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From the file

Starmer’s case history | To figure out the Labour leader now, we went back to his past – as a human rights lawyer and director of public prosecutions

Keir Starmer, shadow secretary of state for the U.K.’s opposition Labour Party, poses for a photograph following a Bloomberg Television interview in London, U.K., on Tuesday, Dec. 13, 2016. Starmer suggested control over immigration should be a red line in the coming negotiations while acknowledging it would make single-market access more difficult. Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Keir Starmer: Who is he, really?

Keir Starmer: Who is he, really?

Keir Starmer, shadow secretary of state for the U.K.’s opposition Labour Party, poses for a photograph following a Bloomberg Television interview in London, U.K., on Tuesday, Dec. 13, 2016. Starmer suggested control over immigration should be a red line in the coming negotiations while acknowledging it would make single-market access more difficult. Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Gaby Hinsliff hunts for clues in his legal career

Keir Starmer loves football. As a younger man, the Labour leader never missed a five-a-side game. He still holds an Arsenal season ticket, and once described taking his two children to matches as the most exciting thing he’d ever done. Football, says a colleague, appeals to the “boy’s own” side of him. But few perhaps know the story of the games he once played at a Belfast army garrison, courtesy of a soldier convicted of murder. 

Private Lee Clegg was 21 years old when his patrol opened fire on a stolen car full of teenage Catholic joyriders as it sped through the Belfast checkpoint they were manning. Forensic evidence linked the bullet that killed 18-year-old Karen Reilly to Clegg’s gun. 

The case hinged on split-second decisions. Soldiers could lawfully fire in self-defence at a car coming straight for them, but not once it passed them. The original trial in 1993 heard forensic evidence suggesting the fatal shots were fired as the car was retreating, and Clegg was sentenced to life imprisonment for Reilly’s murder and for the wounding of 17-year-old Martin Peake, who also died. But new forensic tests subsequently cast doubt on those findings, triggering a retrial. 

Private Lee Clegg

Starmer had made his name as a young human rights lawyer defending anti-establishment causes; peace protestors, miners, striking Wapping print workers. He had led a legal mission to Northern Ireland in 1991 to investigate allegations of rough justice, which collected harrowing claims of young Catholics being beaten by police to extort confessions at the height of the Troubles. 

The official report of the trip stated explicitly that they travelled as members of the Haldane Society of Socialist Lawyers, “which has adopted not only a policy of upholding human rights standards but a political stance; we are in favour of a united Ireland… and we call for British withdrawal. We did not hide the fact that we had such policy”. The report was written by Bill Bowring who then chaired the Haldane, who was also on the trip, and a source close to the Labour leader insists that this wording “doesn’t represent Keir’s views now or then. It simply lists him as a member of the delegation Bowring is referring to.” But at the very least, it indicates someone moving easily at that time within radical circles, albeit playing his personal cards rather closer to his chest.

Had Starmer been acting for Karen Reilly’s family, few would have been surprised. But in 1999, he was retained to defend Lee Clegg, as the junior barrister on a team that secured the quashing of his conviction. Some left-leaning solicitors threatened to stop giving him work. 

“He was heavily criticised at the time by the unthinking left of the legal village in London,” recalls the solicitor Mark Stephens, a long-standing friend. “Whereas Keir could see that he (Clegg) had rights that were being infringed, and it didn’t actually matter who was infringing rights – if you had rights that were taken away then you ought to do something about it. They didn’t get that, and Keir did.” 

The inscrutable Starmer never, according to the senior barrister in the Clegg case, ventured a personal opinion on the Troubles during his three months working on the trial in Belfast. But he did go weekly to the garrison, to kick a ball around with the squaddies. 

Sir Keir Starmer QC is a hard man to pin down. One year into his leadership of the Labour party, his approval ratings are falling. Voters seem confused by the radical- turned-pillar-of-the-establishment; the socialist who now opposes early tax rises; the passionate remainer keen to move on from Brexit. His instinct on Brexit, says Stephens, is to deal with reality as it is now Britain has finally left the EU: “He doesn’t stick to positions where the complete landscape has changed. He will adapt to what is the current landscape and work to do the best in the current environment.” 

To admirers of Jeremy Corbyn’s dogged commitment to views held for half a century, it looks slippery. But litigators learn to move on when the verdict goes against them, as it did for remainers at the last election, and therein lies a clue. Starmer has been in politics for almost six years, but was a lawyer for over three decades before that. The cases he pursued are stuffed with revealing insights into his thinking.

If Starmer seems to have struggled as Labour leader to define himself and what he stands for, can the choices, decisions and consequences of his past flesh him out? 

