Keir Starmer: The methodical lawyer who turned the Labour Party around

The winner of the U.K. election has managed to preserve left-wing unity while repeating Tony Blair’s pivot towards the center

Keir Starmer
Keir Starmer, leader of Britain's Labour party, reacts as he speaks at a reception to celebrate his win in the election, at Tate Modern, in London, Britain, July 5, 2024.Suzanne Plunkett (REUTERS)
Rafa de Miguel

The man chosen by British voters to take the reins of the United Kingdom in the coming years is methodical and calculating, even when it comes to highlighting his humble origins. The team that surrounds Keir Starmer, 61, and the journalists who follow his career, joke about the phrases that the candidate has repeated ad nauseam during the campaign. The two most repeated are: “My dad was a toolmaker” and “our pebble-dash semi.” These memories are not chosen at random. The first recalls an English working class proud of what they produce with their hands. The second, the standard home of any lower-middle class British family.

When Starmer won the leadership of the Labor Party in April 2020, the party was in ruins. His predecessor, Jeremy Corbyn, had suffered a decisive defeat against the Conservative candidate, Boris Johnson, in the 2019 elections.

It was up to the newcomer to put an end to a turbulent and confusing era, in which the party attracted and activated millions of young voters with its radical turn to the left, but in turn, scared away millions of middle-class voters. The way Corbyn then muddled through Brexit — the most important issue facing a generation — also hurt Labour. Starmer, who had been the party’s spokesperson for everything related to Brexit — and the main defender of holding a second referendum — secured the leadership of the party at the worst possible time.

And although he initially promised not to deviate from the radical path opened by his predecessor, the new Labor leader was very clear about how to change the party to focus less on protesting in the streets, and more on aspiring to govern. In just four years, he moved the party’s political proposals towards the center. According to his supporters, it was “21st century” version of the successful path Tony Blair undertook with New Labour.

“After the defeat of 1983 [Margaret Thatcher swept the polls and began a successful second term], we had to go through the leadership of Neil Kinnock, John Smith and, finally, Tony Blair. Fourteen years to reach a position in which we were able to regain power again,” Nick Thomas-Symonds, historian, lawyer, Labour’s shadow secretary of state for international trade, told EL PAÍS a year ago. “Keir Starmer has managed to do it in three years, which is truly remarkable. If you had told me after the 2019 defeat that Labor was going to have a 20-point lead in the polls today, I wouldn’t have believed it.”

A father and a son

Two circumstances help define the human side of a politician whom many call a robot, without the slightest dose of charisma. His mother, Josephine Starmer, suffered most of her life from Still’s Disease, a rare and painful type of inflammatory arthritis that kept her hospitalized for long periods. An unconditional voter of the Labour Party, she died two weeks before her son took a seat in the House of Commons for the first time, in 2015. “The steroids and the disease together towards the last years of her life meant she couldn’t walk, she couldn’t move her limbs, she couldn’t speak,” Starmer said in one interview, where he opened up about his private life. “She’s never spoken to our children and in the end ended up having her leg amputated.”

Married to Victoria Starmer, who works in the National Health Service’s (NHS) occupational health, and father of two children aged 16 and 13, he has until now lived in Kentish Town, north London. At 6 p.m. every Friday, except for unavoidable emergencies, he leaves aside the Labour leadership and acts as father and husband. It’s a positive reminder of a life before politics, although he has always been committed to public service. As a human rights lawyer, he was involved in all the major left-wing litigation against Margaret Thatcher’s neoliberal revolution. The rumor that the writer Helen Fielding was inspired by the young Starmer when she created the character Mark Darcy in Bridget Jones’s Diary has never faded. As head of the Crown Prosecution Service (a position equivalent to that of state attorney general) — which for much of his tenure was under a Conservative government —, he fed the tabloid press and gave himself publicity with headlines purporting to be tough on crime.

British environmental activists Helen Steel, second right, and David Morris, right, discuss with their lawyer Keir Starmer, seated, as they wait for the beginning of their hearing at the European Court for Human Rights Tuesday Sept. 7, 2004, in Strasbourg, eastern France.
British environmental activists Helen Steel, second right, and David Morris, right, discuss with their lawyer Keir Starmer, seated, as they wait for the beginning of their hearing at the European Court for Human Rights Tuesday Sept. 7, 2004, in Strasbourg, eastern France. Christian Lutz (AP)

He has not failed to mention, throughout the campaign, that part of his professional past. It was his way of reminding voters that, deep down, he is a man who respects institutions, law and order, seriousness and rigor. But with a tough left-wing soul, preserved through an academic career of merit — so typical of the United Kingdom —, which took him to grammar school (a public school of excellence, for the best-performing students) of Reigate; later to the University of Leeds (Human Rights) and Oxford (Civil Law), until becoming a lawyer.

The party and the country

Nothing preserves the unity of a political party more than the smell of near victory. Labour’s left wing has not forgiven Starmer for the ruthless way in which he disposed of his predecessor, Corbyn, whom he accused of tolerating antisemitism — accusations he then leveled, slowly and coldly, against all of Corbyn’s allies. But the new leader has been able to control the party and avoid internal rebellions at delicate moments, such as when his initial timid criticism of the Israeli bombings in Gaza sparked many local party members and representatives to resign. Starmer rectified and straightened the course.

“Country first, party second,” he has repeated incessantly these months, every time he has been criticized for a tactical decision disapproved by Labour’s left wing. It was a message to moderate British voters, who have always been suspicious of Labour’s hidden radicalism.

His pragmatism has been useful in overcoming the obstacles of the turbulent years in opposition. He will have to use it to govern, because the general skepticism of the British and the contained anger of the Conservatives are not going to give him a moment of respite.

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