From courtroom to Downing Street: Keir Starmer, humble lawyer, on the cusp of power

Keir Starmer, the leader of Britain’s Labour Party, nodded sympathetically as a young mother recounted in graphic detail how she had watched closed-circuit television footage of her 21-year-old son being fatally stabbed to death, his heart pierced by a single blow.

“Thank you for that,” a somber Mr Starmer told the wife and other relatives of knife attack victims as they gathered around a wooden table last week to discuss ways to tackle violent crime. “It really is very, very powerful.”

It was not the most feel-good campaign event for a candidate in the week before an election in which his opposition party is widely expected to win. But it was entirely in character for Mr Starmer, a 61-year-old former human rights lawyer who still behaves less like a politician than a prosecutor prosecuting a case.

Sincere, intense, practical and not overly charismatic, Mr. Starmer is on the cusp of a potential landslide victory without the star power that has marked previous British leaders on the threshold of power, whether it was Margaret Thatcher, the free-market champion of the 1980s, or Tony Blair, the avatar of “Cool Britannia.”

And yet Mr Starmer has achieved a similar political feat: less than a decade after entering parliament and less than five years after his party suffered its worst election defeat since the 1930s, he has transformed Labour with ruthless efficiency into an electable party, pulling the party to the centre on key policy issues while exploiting the shortcomings of three Conservative prime ministers.

“Don’t forget what they did,” Mr Starmer said at a rally in London on Saturday, walking across the stage in an ironed white shirt with the sleeves rolled up. “Don’t forget the party gate, don’t forget the Covid contract, don’t forget the lies, don’t forget the kickbacks.”

By reciting this parade of Conservative scandals and crises, he got the crowd of 350 to its feet. But it was a rare moment of fire, one that captures the enigma of Mr Starmer.

The polls, which predict his party will win a lopsided majority in parliament on Thursday, also suggest he is unpopular with British voters, who are struggling to warm to a man who appears less comfortable in the political arena than in the courtroom where he excelled.

“He doesn’t do the performative side of politics,” said Tom Baldwin, a former Labour Party adviser who has published a biography of Mr. Starmer. While other politicians strive for lofty rhetoric, Mr. Starmer talks earnestly about practical problem-solving and putting building blocks together.

“Nobody’s going to see that,” Mr. Baldwin said. “It’s boring. But in the end, maybe you’ll see he built a house.”

Jill Rutter, a former senior civil servant who is a researcher at the London-based research group UK in a Changing Europe, said: “He has been ferocious – some would say dull – in his field. He won’t set any pulses racing, but he does look relatively Prime Ministerial.”

Mr Starmer grew up in a working-class family in Surrey, outside London, and his childhood was not easy. His relationship with his father, a toolmaker, was distant. His mother, a nurse, suffered from a debilitating illness that took her in and out of hospital. Mr Starmer became the first in his family to graduate, first from Leeds University and then from Oxford Law School.

His household was left-wing. Mr Starmer was named after Keir Hardie, the Scottish trade unionist and first Labour leader. He later recalled that as a teenager he wished he had been called Dave or Pete.

As a young barrister, Mr Starmer represented protesters accused of libel by fast-food chain McDonald’s, rose to become Britain’s chief prosecutor and was knighted. Even then, he used his legal brains to persuade judges rather than courtroom theatrics to influence juries, a reputation that followed him into politics.

Boris Johnson, the former Prime Minister, who debated him in Parliament, once called him “Captain Crasheroonie Snoozefest.”

Mr Starmer may not have his rival’s smooth one-liners, but he turned his forensic skills on the scandal-scarred Mr Johnson, helping to expose the falsehoods he told about Downing Street parties held during the Covid lockdowns.

When Conservatives questioned whether Mr Starmer had also broken lockdown rules by drinking a pint and eating an Indian takeaway with colleagues in April 2021, he vowed to resign if police found him guilty. He was acquitted — an event allies said demonstrated his strict adherence to the rules and was a stark contrast to the Conservative Party leadership.

