Keir Starmer: The Outsider

May 25 2024 / The Sunday Times

Keir Starmer has been leader of the opposition since 2020 but remains largely unknown in the country. Who is he really and what does he want? You hear that questioned asked a lot.

Starmer is not considered a leftist crank like Jeremy Corbyn, who led Labour to its worst defeat since 1935 at the 2019 general election, but he remains opaque and his personal ratings are poor, much worse than those of the party he is expected lead to victory on 4 July. He is respected by many of his MPs but does not inspire devotion. There are Starmer loyalists in the Parliamentary Labour Party but no followers, intellectual outriders or cheerleaders, no Starmerites.

What are his politics, I’m often asked. Is he a Blairite? A patriotic social democrat in the model of Clement Attlee, Labour’s great reforming leader who as a young soldier was at Gallipoli and was later Winston Churchill’s deputy in the wartime coalition? A shrewd and ruthless tactician like Harold Wilson? The John Smith of our times?

The truth is he is all of these and none of them. He lacks a coherent politics and follows, as one former aide puts it, “a kind of what works pragmatism, taking each problem and issue as it comes along”.

“The Keir I know — and I’ve known a lot of politicians in my time — really has the most uncanny ability to cut straight to core of the problem,” David Lammy, the shadow foreign secretary, told me recently when we were together in Washington DC. “I’ve seen him do this right from the start and the fact we are even talking about a Labour government is the result.”

That Labour people struggle to find an appropriate label for Starmer and therefore to locate him in a tradition offers a clue to both his success and essential mystery, his ultimate unknowability. Even when he’s trying to be warm – and he tries - there is a coldness about him, an innate reserve. He does not trust easily, and his closest friends, often old football friends (he has an Arsenal season ticket), are not Labour or Westminster apparatchiks. And he has an aversion to being defined politically. He has a first-rate lawyer’s mind but is not a serious reader or political thinker. I once mentioned John Bew’s excellent biography of Clement Attlee to him but he seemed uninterested.

By contrast, Margaret Thatcher, who was supremely intelligent and deeply interested in history and ideas, once pulled FA Hayek’s The Constitution of Liberty from her handbag, as the story has it, and declaimed: “This is what we believe!”

Starmer has no such book or philosophical lodestar.

He served in Corbyn’s shadow cabinet until the very end and ran for the party leadership from the left. Many of the ten pledges he made back then – including the nationalisation of public services and open-ended tax rises on the rich - would have fitted well in Michael Foot’s 1983 Labour election manifesto, the so-called longest suicide note in history.

The left loathe Starmer for his equivocations and supposed betrayals but his positioning for the leadership was tactical: no enemy of Corbyn or the left would have won control of the party at that point. Starmer’s campaign manager, Morgan McSweeney, a brilliant strategist and now campaign director, understood this and the plan was always to move to the centre. Or, as McSweeney would have it, where the voters are.

The Tories will concentrate their attack on Starmer’s untrustworthiness and the way he jettisons his pledges and policies. But that won’t bother him because power is the “object of the exercise”, as he says, and the project, as he told his biographer, Tom Baldwin, is to return Labour “to the service of working people in working-class communities”.

To understand Starmer better, then, consider him an outsider. He is not a red prince like the Miliband brothers or Hilary Benn: his father was a toolmaker, who “always felt undervalued because he worked in a factory”, and his mother a nurse, who suffered from chronically poor health. Nor is he a product of the Labour Party like Rachel Reeves, who was marked out as a future chancellor of the exchequer as a young economist at the Bank of England and nurtured accordingly, or the trade union movement like Angela Rayner.

He is not a member of what George Osborne calls the “guild” of professional politicians, the bright young men and women, invariably Oxford PPE graduates, who start their careers as special advisors and are fast-tracked into safe seats. He has not “worked his way up from the inside, floor by floor” as the former Tory MP Nicholas Boles once said of his old friend David Cameron.