Keir Starmer QC, as Director of Public Prosecutions in 2010

Fellow lawyers recall a man of integrity, invariably two steps ahead of the game. “People snipe at him but most of them don’t understand what he’s doing,” says Stephens, who says judges often didn’t understand either, right up until Starmer’s points became established precedents. “He has this sort of vision which is not midterm, it’s long term, it’s about sustained change over time… he’s taken that same value into politics and traditional political hacks don’t get it.” 

When Starmer was appointed Director of Public Prosecutions in 2008, heading the Crown Prosecution Service, some accused him of selling out. But he was banking, then as now, on being able to do it his way; on changing the system more than it changed him. “He said ‘is it the job that makes the man, or the man that makes the job?’” recalls one old client who questioned his decision at the time. 

Now he’s under pressure to show the compromises were worth it. 

Starmer was, says a friend, “always the golden boy”. Or so it seemed. Born in London in 1962, the son of a toolmaker and a nurse, he grew up in the small Surrey town of Oxted. As a boy he was musically gifted, bright enough to sail through grammar school and a first class law degree at Leeds University, followed by Oxford. 

Taken on by the liberal Doughty Street Chambers, he fell in with a bright young activist legal set hanging out at the Duke pub nearby. Behind that slightly stiff public manner lay a man who could be “the life and soul of a dinner party” according to Stephens. Before he married Victoria, then a solicitor, in his mid-40s, there was a string of fiercely bright girlfriends, including the formidable feminist lawyer Philippa Kaufman QC. 

Professionally he was bold and imaginative, capable of startling intellectual leaps. “He could win cases that everyone else thought nobody could win,” says Jane Winter, a veteran human rights campaigner who first encountered him in the 1990s, when he was the go-to barrister for liberal organisations. 

At his best, he reached those who considered themselves untouchable; as DPP from 2008 to 2013, he pioneered ways of putting rapists, tabloid phone hackers and two of the killers of murdered schoolboy Stephen Lawrence in the dock. When he left, he was a shoo-in for the safe Labour seat of Holborn & St Pancras, and was, somewhat surreally, first urged to run for leader within days of being elected in 2015.

Campaigning in the Holborn and St Pancras constituency, 2015

Yet his life was less gilded than all that suggests. “Growing up wasn’t easy for Keir. He had a mother who was seriously unwell and struggled with a disability, and a dad who was obviously sort of somewhat cut off from his children,” says Helena Kennedy QC, co-founder of Doughty Street, who supervised his pupillage. 

“And when you’re in a family with someone who has got something really seriously wrong with them, a serious illness, you don’t feel you can complain. You don’t emote. You don’t have tantrums. You have to make life better for other people so you learn to close off your own needs and emotions.” With Starmer, she felt, “there’s just a little area of distance which is self-protective.”

But if he learned to suppress his own emotions, he was highly attuned to those of others. Starmer is unusually solicitous of anyone suffering loss – famously, as a junior barrister he once postponed a legal engagement to attend the funeral of one of his mother’s beloved rescue donkeys – or vulnerability. His friend Jonathan Cooper, who is gay, remembers Starmer going out of his way to include him and his boyfriend socially in an era where being out at the Bar was sometimes uncomfortable, and rising to the defence of a young trans person at a hostile public meeting in the 1990s. The two men are the same age but he saw Starmer as a protective big brother figure: “He’s a good, wise friend. When I have a quandary that I want to resolve, still my first instinct is that I must ring Keir.” 

As a young man Starmer’s politics were decidedly left-wing. Aged 24, he co-edited a short-lived magazine called Socialist Alternatives, identified with the strain of Marxism known as Pabloism. When that folded, he joined the anti-Thatcherite Haldane Society. Yet he wasn’t much of a blazing revolutionary. A Socialist Alternatives essay on allegedly heavy-handed policing of the Wapping print strike dramatically questions what role, “if any”, police should play in society but then recommends making them accountable to the communities they serve, a sentence Tony Blair could have written.

Police and pickets clash outside the News International plant in Wapping, 1986

“I never heard him utter the words Pablo or Trotsky,” says Professor Bill Bowring, now a law lecturer, who chaired the Haldane Society while Starmer was secretary. “I don’t think he ever had any plan for revolutionising society and I’ve never heard him talk about the class struggle.” He even suggested dropping “socialist” from the society’s name, only to be defeated at a furious meeting. His politics and the lessons of his upbringing came more powerfully together however through a field of law that holds the powerful accountable to the vulnerable.

Human rights law was then so new that he and Cooper taught themselves, pushing at the boundaries of what judges would allow. Starmer often lost in the lower courts but shone at appeal, where an intellectually dazzling argument could prevail over precedent. 

But wooing juries wasn’t his specialism. “I’ve never seen him make a rabble-rousing speech, I don’t think that would be in his nature,” says Bowring. He focussed on the rights to free speech and protest, hunting for test cases to bring these concepts alive. In 1990 he found one that made his name. 

