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The left’s best hope – Can Keir Starmer save Labour?

Shadow Brexit Secretary Sir Keir Starmer. Photograph: Dominic Lipinski/PA. - Credit: PA Wire/PA Images

The party’s position on Europe has been widely criticised but the shadow Brexit secretary has performed well in difficult circumstances, argues former Labour MP Dick Leonard, and deserves an even bigger role

One hundred years ago, early in 1919, the pioneering sociologist, Max Weber, delivered a lecture, Politics as a Vocation, at the University of Munich. Those in the audience had been stunned by Germany’s recent defeat in the First World War, and it was less than two weeks after the murder in Berlin of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht.

Weber, whose father was a long-time member of the Reichstag and also of the Prussian parliament, had a low opinion of most German politicians and also those of the US and France, of whose political systems he had made a close study. He was, however, rather less critical of British politicians, and regarded Gladstone as a hero.

In his lecture, Weber, who was shortly afterwards to die in the ‘Spanish flu’ epidemic, set out his concept of an ideal politician, whom he wrote should have three qualities – passion, a feeling of responsibility and a sense of proportion.

Reading his lecture a couple of months ago, I asked myself which contemporary British politician best fitted this description. I concluded it was my own MP, Keir Starmer, whose career I have followed closely since I first heard him speak at a Labour Party meeting in Camden in 2014.

This was a meeting preparatory to his selection as the party’s parliamentary candidate for the Holborn and St. Pancras constituency. He was speaking of the need for a ‘victims’ law’, on which he was advising the Labour Party, which was committed to introduce such a law after the 2015 general election.

I was struck by the fervour with which he argued his case, his mastery of the subject, and by the realism with which he approached the difficulties of bringing his project to fruition.

I was not alone in being impressed by his performance, and he was emphatically chosen to succeed Frank Dobson from a strong field of contenders at the ensuing selection conference. He was duly elected at the 2015 general election, and within a few days several thousand signatures were attracted to an online appeal launched by a Scottish businessman, Narice Bernard, calling upon him to contest the Labour leadership vacated by Ed Miliband.

Starmer did not immediately respond, but soon after tweeted: “V flattered by #keirforleader initiative and thanks for so many supportive messages but Labour needs s/one with more political experience”. It was a wise decision, as he was unlikely to have secured many nominations or votes. One unnoticed consequence was to open the way for Jeremy Corbyn, who only managed by the skin of his teeth to secure the minimum number of nominations. If only one of these had been pledged to Starmer he would have missed the boat.

Starmer was already 52 when elected, and unlike the majority of new MPs already had a long and distinguished career behind him. He was named after the first leader of the Labour Party by his Labour-supporting and Guardian-reading parents, Rod and Jo Starmer. He was a factory worker in East Surrey, and she a nurse, who overcame a lifetime of pain and suffering to raise a family of four children, despite being warned, when she contracted Still’s disease while in her teens, that she would be unable to bear any children. She was, and remains the inspiration of Keir’s life. Sadly, she was to die just before his election. His father, however, survived until last year.

Starmer is normally reticent about his formative years, but opened up in a remarkable podcast with Nick Robinson in March 2018, which is still available on the BBC website.

Starmer was educated at a local grammar school in Reigate, where he became one of only four members of the East Surrey branch of the Labour Party Young Socialists. He later went on to study law at the universities of Leeds and Oxford and embark on a career as a human rights lawyer, which saw him appear in a number of high-profile cases.

These included the 13-year-long McLibel case in which two young campaigners, Helen Steel and David Morris, took on the might of McDonalds before finally being vindicated by the European Court of Justice, which awarded them damages of £57,000. Starmer acted as unpaid adviser to the pair and then appeared in a documentary film made by Ken Loach and Franny Armstrong.

He cut a glamorous figure and was rumoured to be the inspiration for the handsome barrister Mark Darcy in the Bridget Jones books. He became a QC in 2002, and subsequently joint head of the Doughty Street Chambers of human rights lawyers, specialising in cases contesting capital punishment, mainly in Commonwealth countries, but also Taiwan.

He was named as QC of the Year in 2007, and a year later was appointed as director of public prosecutions, an unusual appointment as he had previously appeared almost exclusively as a defence lawyer.

His appointment was made under a Labour government, but after the 2010 general election he had excellent relations with the Tory attorney general, Dominic Grieve, and tolerable ones with the home secretary, Theresa May.

When his term of office ended in 2013, they asked him to stay on, but Starmer, appalled by the savage cuts which had reduced his staff from nearly 9,000 to barely 6,000 and the decimation of legal aid, decided that he would be better employed seeking to change the law rather than administering it, and determined to seek a parliamentary seat.

During his first year in the House, Keir kept his head down and resolved thoroughly to learn the ropes before taking any significant initiatives. He did introduce his ‘victims’ law’ under the Ten Minute Bill procedure, and it won wide cross-party support, but the government refused time for the Bill to proceed.

He was appointed by Jeremy Corbyn as a junior Home Office spokesman, under Andy Burnham, responsible for refugees, and played an active part, on the Remain side, during the 2016 referendum. He shared the widespread disappointment with Corbyn’s lukewarm conduct of the campaign, but was one of the last shadow spokesmen to resign in protest.

