LONDON (AFP) — Britain’s new opposition Labour leader, Keir Starmer, fought the state as a young human rights lawyer before battling Brexit as an MP, and must now bring together his divided party to challenge Boris Johnson.
Serious and determined, the 57-year-old takes over from the veteran socialist Jeremy Corbyn as Labour struggles to find its way.
The center-left party has been out of office since 2010, and in December recorded its worst general election result since the 1930s as Johnson’s Conservatives hoovered up votes in many of its former heartlands.
For the past few years, Labour has been riven by splits over Corbyn’s unwavering left-wing agenda, how to approach Brexit and a row over the handling of claims of anti-Semitism in the party.
Starmer has vowed to unite the party and get it back on a path to power.
He wooed Corbyn’s supporters by emphasizing his own record as a human rights lawyer, insisting he is a socialist and defending December’s manifesto, which promised a massive program of investment and nationalizations.
But he also won backing from centrists in the party, who see him as more measured and more pragmatic than his predecessor.
“We can say what we like about how we want to change the world — if we lose elections, we won’t get the opportunity to do it,” Starmer told the Guardian podcast this week.
He refuses to say what existing policies he would keep — particularly now, in the upheaval of the coronavirus outbreak — beyond saying that “radical things are going to be needed.”
Political historian Steven Fielding, from the University of Nottingham, said his pitch as “the competent bureaucrat” was designed to appeal to a broad number of Labour members.
But it has left some asking what he actually stands for.
“No one questions his intellectual ability, but many do wonder about his capacity to inspire,” commented Andrew Rawnsley, a political columnist with The Observer newspaper.
Defending the powerless
Starmer was born in London, one of four siblings, to a toolmaker father and a nurse mother, both of whom were animal lovers who rescued donkeys.
“Whenever one of us left home, they replaced us with a donkey,” he jokes.
At school, he had violin lessons with Norman Smith, the former Housemartins bassist who became DJ Fatboy Slim. He is also a passionate Arsenal fan — like his predecessor Corbyn — and still plays football every week.
He was named after the founding father of the Labour party, Keir Hardie, and when he trained as a lawyer, turned his attention to radical causes.
He defended trade unions and activists, including in a long-running “McLibel” case brought by McDonald’s against two people who handed out leaflets criticizing the firm’s practices.
In his leadership campaign video, he says: “I’ve spent my life fighting for justice, standing up for the powerless and against the powerful.”
In 2003, he began his move to the establishment with a job ensuring police in Northern Ireland fully complied with human right legislation.
Five years later, he completed the shift by becoming director of public prosecutions for England and Wales.
Between 2008 and 2013, he oversaw the prosecution of MPs for abusing the expenses system, journalists for phone-hacking, and young people caught up in the 2011 riots.
He was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II for his services and in 2015, was elected as a member of parliament himself, representing the north London seat of Holborn and St Pancras.
In 2016, after the vote to leave the European Union, Starmer joined a rebellion by Labour MPs over Corbyn’s perceived lack of leadership during the referendum campaign.
It failed, and later that year he rejoined the top team as Labour’s Brexit spokesman, where he remained until this week.
His forensic criticism of the Conservatives’ approach marked him out during bitter and often hyperbolic parliamentary debates, but he drew accusations of being too lawyerly.
He is also credited with shifting Labour to a policy of offering a second referendum — a move hailed by many pro-Europeans.
But the policy has been blamed for alienating former Labour voters in northern England and Wales who wanted Brexit — and which Johnson delivered on January 31.