Authors:Fiona Bawdon
Last updated:2024-03-28
‘Law was never going to be enough’
Marc Bloomfield
Description: Keir Starmer The Biography front cover
Tom Baldwin’s biography of Keir Starmer, published on 29 February 2024 by William Collins, quotes the Labour leader saying: ‘There is no version of my life that does not largely revolve around me being a human rights lawyer.’
That is at least one thing Starmer has in common with his Conservative opponents: they don’t intend to let Starmer – or the voting public – forget about his record as a human rights lawyer, either. On at least two occasions now (to the delight of all at LAG), at prime minister’s questions, Rishi Sunak has waved around a photocopy of the cover of Starmer’s long-out-of-print book, European Human Rights Law (published by LAG in 1999).
As Baldwin says, Tories view the KC’s previous career as ‘a rich seam to mine for evidence of double standards or proof he really is “Sir Softee” – one of those “lefty lawyers” they say represents an existential threat to Britain’s way of life’. Baldwin adds that Starmer’s background was ‘not only the making of him’ but continues to ‘set him apart from some of those in his most recent profession of politics’.
In similar vein, the cover of the book describes Starmer as ‘widely misunderstood’ and ‘a puzzle’. For those who knew the Labour leader in his previous incarnation, he was generally regarded as not just legally brilliant, but approachable and open – generous with his time and expertise. The only mystery about him is why he gave up a career so obviously suited to his talents and temperament for one that seems rather less so. This book provides at least some answers.
According to Baldwin’s account, the move was less handbrake turn and more natural evolution on Starmer’s part. Starmer’s ex-girlfriend and fellow Doughty Street Chambers barrister, Phillippa Kaufmann KC – who lived with him in the late 90s – says: ‘If you’d told me back then that Keir would be prime minister, it wouldn’t have surprised me one bit.’ She adds: ‘Law was never going to be enough for him.’
Baldwin suggests that the seeds for Starmer’s move into politics were sown in his earliest days as a lawyer. The then junior barrister ‘felt at odds with a system in which justice could be sought only for “one individual at a time”’. Starmer cites the example of a paper factory in Ipswich where workers ‘kept getting terrible injuries’: ‘Every time we took the factory to court, the owners would pay out a bit of compensation because it was cheaper for them to do that rather than improve the safety of their dangerous machinery to stop people being hurt in the first place.’
Starmer’s time as director of public prosecutions further crystallised his ambition to become a Labour MP: ‘I saw the limits of legal justice. I wanted to move on from arguing about, interpreting and implementing the law, to being part of parliament – and hopefully the government – that makes law. I had a sense that to fix problems you have to pull levers only politicians could do. I wanted to be part of making social justice.’
So how much social justice should we expect a Labour administration to make? The book is short on clues. Starmer doesn’t have much to say on the subject, other than the odd, boilerplate statement that our ‘fantastic’ legal system is ‘like a Rolls-Royce – a great car but only a few can afford’. There’s not much to reassure much anyone hoping Starmer’s understanding of human rights and the rule of law will translate into Labour support for the justice system.
One surprise to those who watched his rapid ascent in law is that Starmer’s path to the Bar was not pre-ordained or ruthlessly planned. He settled on law because his working class parents wanted him to have a ‘proper profession’. At one point, he wanted to be a trade union solicitor. When he arrived at the University of Leeds (‘one of the better ones for this subject at the time’), it dawned on Starmer that he didn’t really know what lawyers did and had never met one. A transformative moment was in his second year, when he started studying international and human rights law.
Baldwin writes: ‘In these subjects he found something fundamental to his belief system even now. He puts it like this: “The essence of being human, irrespective of who you are, where you come from, and what your circumstances, is dignity. It means all people have rights which cannot be taken away. The idea of irreducible human dignity became a sort of lode star which has guided me ever since; it gave me a method, a structure and framework by which I could test propositions. And it brought politics into law for me.”’
This is the Keir Starmer KC who will be familiar to anyone who knew him as a lawyer.
But while Starmer says it was law that led him inexorably into politics, arguably his political instincts are taking longer to develop. Baldwin recounts when, in 2023, Starmer – the ultimate townie – was preparing to make a speech to the National Farmers’ Union conference. It had been through many drafts and just as the audience started filing in, Starmer enquired of his staff whether he should mention that his first job had been on a farm. ‘After a short silence, while one or two advisers exchanged glances and the chief speechwriter buried his head in his hands, they ventured that, yes, that would be worth mentioning.’
How else, other than lack of political nous, to explain why Starmer accepted a knighthood when he was about to stand as a Labour parliamentary candidate? Baldwin reports that focus groups suggest that, rather than seeing this son of a toolmaker and nurse as one of their own, working class voters see him as ‘posh’ and ‘a member of the establishment’. Many assume the title is hereditary.
Fellow lawyer and Labour peer Charlie Falconer KC suggests Starmer’s ingrained legal training has had an impact in other ways. Explaining why Starmer was not blunter in his criticism of his predecessor as Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, Falconer says: ‘Lawyers are not allowed to say my client is the most appalling fuckwit.’
A review of Keir Starmer: The Biography by Tom Baldwin, will appear in a future issue of Legal Action.