FRANCIS BECKETT talks to Labour leadership candidate Keir Starmer about the prospects of the UK rejoining the EU, Jeremy Corbyn and the proudest moments of his legal career.
A couple of years ago I met Keir Starmer at a lunch and someone asked if he saw himself as the next leader of the Labour Party. He said there wasn’t a vacancy – they have to say that – but when we pressed him, he added: ‘Well, when I was small, if someone asked me what I wanted be when I grew up, I probably wouldn’t have said: shadow secretary of state for exiting the EU.’
He probably wouldn’t have said ‘leader of the opposition’ either, but that’s what he is likely to be after April 4, which is the best news available in a thin year for those of us who still value our connection with Europe.
At a hustings last Sunday he was the only one of the three candidates to decline to pledge not to reopen the question of EU membership. I interviewed him the next morning, and he sounded a little shaken, as though someone had been bellowing ‘Starmer’s trying to steal my Brexit’ at him.
‘I saw the way it was written up,’ he said. ‘I don’t think there is a way back. We’ve left. We will change over the next few years. The EU will change. And therefore there isn’t really a case for rejoining.’
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But there’s still a lot to fight for. ‘The immediate battle is going to be over the deal. The moment I saw [Boris] Johnson’s Withdrawal Agreement I thought, this is probably heading for no-deal or a deal that is so thin that it is not much better than no-deal. When I saw the white paper two weeks ago, that reinforced my view – this is heading for no-deal or next to no-deal.’
He’s heartbroken about it, but thinks that ‘rather than talk about rejoining we’ve got to focus on the battle that’s in front of us.’
It’s a very lawyerish view, and talking to Starmer you never quite forget that you are in the presence of one of the country’s top lawyers. He’s more relaxed and cheerful in private than he seems to be in public – I didn’t once see that rather apprehensive face that is familiar to anyone who attends the hustings. But his answers, always friendly, always courteous, are also always careful and structured, and when he’s finished talking, he’s finished, and it’s time to ask something else.
Even his flights of oratory have a lawyer’s angle to them. ‘We are by geography and history European, and the more so since the end of the Second World War. Rule of law, common standards, threshold standards, conflict resolution. That’s the platform that was built after the Second World War. To shift away from that at this moment is quite profound.’
Starmer’s father was a toolmaker and his mother a nurse. Now 57, he passed the 11-plus and went to the local grammar school, but he would abolish the 11-plus if he could. His 11-year-old son has started at a local comprehensive school in Camden, and Starmer’s nine-year-old daughter will follow her brother there.
In the Thatcher years, he was one of a group of young left-wing lawyers who helped and supported trade unionists in industrial disputes. The most high-profile of these was the 1986 battle in which Rupert Murdoch broke the print unions. The police were armed with instructions from the government that the mass pickets must not succeed.
‘What was developing there, across a number of disputes, was the idea of legal observers. It was the days, as you saw at Wapping, when police would charge at the crowd to disperse them, and there’d be all sorts of disputes as to who did what and when.
‘What we did was observe what was going on and help the trade unions to get the full version of what happened. At what point did the police charge the crowd, was it in response to something or was it not, matters like that.’
It was dangerous work. ‘You’re in the picket line, and when the horses charge the picket line you’re in the middle of it. I distinctly remember the whole phalanx of horses coming at us at speed. There wasn’t anywhere to run. It was quite a confined space. Yes, it was frightening.’ Afterwards the lawyers would pool their notes. In 1988-9 seafarers were on strike against P&O in Dover, and Starmer and his colleagues helped the families of strikers. ‘They were getting into real problems with benefits and feeding their children. I worked in a community centre there.’
Later, as a human rights lawyer, he did the work he’s most proud of. This was the only time in our interview that he became just a little discursive, carried away by a lawyer’s enthusiasm.
He was involved in trying to mitigate the death penalty in the Caribbean. The legal system in all Caribbean countries gives the right of appeal to the privy council in London, he explains.
‘You should write your next book about it. It’s a fascinating piece of history. One of the colonial rules was that you dumped your criminal law on the countries you colonised. They had the death penalty in the Caribbean because we imposed it.’
One day he took a telephone call from a lawyer in Uganda. They had heard of this work, and thought he could help them. He and some other lawyers travelled to Kampala where they found 419 people on death row. ‘We saw pretty well all of them in one day, it was a most amazing day, and we asked how many were convicted without having had a lawyer, and how many were convicted when they were under 18, and we ran a big constitutional case out there. We won. We got 419 people off the death penalty, that’s an amazing thing.’
Then suddenly we’re in Mauritius, where, he tells me, ‘they have a French legal system. Because they resisted and wanted to keep their French legal system, they dumped the English legal system on top of the French legal system. I think it’s the only example in the world where you’ve got the English legal system and the French legal system.’
And he hasn’t got it out of his head that this ought to be the subject of my next book. ‘There’s a really, really interesting book to be written about this. I keep saying this to people. About the death penalty and the way colonial rules operated.’
‘A book for lawyers, I think,’ I say.
‘Well – lawyers and historians.’ His press officer discreetly points out that my time is running out, and Starmer laughs and apologises for his enthusiasm.