The fast food giant McDonald’s had served libel writs on five activists with a tiny green protest group called London Greenpeace, for distributing leaflets outside its restaurants accusing the chain of everything from animal cruelty to low pay and rainforest destruction. 

None could afford lawyers, and the solicitor they consulted advised a hasty retreat. “He basically said you’re onto a hiding to nothing, even if you’re right,” recalls Dave Morris, one of the original five. Three duly apologised but the fourth, Helen Steel, balked. A friendly solicitor she met at a poll tax protest meeting gave her Starmer’s name; intrigued, he offered to help her and Morris pro bono – as he often did in cases that personally interested him – if they wanted to defend themselves in court.

 “If Keir hadn’t offered to write the defence for us and draft the document we’d never have been able to fight the case,” she recalls now. 

Helen Steel and Dave Morris at the Royal Courts of Justice, 1996

Seven gruelling years later, the judge found for the McLibel Two on three of the substantial points in a case nobody expected amateurs to win. That partial victory, in Morris’s words, “opened a whole can of worms about the power of corporations and what they were doing for profit” worldwide. 

But the story wasn’t over. It had emerged in court that some of Morris and Steel’s supposed fellow activists were corporate spies planted by McDonald’s. 

Privately, Steel began to wonder about the London Greenpeace activist she’d fallen in love with, whom she knew as John Barker. They were living together when the writ arrived and he’d driven her to meetings with Starmer, discussing the defence with her. But after the trial began he vanished, pleading a breakdown. 

When she tried to trace him, she realised everything he had told her was a “pack of lies”. 

En route home from the McLibel hearings one day, Steel checked her boyfriend’s details against death registry records. They matched the identity of a boy who died aged eight. 

“And at that point, you know, my world kind of fell apart really, because I’d been in a relationship with someone for the best part of two years. You think that if you’re in a relationship with someone you know them reasonably well and here I was, I didn’t know the first thing about him, I didn’t even know his name.” She began, she says, to question what else was real: “It really messes with your head.” 

In 2015, alongside seven other women deceived into relationships with men they didn’t know were undercover officers, she won compensation from the Metropolitan Police. 

And that’s where Starmer’s past and present collide. 

Last October, he whipped his party to abstain on the government’s so-called “spy cops” bill, offering immunity from civil or criminal prosecution to undercover officers for crimes committed in order to keep their cover. Labour argues that since immunity is already being granted behind closed doors, putting such arrangements on a statutory footing is safer. 

Guidelines introduced since Steel’s case have banned intimate relationships with targets and ministers insist the bill’s provisions are for infiltrating terrorist or serious criminal organisations, not political protest movements as happened in the past. 

Nonetheless, fond as she remains of Starmer, Helen Steel can’t understand his position on something she fears would make it harder for women like her to uncover the truth in the future. “It’s absolutely shocking that anyone could think that’s an appropriate law to pass.” 

Starmer’s old mentor Baroness Kennedy, who sits as a Labour peer, and his former shadow cabinet colleague Shami Chakrabarti both rebelled over the bill in the House of Lords. The Liberal Democrat peer Lord Macdonald, his predecessor as DPP, and Dominic Grieve (who was Conservative attorney general for much of Starmer’s time at the CPS) both express concerns. 

With Jeremy Corbyn and Shami Chakrabarti in Brussels, 2019

Chakrabarti accepts spies need some licence but remains “at a loss to understand what the argument really is” for blanket immunity, or how Starmer could now support it. “If you genuinely change your mind about things then say so, and people I don’t think mind that,” she says. 

“But I think we have to say when we changed our mind, or just take people with us on the journey, so that they understand that that was an authentic expression of where I was at that time, but this is where I am now and why.” 

Given Labour’s fear of being painted as soft on national security, Lord Macdonald says: “I entirely understand why from a political point of view he’s taking the position that he is.”

Yet ministers who worked closely with Starmer as DPP recall him as robust on civil liberties issues well before entering politics. 

The world in which DPPs move, says Macdonald, invariably changes something. “The people who think it’s a sellout would say it’s a compromised world view, but it’s a world view in which you sympathetically engage with people like the secret intelligence and security services.”

Having served during the 7/7 Tube bombings in London, he had felt “a great sense of responsibility in that job. I mean it surprised me, and I know from talking to Keir that it surprised him.”

Aftermath of the explosion at Tavistock Square during the 7/7 terrorist attacks on London

But the real shift, he said, was learning to see a story from all sides. “When you’re considering the case of a death in custody for example, you’re not just stopping at the fact that someone has died in police custody. You’re having to look into it from many different angles including the angle of the police officers who were involved. So everything becomes broader, everything becomes more complex, and you’re not just within a process which permits you to come to the conclusions that you feel you would like to come to emotionally,” he says. 

