his motive as “a burning desire to tackle inequality and injustice, to stand up for the powerless against the powerful. That’s my socialism.”

With meticulous planning, Starmer set about becoming an MP and then, after Labour’s disastrous defeat under Corbyn, leader of the party immediately confronting the anti-Semitism crisis within it, which culminated in the expulsion of his predecessor. It is a sad story, but it shows Starmer’s grit. Dark days followed, and, with the loss of the Hartlepool by-election, Starmer even contemplated early resignation.

Baldwin then recounts how, despite the mumblings of discontent about a lack of vision, and a charge of being boring, Starmer has, in Tony Blair’s words, “taken the party back from the brink of extinction” to the possibility of forming the next government. He concludes by spelling out the frenzied activity in which Starmer and his team are now engaged as they prepare for that outcome, so that, from day one, they will be ready to act.

In his introduction, Baldwin describes Starmer as “both extraordinary and very ordinary”. Paradoxically, this is perhaps no bad thing for a man widely regarded as a Prime Minister in waiting.

Canon Anthony Phillips is a former headmaster of The King’s School, Canterbury.

Keir Starmer: The biography
Tom Baldwin
William Collins £25
Church Times Bookshop £22.50

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