In 2008 prime minister Gordon Brown appointed him director of public prosecutions (Brown is now an enthusiastic supporter of his leadership campaign). In 2015 Starmer became MP for Holborn and St Pancras. It’s pretty unusual to be in the running for leader after just five years in parliament, but it’s also unusual for a new MP to have such a distinguished CV outside politics – the job of DPP is generally regarded as the pinnacle of its holder’s career.
Maybe the gravitas which comes from being a former DPP is what Labour feels it wants right now, after four general election defeats. The 2019 defeat was the worst since 1935 – worse even than 1983, when Michael Foot was leader. And in 1983, Labour faced Margaret Thatcher, a Conservative leader whom friends and enemies alike respected. In 2019 they faced Boris Johnson.
Johnson didn’t win the election; Corbyn lost it. Something went terribly wrong with the Labour Party, didn’t it? Yes, Starmer says, it did.
‘Issue number one was the leadership of the Labour Party. Whether that’s fair or unfair is secondary. There was media vilification of the Labour leader.’
But there always is, I say. Neil Kinnock faced it. So did Ed Miliband. They didn’t lose as badly as Corbyn. Harold Wilson and Clem Attlee faced it, and they won. In 1945 a typical Daily Express front page headline read ‘Gestapo in Britain if socialists win’.
‘I think perhaps Jeremy got it worse than other recent Labour leaders,’ Starmer says, a little timidly, and I am not sure he believes that any more than I do.
Starmer is presenting himself as the man who can get all Labour’s warring tribes working together, which requires him not to be seen to utter a breath of criticism of Jeremy Corbyn.
Issue number two, Starmer says, was Brexit – but Labour got blamed by Remainers as well as Leavers. ‘The main problem, I thought, was that we hadn’t knocked down the phrase ‘get Brexit done’.’ It’s an open secret that Starmer wanted to mount a frontal attack on this facile and dishonest slogan, but Corbyn’s strategists overruled him.
‘The third thing was the manifesto. We went past the point where people thought it was capable of being implemented.’
And then there was anti-Semitism. ‘This is a leadership issue. It really matters what the leader of the Labour Party says and does about anti-Semitism. As leader I would take personal responsibility for rebuilding the relations with the Jewish community and personal responsibility for making sure that the disciplinary procedure works as it should.
‘I learned as DPP that if you want the values and culture of an organisation to change, the leader of the organisation has to have a clear line of sight. I would want a report about disciplinary cases on my desk every week. I have to engage with it personally.’
Unlike Corbyn? I wait for Starmer to comment, but he is waiting, smiling and courteous, for my next question.
All of these factors contributed to Labour’s defeat, he says. ‘Some people are now looking for the single reason we lost that election, thinking that if we can fix that everything’s all right. If you look at those seats in the north east in particular, [and] Mansfield, Chesterfield, we’ve been losing votes steadily over a number of years, and it was exacerbated this time round. If we are going to come through this we need to recognise the deep-rooted reasons why we have lost in those areas rather than just pretending it was one thing at the last election and if we can fix that it will all be plain sailing.’
Starmer is pretty sure that Johnson wants to smash up our remaining relationship with Europe in favour of a trade deal with Donald Trump. He thinks that is ‘not just swapping one trade deal for another, it is swapping one set of values, principles and standards for another set of values, principles and standards.
‘There’s a price to losing elections. We lost badly, and every single Tory who broke the whip to vote with us has gone.
‘We have to be a really effective opposition, subjecting them to scrutiny, using select committees, using all the procedures we have. There should be a very strong collaborative and cooperative relationship with the EU. Studying is a prime example of that. Of course we want students to go and study in Europe and theirs to come and study here. In my constituency you’ve got the Crick Institute which is doing world-beating research on medical issues and has put together teams including the best EU experts. We want to retain that.
‘And that’s before you get into the part of the forest that is security and counter-terrorism, where for five years as DPP I was working in Eurojust [the European Union Agency for Criminal Justice Cooperation] where EU countries come together in relation to terrorism, super-trafficking, all sorts of very serious offending.’
To put up an effective opposition, he has to have a united Labour Party behind him. He has supporters right the way through from Blairites to Corbynistas, but the Labour Party jungle is full of threatening noises. Corbynistas tell us darkly that he’s Tony Blair in disguise. We’ve only to wait until April 5 to see him bear his fangs. You can feel the Murdoch press (where his work on the Wapping picket line will not have been forgotten) gearing up to brand him a smoother version of Jeremy Corbyn. He will have to start by clearing out the bitter old sectarians Corbyn has bequeathed him in Labour HQ.
So most commentators think he will be unable to go on riding all the factions. But it’s not impossible. John Smith got close to achieving it before he died suddenly in 1994. Starmer may be helped by coming to parliamentary politics late in life. Most Labour politicians are pickled in sectarian politics, and cannot let go of their loyalties and hatreds. While they were honing their hatreds, Starmer was busy being DPP.
At that lunch all those months ago, I asked whether he had the party leader on board for his views on Brexit. Well, he said, ‘everything I’ve just said to you, I’ve said to Jeremy, and he has not disagreed’. It was a masterpiece of a non-answer. If ever a politician could ride all Labour’s horses at once, Keir Starmer can.