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By Lord Watson of Wyre Forest
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LABOUR LEADERSHIP: Keir Starmer – top prosecutor lurches left to cement favourite status

6 min read

Amid chaos over who will be the torchbearer for Corbynism, Sir Keir Starmer has quickly emerged as the clear favourite to be next Labour leader.

But the former Director of Public Prosecutions is having to work hard to convince those on the left he won’t ditch the work of the current leader if he takes over.

He received by far the largest number of nominations from MPs and MEPs - 89 - and already has the backing of Britain’s biggest union, Unison, in the bag.

But it is when the contest is passed over to Labour members, among whom doubts linger over the strength of his commitment to a radical socialist agenda, that he faces potebtial problems.

Sir Keir has work to do to win over those sceptical of his centrist credentials and seemingly middle-class, professional background, his private wealth, and his north London safe seat powerbase (not that that last one did the current leader any harm).

Asked about whether he sees himself as a “Corbynite” or a “Blairite” last month he said: “I don’t need somebody else’s name tattooed to my head, some past leader, in order to make decisions.”

It was an interesting sentiment for a man literally named after the first leader and founder of the Labour party.

The 57-year-old was born in Southwark, South London, the second of four children to mother Josephine, a nurse, and father Rod, a toolmaker, who now devote their time to rescuing donkeys

"Whenever one of us left home, they replaced us with a donkey,” Starmer said.

He went to the independent Reigate Grammar School after passing the 11-plus, and studied law at Leeds University and Oxford before being called to the bar at Middle Temple in 1987, and was made a QC in 2002.

But Starmer, whose wife Victoria is also a lawyer and who mentors deprived children, has attempted to play down his middle class credentials, saying: “Actually, my background isn’t what people think it is. 

“I had actually never been in any other workplace other than a factory until I left university. I had never been in an office.

“So the idea that somehow I personally don’t know what it’s like for people across the country in all sorts of different circumstances is just not borne out.” 

He was seen as one of the brightest lawyers of his generation, moving to Doughty Street chambers and specialising in human rights issues.

One of the most high-profile was the so-called “McLibel” case against McDonalds, where he was featured looking slick, square-jawed and with floppy hair in the Ken Loach documentary about the fight by environmental campaigners Helen Steel and David Morris against the fast food giant.

It led to rumours that the Mark Darcy character from Bridget Jones's Diary, played by Colin Firth in the films, was based on Starmer, something not denied by him or the books’ author Helen Fielding.

He also worked on death penalty cases in the Caribbean, defended poll tax protesters, worked on behalf of the widow of Alexander Litvinenko, helped with legal action against P&O by staff, and stood in the way of a mounted police charge at Wapping in 1986 during the print worker strikes.

These cases and more were heavily featured in Starmer’s campaign launch video, where he argued he had the “courage” to prosecute MPs over expenses and made a career “standing up for the powerless against the powerful”.

But after becoming Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) and Head of the Crown Prosecution Service in 2008 he also drew criticism for failing to prosecute the police killers of Jean Charles de Menezes and Ian Tomlinson.

And he came under pressure in 2018 over black cab rapist John Warboys, after his decision not to pursue further charges against him were revealed.

He was awarded a knighthood In 2014 for "services to law and criminal justice", although he prefers not to be referred to as "sir", and was selected as Labour’s candidate to take over from the late Frank Dobson in his Holborn and St Pancras constituency.

Seen as a man in a hurry, he was made shadow Home Office minister under Jeremy Corbyn soon after being elected, but resigned “with great sadness” along with most of his frontbench colleagues in 2016 during the unsuccessful attempt to oust the leader in the wake of the EU referendum.

He was brought back just a few months later to become Shadow Brexit secretary, taking over from his now leadership rival Emily Thornberry, who was shuffled to Shadow Foreign Secretary.

His pro-EU stance did not always chime with the leader or his aides, and it took him almost two years to inch the party’s policy towards backing a second referendum.

But the resistance from within meant the party ended up in a torturous compromise that, in attempting to appeal to both sides, ended up alienating both, and was blamed by many in the party, especially those supportive of Corbyn, for their catastrophic election defeat.

And there is a feeling that in response he is now seeking to curb his own soft-left values in favour of not alienating those who propelled Corbyn to leadership victory twice, and he has been careful not to criticise the man he wants to replace.

He said in December: “What Jeremy Corbyn brought to the Labour Party in 2015 was a change in emphasis - a radicalism that matters, and the rejection of austerity. We need to build on that, rather than oversteer and go back to some bygone age.

“The case for a radical government has never been stronger. The shift to a more radical position in 2015 and that rejection of austerity was really important.”

Whether they are really that closely aligned remains an open question, but he does have one thing in common with Corbyn for sure - they both support Arsenal.

He has also hired Simon Fletcher, who ran Corbyn's first leadership campaign, to head up his own leadership bid..

Sir Keir is certainly the one to beat at the moment, and has earned his status as bookies' favourite. But if the 2015 leadership election taught us anything, it's that being the frontrunner at this stage is no guarantee of success.


Age: 57

Constituency: Holborn and St Pancras

Before Parliament: QC, Director of Public Prosecutions

Frontbench positions held: Shadow Home Office minister (2015-2016), Shaodw Brexit Secretary (2016-present)

Fun fact: At school he shared violin lessons with Norman Cook, aka Fatboy Slim

Odds: 1/2

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