Starmer came late to Westminster politics, aged 52, having been a civil liberties lawyer and, for five years until 2013, director of public prosecutions (DPP). And from the beginning his ambition was clear: he wanted to be prime minister.

“I’ve got to do Kinnock and Blair’s job in one term,” Starmer told me over breakfast in a near-empty restaurant in central London in the summer of 2021. Labour was trailing abjectly in the polls after the Covid pandemic and Starmer was struggling to define himself and be heard. But he knew what he had to do: reform the party and return it to the moderate centre-left, or centre, as Kinnock did while still losing two general elections, and then win, as Blair did so emphatically in 1997. And all in one term. Good luck with that, Sir, I thought as we parted.

And yet something has stayed with me from that encounter – a sense of Starmer’s complete self-belief. This guy thinks he’s good, not just good but better than the rest. What does he know? I have often wondered. What does he see in himself that others don’t?

In Washington, Lammy spoke to me about the desolation he felt during the long Labour civil war, from 2015-19. He recalled standing outside parliament protesting against what had happened to Labour under Jeremy Corbyn. “It was one of the lowest periods of my political life,” he said. “One of the reasons I co-chaired Keir’s leadership campaign was because I knew he would clean us up and get rid of antisemitism. He would change Labour.” (Starmer’s wife, Victoria, or “Vic”, a former solicitor, is Jewish; they have two school-age children and attend the Liberal Jewish Synagogue in St John’s Wood.)

Starmer has cleaned up Labour. And yet, in many ways, his range is limited. He’s not charismatic or a compellingly fluent speaker like Tony Blair. As he prepared for power, Blair had a vision for the country he wanted to lead and told a story about a “new” Britain that under his leadership would be modern, progressive, meritocratic, optimistic, open to the world. He wanted nothing less than to bring about a shift in national consciousness. “I want us to be a young country again,” he said in a 1995 conference speech, by which he meant unburdened by the past and unconstrained by “the forces of conservatism”.

Starmer doesn’t think or speak like that. He does not believe progress is inevitable as Blair does: it must be fought for and defended. On social and cultural matters, he is a liberal but not an ultra-liberal. You could call him a pre-woke progressive. On crime, defence and security, he is a soft authoritarian. His worldview is darker and more pessimistic than Blair’s. Like Lammy and Reeves, he is a foreign policy realist who believes the world is what it is and not what many on the left believe or wish it to be. He will not be soft on defence and security as Rishi Sunak claims.

Starmer has done many things well since becoming Labour leader, not least attempting to banish the scourge of antisemitism from the party and, after a false start, empowering Reeves to lead on economic policy. But he lacks political imagination and makes mistakes. His initial response to the war in the Gaza, especially his hapless LBC interview, enraged his party. The fall-out continues and those Labour MPs with large Muslim minorities in their constituencies fear the election campaign will be nastier and more toxic than it might have been before George Galloway returned to parliament after winning the Rochdale by-election. “The Gaza war and Keir’s handling of it have been a disaster for us,” one senior Muslim Labour MP told me.

Despite his flaws, Starmer’s cautious, pragmatic style seems well suited to these times. His instincts are conservative, he retains a class consciousness rooted in his working-class upbringing and he and McSweeney are ruthlessly focussed on voters not Labour activists. He and Reeves know that the era of open borders and free-market globalisation championed by Blair and the Cameroons finally died on the battlefields of Ukraine. Are they prepared for what comes next as the world is remade around geopolitical risk and threats of war?

At the 2019 general election Labour was routed in many of its former working-class constituencies in the Midlands and north of England, the Red Wall heartlands. A new cross-class, pro-Brexit coalition carried Boris Johnson’s Conservatives to a landslide victory. Labour was broken and lethally divided. What some thought was a permanent realignment of British politics proved transitory, however. Labour is poised to win again.

But reaching 10 Downing Street is easier than staying there through governing well as Johnson, Liz Truss and Sunak know to their cost. For Keir Starmer, therefore, the most demanding test of political leadership is yet to begin. Is he ready and are we ready for him?