Book review: Keir Starmer: The Biography, by Tom Baldwin

This compelling book sheds much-needed light on the real Keir Starmer, writes Alistair Grant

Keir Starmer’s friends often don’t recognise the politician they see on TV. “There is this enormous gap between Keir the human being and Keir the politician,” says Philippe Sands, the writer and lawyer. Mark Adams, an old school mate, insists there is another side to the Labour leader “which I wish others could see a bit more”.

Tom Baldwin’s new biography, based on interviews with more than a hundred people – including Starmer, his friends, family and closest colleagues – offers a fascinating insight into this other, hidden side. It humanises a figure whose buttoned-up, cautious persona masks a life that has been anything but bland.

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Baldwin admits some will say he is far from an impartial observer. Previously a journalist, he was Labour’s communications director under Ed Miliband. This is not an authorised biography – Starmer had no control over the finished product – but “those hoping to find these pages spattered with blood” are warned they will be disappointed.

An early section dealing with Starmer’s childhood and family life is unexpectedly moving. His mother, Jo, had Still’s disease, a rare form of inflammatory arthritis. His father, Rod – a toolmaker, as we all know – was a difficult man. “I only once remember him saying he was proud of me,” recalls Starmer.

In a sad twist, the Labour leader later finds a scrapbook hidden in a cupboard after his father’s death, filled with newspaper cuttings about his career as a lawyer and MP and written in Rod’s hand. A family friend writes to tell him how proud his father was, even if he couldn’t say it.

At university in Leeds, Starmer drank Snakebite – a mixture of lager and cider – got a sharp new haircut and “learned the shuffles, spins and flips of northern soul dancing”. The latter is hard to picture, but I'll take Baldwin’s word for it. A photo from this time shows the future Labour leader posing with friends wearing eyeliner and a check shirt with its sleeves ripped off. It’s a strong look.

After a first-class law degree, he headed to Oxford and then to London to train as a barrister, where his ferocious capacity for hard work was legendary. One night, two of his flatmates apparently came home to find intruders making off with the TV and video recorder. Starmer was at his desk working, “so buried in his texts, he didn’t notice”.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer PIC: Jeff J Mitchell / Getty ImagesLabour leader Sir Keir Starmer PIC: Jeff J Mitchell / Getty Images
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer PIC: Jeff J Mitchell / Getty Images

In contrast to his dull image, his career as a human rights lawyer is much more interesting than the backstories of many other politicians. As Director of Public Prosecutions from 2008 until 2013, he had overall responsibility for hundreds of thousands of criminal prosecutions in England and Wales every year.

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Starmer says he was motivated to move into politics after seeing “the limits of legal justice”. From 2016, he was the shadow Brexit secretary under Jeremy Corbyn, and in April 2020, in the depths of the first Covid lockdown, he was elected Labour leader.

Since then, he has led the party through a remarkable transformation. He is not a natural orator, and has clearly found it difficult to move beyond his methodical, legalistic approach. But his background has also sharpened his relentless, steely-eyed focus.

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Baldwin’s book paints a picture of a man suspicious of “vision” but driven by what the journalist Paul Mason called a “genuine instinct for justice”; a politician who spurns ideological fixations in favour of a single-minded focus on outcomes, even if that means ditching past pledges. Angela Rayner, his deputy, describes him as “the least political person I know in politics”.

Keir Starmer: The BiographyKeir Starmer: The Biography
Keir Starmer: The Biography

A football-obsessed family man who dislikes playing the Westminster game, it speaks well of Starmer that so many old friends clearly love and admire him.

“I know who I am,” he told a journalist in 2020. “I know what I stand for.” The problem, of course, is that so many voters seem far from sure. This compelling book sheds much-needed light on the real Keir Starmer.

Keir Starmer: The Biography, by Tom Baldwin, William Collins, £25