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When Keir Took On McDonalds

8 min read

Before he was Labour leader, Keir Starmer fought for the underdog in a few headline-grabbing cases as a barrister. Zoë Grünewald speaks to the defendants in the infamous McLibel case

“Dave and Helen are an extraordinary couple”, a slim, fresh-faced Keir Starmer intones, a jumble of files behind him in footage now more than 25 years old. “When I first met them, they really didn’t know very much about the law at all, and they certainly didn’t know very much about libel law. But they’ve worked away and grappled away with mountains of evidence and really difficult legal concepts and between them they form now a very good team.”

The story of how the young human rights lawyer helped a couple of activists, Helen Steel and David Morris, take on and best McDonald’s is a central text in the Starmer cannon. It helped more than a few members overcome their doubts and vote for the former shadow Brexit secretary when he ran for Labour’s leadership.

But what do the pair think of Starmer now that he projects a rather more establishment image than the “progressive barrister” of the 1990s? Their answers will resonate with many of the Labour members who voted for Starmer, partly on the basis of his former work as a campaigning lawyer, but now fret he has forsaken his past radicalism.

The pair, still friends, live in very different parts of the country –  Steel in the rugged hills of Derbyshire and Morris in the cosmopolitan streets of London’s Haringey. Asked for their reflections they are a little guarded at first, understandably, given their extraordinary story. The infamous McLibel trial was a landmark case between McDonald’s and the two environmental activists, Steel and Morris, back in 1997. The battle revolved around a pamphlet, distributed by the pair, entitled “What’s Wrong With McDonald’s?: Everything They Don’t Want You to Know”, containing a range of allegations against the company, including claims about its exploitation of workers, contributions to deforestation, the promotion of unhealthy eating habits, and disregard for animal welfare.

McDonald’s sued the activists for libel, resulting in a protracted legal battle, spanning almost 10 years. The verdict was mixed. It was found that McDonald’s had committed some of the claims made in the leaflet, but also that the pair had libelled the corporation. Steel and Morris were ordered to pay £40,000 in damages, but they refused and McDonald’s never pursued the payment. The case had inflicted enough damage on the corporation, a David and Goliath battle of ethics and ideas.

Morris is plain-speaking and good-humoured, introducing himself as a community activist and the chair of the National Federation of Parks and Green Spaces. Steel, thoughtful and articulate, now spends her time helping women who were deceived into relationships with undercover police officers, having herself been in a relationship, unknowingly, with an undercover policeman who infiltrated her activist group during this period.

Though the pair had been forced to represent themselves in court after being denied legal aid, they were not totally alone. In fact, it was a rising star of Doughty Street Chambers, Keir Starmer, who supplied them with free legal aid. 

“He was great back then,” Steel says. “He helped us for free for a very, very long time. He didn’t get paid for any of it until we got to the actual European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) when he was officially representing us. Although we represented ourselves at the original trial, he was giving us advice behind the scenes, drafting pleadings for us, stuff like that. And when we first started, we wouldn’t have been able to get the case off the ground without his help.

Keir Starmer“He was a great person to work with in terms of being willing to listen to our ideas and not just kind of reject them out of hand”.

Talking to the pair prompts the question of how Starmer himself reflects on his involvement in McLibel. Since becoming leader of the Labour party, Starmer has been cautious when referencing his past as a human rights lawyer, in part due to the government’s mounting attacks on the legal profession, in which it blames “leftie lawyers” for obstructing its immigration agenda.

Both Steel and Morris have referred publicly to Starmer as a “socialist lawyer” and accounts of his representation at the time describe him as a “progressive barrister” who represented “tree-dwellers, road protestors, hunt saboteurs and even King Arthur Pendragon”.

(Pendragon, self-styled “King of the Druids”, successfully beat a trespass prosecution after Starmer persuaded a court that he had a right to worship at Stonehenge under Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights). Starmer’s defence of Steel and Morris, who had produced the leaflet while working at London Greenpeace, stands in sharp contrast to some of the policy positions Labour has taken, having joined the government in condemning eco-protestors and failing to commit to repealing the government’s controversial Public Order Bill, which clamps down on public protest.

“It’s outrageous, the way this government are trying to clamp down on protest and freedom of expression,” Steel says. “They’re both absolutely vital parts of a functioning democracy and any reasonable system has to have both freedom of expression and the right to protest protected fully.

“In our ruling, the European Court of Human Rights noted specifically that the UK government had tried to argue that only journalists should have the full protections of freedom of expression,” Steel explains. “And the European Court rejected that and said that small campaigning organisations often had a very vital role in initially bringing issues to the public attention.”

The ECHR brought the trial into international focus after ordering the United Kingdom’s government to pay £57,000 in compensation to the pair, ruling that the original case had breached Article 6 (right to a fair trial) and Article 10 (right to freedom of expression) by denying them legal aid. Now, the government is mulling over exiting the ECHR in response to its intervention on the UK’s Rwanda policy, rehashing an old battle over the role of international institutions in UK government policy.

Though refraining from an outright defence of immigration lawyers, Labour has spoken in favour of the European Convention on Human Rights and are increasingly presenting Starmer as a leader who would seek to lead and uphold international standards. “With Keir Starmer in No 10, the rules will be clear: ministers will uphold international law,” shadow foreign secretary David Lammy told the Bingham Centre back in July.

The pair reflect on the ECHR attacks. Morris calls the criticisms “half-baked nationalism” and “complete nonsense”, while Steel dubs them “completely irresponsible”. “But you know, the reality is, it’s important that people’s human rights are protected, and this idea that we don’t need human rights in this day and age is just insane,” she says.

I think him becoming a politician was a great loss for the legal world in the sense of human rights

Morris is more cynical. “We can’t rely on the courts to protect our human rights, whether it’s at the British or the European level… so idiotic power struggles between nation states and other kind[s] of international institutions [are] pretty tedious.”

Morris is tighter-lipped about Starmer. “I think him becoming a politician was a great loss for the legal world in the sense of human rights,” he says, tactfully. “The problem of any decent person that becomes a politician is that they don’t have any effect unless they can get in power. And to get in power, you have to do what the powerful want.”

The pair seem distinctly uninspired by Starmer’s leadership of the Labour party. But were they more hopeful when they heard their former lawyer had got the job? Steel is diplomatic: “I think you always hope that people you know, who’ve got a background in campaigning for justice and sustainability, are going to make improvements if they get into power. But I think as Dave has said, the reality is that the nature of the power structures and the way that society is organised means that just because someone gets elected doesn’t mean that they can.”

“The problem of governments is not the personalities of the people in positions of power. The problem is the institution of power itself,” Morris adds. “And the question I think everybody should be asking is: [is] Parliament part of the problem or part of the solution?” When asked if they feel that a Labour government led by Starmer could bring genuine change, they remain sceptical. “I think change needs to come,” Morris says, “but it needs to come from the billions of people around the world saying we need to control our lives.”

Are they still in touch with Starmer? “Not for a few years,” Steel says. “I think his phone number has changed.” 

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