When Corbyn defiantly responded to the vote of no confidence passed by the Parliamentary Labour Party, and secured a resounding response from the party membership, most of the resigners refused to serve in Corbyn’s reconstituted shadow cabinet. Starmer, however, bowed to the verdict of the party members and accepted Corbyn’s magnanimous invitation to join the shadow cabinet as the chief spokesman on Brexit.

Since then Starmer has established a good relationship with Corbyn, without becoming a sycophant. They are at ease with each other, though there has at times been scarcely disguised hostility from some of the leader’s closest advisors.

Despite the narrowness of the referendum result and the egregious lies told by the Leave campaign, Starmer respected the legitimacy of the verdict. He declined the advice of friends that it would be in Labour’s electoral interest to continue to back the 48%, thus competing only with the Lib Dems and Greens, rather than the 52%, of whom it could not realistically expect to attract more than a minority in competition with both the Tories and UKIP. Instead, he advocated that Labour should attempt to win support from both sides, and set out a programme for a national unity approach in a passionate and well-argued speech to a packed meeting in central London early in 2017. In practice, he concluded that a soft Brexit would the fair representation of the national will, and set out to unite the Labour Party around this objective.

He was dismayed when Theresa May set out a series of ‘red lines’, which were calculated to achieve the hardest of Brexits, and determined to use his front bench role to expose the fatuity of her approach.

Against him was the bumbling Brexit secretary, David Davis, who cut a pathetic figure facing the full forensic force of his cross-examination. The former Tory leader, Iain Duncan Smith, attempted to come to his colleague’s aid by describing Starmer as a “second-rate lawyer”, and was roundly condemned by lawyers on his own side of the House for making such a preposterous claim.

Starmer’s opening salvo was to table no fewer than 170 very detailed questions concerning every one of the government’s proposals. Even with the help of an army of civil servants, Davis was unable to supply satisfactory answers to the great bulk of these queries and came to regard every debate and question time in which he was confronted by Starmer as a Calvary to be endured, from which he was only released by his own resignation in July 2018.

Starmer’s next step was to seize on a statement by Davis in January 2017 that Britain would enjoy the “exact same benefits” as under current arrangements from the deal he was negotiating with the EU. With the full backing of the shadow cabinet, he went on to list six conditions which would need to be met before Labour would accept any deal.

He went on to insist that this should include a permanent customs union and a close relationship with the single market, and this became the approved policy of the party.

Meanwhile pressure, was building up for a firm commitment to be given for a second referendum to be held if a general election could not be secured. Dozens of resolutions demanding this were tabled for the 2018 Labour conference, and Starmer, on behalf of the party leadership, met with 300 delegates at a lengthy meeting on the Sunday afternoon and evening to agree a composite resolution to put to the conference.

Two days later, he presented it to the conference in a passionate speech, peppered with thunderous applause. When he pledged that a Remain option would be included virtually the entire conference gave him a standing ovation – something unheard of in modern times except in response to speeches by the party leader.

It would not be an exaggeration to say that this speech transformed Starmer’s standing within the party. Since then he has been frequently discussed as a future leader – not for now, but if and when Corbyn decides to stand down.

I thought back to how I had felt as a young man when I had been lucky enough to get to know three of the most able Labour MPs – Denis Healey, Roy Jenkins and Tony Crosland (to whom, much later, I was to be parliamentary private secretary). I was quite sure that one of them would one day become leader of the party.

It was not to be, though Crosland was perhaps only thwarted by his premature death at the age of 58. Starmer is not like any of them, and is a great deal more self-disciplined, but is, I believe, of similar calibre. How realistic is it to think that he might enjoy the success which eluded them?

The best evidence may be the periodic surveys undertaken by Labour List, a website widely read by the party’s activists. In January this year it asked its readers to assess the relative popularity of shadow cabinet members. Starmer came top of the poll, comfortably ahead of John McDonnell, and with three times as many votes as Emily Thornberry, who came third.

It followed this up with a poll asking readers to name the three Labour MPs whom they most admired. The three chosen were Jeremy Corbyn, Yvette Cooper and Starmer. Two further surveys of the shadow cabinet, published in May and June, produced similar results (although a third, more recent one has McDonnell narrowly ahead).

Starmer’s position has certainly been improved by his actions in recent weeks, when he has taken the lead in insisting that Labour should back a referendum in all circumstances and should campaign for Remain. His stand was supported by Tom Watson, McDonnell, Thornberry and Diane Abbott, and eventually, if reluctantly, by Corbyn himself.

I conclude from these that the only viable candidates, if there were to be a contest in the foreseeable future, would be Thornberry, Cooper, Starmer and McDonnell (who has disclaimed any ambition to fill this role).

Starmer would appear to be in pole position, though there is a widespread feeling that it is time for Labour to choose a female leader. The shadow Brexit secretary, however, would not lack formidable backers. One very senior former cabinet minister recently said to me that “Labour needs another Clem Attlee, and the person who most clearly embodies Attleean qualities is Keir Starmer”.

Dick Leonard is a journalist and author. He was the Labour MP for Romford from 1970 until 1974

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