Labour’s Keir Starmer: ‘If we don’t capture the ambitions of a generation, it doesn’t matter who is leading the party’


Keir Starmer will be on crutches in the House of Commons next week. He says he wishes he could report that he ruptured the ligaments in his left knee making a last-minute tackle that saved his team, but in fact it happened during a kickabout with his young children on a beach in Cornwall. “It’s about as unglamorous a story as you can imagine,” he says. “But on the other hand, it’s bloody painful.”

You can, though, be assured that he won’t let the injury slow him down as he sets about trying to build extrajudicial safeguards into the investigatory powers bill when he leads Labour’s attempts to amend it in committee. Starmer, who was director of public prosecutions until November 2013 and became Labour MP for Holborn and St Pancras last year, is nothing if not driven. As a shadow home office minister, he leads not just on security issues for Labour, but on immigration and refugees, too. “He is, in effect, shadowing three ministers,” one of his colleagues at Westminster tells me admiringly.

When the Labour leadership was being decided last summer, there was a concerted effort on social media to encourage Starmer to stand, and many see him as a future leader. He has the advantage of having had a life before politics – running an organisation, the Crown Prosecution Service, with 8,000 employees; is clever, articulate and photogenic (if, his critics would say, a little wooden); and he is bang in the centre of the party, an old-fashioned social democrat who could potentially mediate between left and right. His odds are 12-1, in case you’re interested.

He also wants to win, and is hating being in opposition. “For better or worse, when I was director of public prosecutions I had to deal with every challenge that came up, and come up with an answer. Being in opposition, you’re not taking the decisions; you’re saying what you would do if you were in power, and that’s deeply frustrating.” He really did think Labour would win the last election: he believed the opinion polls and what he now calls his “delusion” was cemented by the support he was receiving in his constituency, Frank Dobson’s old seat, where Labour’s majority rose from 10,000 to 17,000. “In those final weeks on my patch, it looked as if we were getting better results, so the exit poll was crushing.”

The downside of entering politics late – he is 53 – is that you don’t have much time to make your mark, a window of 10 or 15 years, perhaps. Already it looks as if the first five of those will be spent in opposition, and that’s hard to stomach. “Part of the reason I moved from law to politics was an increasingly profound belief that how we rebuild after the 2008 crash is going to define us for a generation. The unwritten contract that was agreed after the second world war is being unpicked.” And there’s nothing he or his party can do about it.

Starmer comes from a working-class background – his father was a toolmaker, his mother a nurse – and he is angry that the social mobility that was taken for granted in the 1960s and 70s has now congealed. “My parents didn’t have the opportunities they would have liked, but they didn’t complain about that because they thought they were part of a society where the next generation would have those opportunities. At some point in the last six, seven, eight years, that has changed. Most people now think the next generation will have fewer opportunities.”

He often invokes his Labour-supporting parents, who gave him his values and his socialist name, inspired by Keir Hardie, Labour’s first leader. Though now pleased to be named after the party’s great pioneer, as a teenager growing up in Oxted, Surrey, he was less enamoured of it. “When I was about 13, I thought why couldn’t they have called me Dave or Pete?” He passed the 11-plus, went to Reigate grammar school, and studied law at Leeds and Oxford before becoming a high-flying human rights lawyer and, in 2008, director of public prosecutions.

Despite his meteoric rise in the legal profession and the knighthood he was awarded in the 2014 New Year honours, the lessons imbibed at home have never left him. None of his three siblings went to university, but he says his parents made a point of not singling out his success, instead treating the achievements of all four equally. It was an early lesson in democracy.

Keir Starmer.



Photograph: Graeme Robertson for the Guardian

Starmer gives an emphatic “no” when I ask him if he would have changed his mind about switching careers if he’d known Labour was going to lose. He even tries to look on the bright side. “In many ways, this is one of the most exciting moments in politics. When you’ve lost two elections, you have to think profoundly about what the next radical, bold project [will be] that is going to persuade people to vote Labour.”

In a recent lecture to the Fabian Society, he said that talking to Labour members in his constituency in the run-up to the election had made him aware of the “deep disaffection” in the party – “a feeling that Labour had somehow lost its way and turned into a pale imitation of itself. This was not a simple left/right divide; both those on the left and those on the right of our party were yearning for Labour to be more radical, more confident and, above all, more ambitious.” He admits the party has barely embarked on the road to intellectual rediscovery. “There’s a huge amount of work to be done, and I certainly don’t think you can build the project for tomorrow with yesterday’s answers.”

The unavoidable question – is Jeremy Corbyn the answer? “At the Labour party conference, I said: ‘JC is not the messiah, he hasn’t got all the answers, and if you touch him you’re not healed.’ I said it as a semi-joke, but I did it on purpose because it’s a big mistake to think that bundled up in one person, whether it’s Jeremy or anyone else, are the answers to all the world’s ills and you just have to sit at the feet of that person and wait for the pearls of wisdom. It doesn’t work like that. We’ve got to go forward collectively.”

Starmer says that on many issues there is agreement in the party. “When Jeremy speaks about the way people are employed, the way young people are employed, when he talks about mental health, when he talks about housing, there is a huge consensus. Obviously, there are outlier issues where we’re going to have to find our way forward as a party. The test will be in two or three years’ time when we look at how Jeremy is doing then.”

The most obvious “outlier” is Trident. Starmer, unlike his leader, is a multilateralist, but on pragmatic grounds – he thinks that approach is more likely to make progress in ridding the world of nuclear weapons. “It’s a binary choice and it does divide the party,” he says, “but I don’t think it will split the party. Among all the emotions and reactions in the PLP [parliamentary Labour party] and the party as a whole over the past nine or 10 months, splitting has not been a discussion I’ve ever heard aired. The last time the party split was considered to be so disastrous that people wouldn’t want to go down that route again.”