But Mr Starmer’s political compromises have raised questions about his approach. He served the left-wing former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, taking charge of Brexit policy at a time when many of the party’s moderates refused to join his team.

When Corbyn stepped down after losing in 2019, Starmer positioned himself as his successor, winning on a platform that contained enough of Corbyn’s policies to satisfy the then-powerful left wing of the party.

Once elected, however, Mr. Starmer seized control of the party machinery and staged a remarkable pivot to the political center. He dropped Mr. Corbyn’s proposal to nationalize Britain’s energy sector, promised not to raise taxes on working families and pledged to support the British military, hoping to banish an anti-patriotic label that had been attached to Labour during the Corbyn era.

Mr Starmer has also stamped out the anti-Semitism that infected the party’s ranks under Mr Corbyn. Although he has made no connection between that and his personal life, his wife, Victoria Starmer, comes from a Jewish family in London.

Mrs Starmer, who works as an occupational health specialist for the National Health Service, is occasionally on the campaign trail. The couple have two teenage children, whose privacy they fiercely guard. In keeping with his wife’s heritage, the family sometimes observes Jewish traditions in the home.

In banning Mr Corbyn, Mr Starmer showed a ruthless side. He even blocked Mr Corbyn from standing for his seat as a Labour candidate, even though he is campaigning as an independent. Mr Starmer’s aides have tightly controlled the list of candidates allowed to stand for parliament, filtering out other candidates seen as too left-wing.

Allies of Mr Starmer say he is aware of his limitations and is working hard to address them. Although not a natural speaker, his speeches have improved since his early days in parliament, when one critic compared his delivery to “an audience at a literary festival listening to a reading by T. S. Eliot.”

And yet the reputation for being boring persists.

“How does Keir Starmer energise a room?” Gillian Keegan, the Education Secretary, recently asked, before delivering her punchline: “He’s leaving it.”

The criticism is painful. “He doesn’t like the boring label,” Mr. Baldwin said. “Nobody likes to be called boring; he really doesn’t like it.”

Mr Starmer’s friends describe a man with a sense of humour, a healthy family life and genuine passions outside politics. Despite knee surgery, he still plays football regularly and competitively (often booking the pitch and selecting the team). He is a keen fan of Arsenal, the football club based not far from his north London home.

In some ways, Mr Starmer has been helped by his relatively recent arrival in parliament. He was not mired in the internal feuds of previous Labour governments or tainted by loyalties to former leaders such as Gordon Brown and Mr Blair, although he and Mr Starmer now have a blossoming relationship.

There are downsides, too. There are relatively few Starmer loyalists prepared to fight him in a trench. The same lack of passion applies to many voters. They may find Labour less objectionable than it was under Mr Corbyn, but that doesn’t mean they cast their votes with enthusiasm.

“Keir Starmer’s goal was to stop giving people reasons to vote against Labour, and he’s been very successful in doing that,” said Steven Fielding, emeritus professor of political history at the University of Nottingham in England. “He’s less good at giving people reasons to vote Labour.”

The same sense of incompleteness hangs over even those who admire Mr Starmer. Despite the many hours Mr Baldwin spent with him researching his biography, he said there was “something unattainable” about the Labour leader. “He’s a very committed person who is not easily trusted,” Mr Baldwin said. “He’s not emotionally diarrhoea.”

As Mr Starmer has opened up more about his personal story, his frequent references to his role as “the son of a toolmaker” who grew up in a “shingled semi-detached house” – his modest family home – can seem superficial and even robotic.

“He doesn’t see why he has to expose himself and all his inner workings,” said Mr Baldwin, who said he sometimes struggled to get more than monosyllabic answers from Mr Starmer to personal questions. He recalled once asking him to elaborate on his feelings about an incident that had troubled him.

The answer was terse, direct and of little help. “I was,” Mr Starmer said, according to his biographer, “‘very upset.'”

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