Keir Starmer: Just who is the Labour leader? – Susan Dalgety

Keir Starmer is an experienced administrator who understands how the country works in contrast to multi-millionaire tech geek Rishi Sunak

Sixty years ago, a Sunday Express columnist asked rather plaintively: “I wish someone would tell me who Harold Wilson is?” Within months, Labour’s pipe-smoking, Yorkshire-born, Oxford-educated leader had won the first of four general elections.

History is still divided on Wilson’s legacy, but he remains Labour’s most successful leader, and in some ways its most enigmatic. Until now, that is. As the 2024 general election fast approaches, there is a chorus of commentators, party members and voters asking who is Keir Starmer, the man who would be Prime Minister.

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People who had never met Tony Blair or Gordon Brown felt they knew them. In the run-up to 1997, Blair the bright young lawyer epitomised a brave new world, while his sidekick Brown was the dour, Presbyterian bean-counter who would make sure there was money to pay for Blair’s vision of a New Britain. Most people, unfairly perhaps, thought Ed Miliband was a bit of a geek, and Jeremy Corbyn never hid who he was – a mildly eccentric left winger who was promoted way beyond his abilities.

Labour leader Keir Starmer is a bit of a mystery to many people (Picture: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)Labour leader Keir Starmer is a bit of a mystery to many people (Picture: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)
Labour leader Keir Starmer is a bit of a mystery to many people (Picture: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

No optimism, no twinkle

But Starmer? Who is he? I know people who have sat in long party meetings with him. Others who work alongside him in Westminster. They all shrug and say: “I don’t really know him, he gives nothing away.” And many party members, desperate to believe in the possibility of a Labour government again, ask plaintively: “What is his vision? What does he stand for? Who is he?”

Journalist and former Labour party communications director Tom Baldwin has just attempted to answer that question in an authoritative, if not authorised, biography of 61-year-old Starmer. The front cover offers no clues… or perhaps it does. The workmanlike title, Keir Starmer: The Biography, sums up the man Baldwin reveals inside. No frills. But it is the photography chosen to ‘sell’ the book that intrigues.

It’s a close-up image of Starmer, looking every wrinkle of his age, melancholy even. There is no optimism, no twinkle in his eye. Just a very serious man auditioning for a very serious job. Only the ghost of a quiff suggests a different Starmer, a man who, as Baldwin reveals, loves Northern Soul, pubs and football.

When I read of young Starmer’s love of Northern Soul – a music and dance movement that emerged in the north of England in the 1970s – the flat-top haircut he sported while at Leeds University and beyond, and his obsession with football, I suddenly recognised him. Even his flirtation with Pabloite Marxism, named after Michel Pablo, a Greek Trotskyist who believed socialism should be built from the bottom-up, not decided by a central state, made sense.

Building a better world

I knew of young men in the 1980s who believed the same. They were hardly revolutionaries, often from modest backgrounds like Starmer’s, all desperately seeking an alternative to Margaret Thatcher and the cult of monetarism that had destroyed so many of their parents’ lives.

And his dedication to human rights, as a lawyer and as a political activist, chimed with me. Those of us who joined the Labour party in the 1980s, not through the trade union movement or family ties, but because we wanted to build a better world, believed fervently in social and economic justice for all – whether a single parent struggling on a low wage in a Scottish housing scheme, or a young man on death row in Malawi. Yes, the class struggle mattered, it still does, but traditional Labour had little to say to those of us who grew up outside its industrial heartlands. Interestingly, Starmer was raised in a small village.

Perhaps the most telling period of Starmer’s career for me is not his successful seven-year spell as director of public prosecutions, but his role as an advisor to the Northern Ireland Policing Board. For five years from 2002, he spent time every month in Belfast, working alongside the men and women of the newly named Police Service of Northern Ireland, helping them build a service that better served both the Catholic and Protestant communities, torn apart by the 30-year-long Troubles.

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There can be no putative Prime Minister who understands better the complex make-up of the United Kingdom. A country where regional and national differences matter, yet one where a shared history, common culture and single economy mean we are bound together, even during the worst of times.

Best qualified candidate for the job

As I neared the end of Baldwin’s book, I found myself, if not warming to Starmer, at least beginning to recognise who he was and what had shaped him. As an outspoken advocate for women’s sex-based rights, I still cannot forget his ridiculous response to the question “can a woman have a penis?” He adopted what I presume was a human rights lawyerly position and argued that “of course” 99.9 per cent do not, but that there is a "very small number" of people who identify as a different gender to the one they were born. How I wish the leader of the Labour party had simply said “no”. But I am more optimistic about the prospect of his premiership than I was even a week ago.

Why? Because, objectively, Starmer is the best qualified candidate for Prime Minister in recent history – from any party. He was neither a student politician, nor an ambitious special adviser. Instead, he had a very full and successful career before becoming an MP in 2015, when he was 51. His disdain for the gossipy side of politics, which many love, is an advantage for a leader who will need to focus all his energies on rebuilding the economy and public services.

His practical pragmatism and downbeat oratory may not get the comrades’ hearts racing, but faced with a choice between Rishi Sunak, a multi-millionaire tech geek who seems uncomfortable in Number 10, and Starmer, an experienced administrator who understands how the country works – and where it doesn’t – there is only one man fit for the job. But is Downing Street ready for soul and funk all-nighters?



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