Starmer backed Andy Burnham for the leadership last year and is far from being a Corbynite, but he has taken a frontbench job and makes a good show of loyalty. He was ranked as “core group plus” in the infamous Corbyn loyalty list, but as with a lot of Labour MPs, his enthusiasm was probably overstated. I’d put him in “neutral but not hostile”. He accepts Corbyn has a big mandate from the members and has to be given a fair crack of the whip, but it is noticeable that he says the judgment on his performance should come around 2018 – ahead of the election – perhaps suggesting that a more electorally potent leader could replace him.

On the other hand, he recognises that the extraordinary revelations in the Panama Papers, allied to the fiasco about cuts to disability payments in the budget and the government’s feeble response to the collapse of the steel industry, have changed the weather in British politics. “What joins those issues together, and this is why the Tories are so worried at the moment, is that it exposes them for what they are, which is two-nation Tories. We should keep hammering that as the Labour party. You particularly see that with the disability benefits. There couldn’t be any more acute exposure of that two-nation approach, where you take from disabled people and you give tax breaks to those with a lot of money. That plays out in steel and it plays out in Panama.”

The circumstances could not be better-suited to Corbyn’s narrative, and Starmer hopes the internecine warfare in the party will now end. “We should get out on the front foot and stop the internal disputes, which are helping nobody. This is an opportunity to do that. We’ve all got to take that, Jeremy included. In fairness, he’s been pretty good in the last week or two on these issues, and has been out quickly, saying things that are important.”

Starmer is coy about his own leadership ambitions. “I don’t have a plan that I want to do this by then or whatever. We spend far too much time talking about personalities. I’m convinced that if we don’t have a project that glimpses the future and captures the ambitions and hopes of a generation, it doesn’t much matter who is leading the party because we’re not going to win.” He says he gave no thought to standing last summer – “I was not even sworn in as an MP when that campaign started up” – but doesn’t rule it out at some point. One thing’s for sure: he’s not in politics to make up the numbers. He is forgoing hundreds of thousands of pounds he could earn as a barrister because he wants to make a difference.

One area where he hopes to make a difference is the investigatory powers bill. Labour has to tread carefully: it can’t allow the government to paint it as soft on terrorism. Starmer thinks his record as DPP will stymie such criticisms. “I spent five years prosecuting some of the most dangerous terrorists in this country, so it would be quite difficult for people to pin the charge of being soft on terrorism on me. The public do want to be properly protected, and that is my position and the party’s position. It’s a case of getting the balance right, and that doesn’t mean we simply yield to everything the security services, law enforcement or the government says it wants.”

With Frank Dobson, canvassing during the 2015 election campaign.



With Frank Dobson, canvassing during the 2015 election campaign. Photograph: Frantzesco Kangaris for the Guardian

Labour abstained on the second reading of the bill, which seemed to many like a cop-out, but Starmer insists it was legitimate. “The problem with voting for the bill at this stage is [that] it’s not fit for purpose; it needs change. Some of the operational powers have not been properly made out; definitions that should be in the bill are not in the bill, they’re in codes of practice; and there are real concerns about internet connection records. So I don’t think it’s right to simply wave it through. On the other hand, if there’s not a new act, the security services will continue to use powers exposed by Edward Snowden but without the safeguards that we now think are appropriate. You need the powers, but they’ve got to be properly administered.”

For Starmer, proper administration means a judge working alongside the home secretary to decide whether communications intercepts are justified. The bill envisages the judge assessing whether the home secretary’s decision was “reasonable”, but Starmer intends to press for an “equal lock”, whereby the judge would assess the case at the same time and a warrant would have to be signed off by both.

Starmer’s other main area of responsibility is immigration policy. It was toxic for the party in 2010 and 2015, and he has been touring the country gathering the views of members, trade unions, business leaders, refugee groups and anyone else who wants to buttonhole him. “There are a number of different positions on immigration both in the country and in our own party, with one group saying there’s nothing wrong with the immigration approach we’ve got now and another group saying no, things have to change. As with all these things, they’ve both got a point. If you look at industry, at business, look at the richness immigration has brought to our communities, then the former are absolutely right. But if you go to Oldham, where it’s very hard to find a skilled job, and then the Home Office subcontracts asylum-seeking contracts to Serco, who decide to put everybody in one small bit of Oldham because it’s very cheap to do so, you get a different readout.”

Readout is a very Starmer word. The problem-solving technocrat who ran the CPS is never far from the surface – hence the accusations of woodenness. It raises the question of whether he would make a good leader, since the public now seems to expect some emotional connection too. Or perhaps, after the lip-quivering Blair and Cameron years, that will change again, and unalloyed competence will come back into fashion.

Starmer says he is trying to encourage a no-holds-barred debate about the issue, where people inside and outside the party feel able to speak freely. “What Labour has got wrong in the past is that where people have voiced a concern about immigration, we have walked past the problem, instead of confronting it. If there is a feeling that there are certain conversations we don’t want to have, then we are in the wrong place.” He says that the tour he’s in the middle of – he plans, knee permitting, to visit 20 towns all over the UK – will eventually produce a report from which a new party policy on immigration will emerge. If he can detoxify the issue for Labour and head off the challenge of Ukip in the north, he will have made a major contribution to the “project” he likes to rattle on about.

The machiavel in me wonders if his grand tour might also serve another purpose. Wherever he goes he is being shown around by a local Labour MP and addressing party members. It is a good way of making contacts and building a party base if he did want to mount a challenge for the leadership. Energetic, inclusive and combative, he could be just the leader to get the party back on its feet – once he’s off the crutches, of course.



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