Starmer, he says, understood that immediately. But arguably, he had experienced something similar long before becoming DPP, in Belfast. 

His initial interest in Private Lee Clegg’s 1999 case, according to friends, lay in power exercised far above the soldier’s head. As Mark Stephens puts it: “He’s making clear that actually there’s a systemic problem with shoot to kill policy and that you shouldn’t be blaming individual soldiers like Clegg for carrying out a policy which frankly the generals and the politicians have imposed on them.” 

The senior barrister in the case, Wiliam Clegg QC (no relation) recalls “no suggestion of shoot to kill policy in the case”, which revolved simply around what happened when. But it was one of the few cases in which he became emotionally involved, feeling the soldier had suffered a “sort of moral injustice”, at least. Did Starmer feel the same? “Well, I think everybody was sympathetic to him, the predicament that he had found himself in. It was very much there but for the grace of God went any squaddie.”

Human rights advisors Keir Starmer and Jane Gordon, with the Northern Ireland Policing Board annual human rights report 2006

Jane Winter, by then closely monitoring Northern Irish politics as director of the campaign group British Irish Rights Watch, however thinks Starmer’s views were privately shifting before he took the case. “He’d already begun to step back from the very hardline ‘troops out’ type position that the Haldane had at the time that they wrote that report. I’m not suggesting that Keir wasn’t a socialist lawyer, I think he was. But he’s more nuanced, as tends to happen to all of us as we grow older. I’m sure doing the Lee Clegg case opened his eyes to some of the Protestant issues.” 

It’s precisely this refusal to be pigeon-holed on one side or another that infuriates Starmer’s political critics now, but it led to his first break into politics. In 2003, the Northern Ireland Policing Board, established under the peace process to oversee police reform, needed a human rights adviser. Starmer was recommended as reliably impartial. 

Masked loyalists in Belfast after clashes that saw police and soldiers attacked with petrol bombs during a bitterly contested Orange Order parade in 2005

Years later, he would say that part-time role taught him he could change things faster from inside the system than from outside it. The deal he and his co-adviser Jane Gordon struck was to analyse police successes as well as its failures, in return for open access to officers and paperwork. By 2005, they had gained senior officers’ trust sufficiently to be inside the command room observing decision making live as serious rioting erupted in Belfast. The radical was inside the circle of trust. 

Two years later, when Starmer began exploring the idea of succeeding Macdonald as DPP, his police work filled what might otherwise have been a gap on his defence lawyer’s CV. 

For Starmer, the DPP’s job was a chance to remake the prosecutorial system with human rights at its heart, and his old mentor Baroness Kennedy encouraged him to take it. She said: “I believed very strongly that although we spent all our lives representing people who don’t usually get a good shout from the law, the only way you create real shifts and change is also by getting your hands on levers to do it.” 

Yet he would soon discover even those levers had limits. 

He had been DPP for six months when a newspaper vendor called Ian Tomlinson was found dead in the street, following anti-capitalist protests against the London G20 summit. An initial post mortem suggested a heart attack, but then video footage emerged showing a Met officer pushing Tomlinson to the ground as he walked home past a police cordon. 

For a lawyer who had often defended protestors, this was close to the bone. 

For the CPS to prosecute, there must first be sufficient evidence, and secondly prosecuting must be in the public interest. Starmer’s problem was evidential. The original post-mortem, performed by a pathologist later struck off for misconduct, was flawed but could not be re-run since the pathologist had destroyed crucial body samples. Prosecutors concluded they couldn’t prove Tomlinson’s cause of death. 

When the CPS announced there would be no charges, public uproar followed. “I phoned him up and said ‘what the hell do you think you’re doing, Keir?’ And I thought he was really good because he took the time to explain to me the facts that lay in the way,” says Jane Winter. “He said ‘we tried, but we really couldn’t make it stand up.’ I admired him for that, because I was really quite cross with him until I understood.” 

Julia Tomlinson and her stepson Paul King following the verdict of unlawful killing of Ian Tomlinson during the 2009 G20 protests

PC Simon Harwood was eventually charged with manslaughter, after an inquest verdict of unlawful killing, but was acquitted.

If the evidence had not led, to paraphrase Macdonald, where public emotion wished to go, then Starmer’s greatest success as DPP came when the two aligned. 

Fiona Ivison’s body was found one cold December morning, in a Doncaster car park. 

She was only 14, a bullied schoolgirl craving affection, when an older pimp began grooming her into what she thought was a loving relationship.

 Two years later, forced into prostitution, she was murdered by a punter. The killer was caught. But her mother Irene, who had fought unsuccessfully to extricate Fiona, wanted the social workers and police she felt had failed her daughter held accountable too. 

Jonathan Cooper, the lawyer she approached, sensed the injustice. But Fiona died in 1993, before the grooming of girls into outwardly consenting but abusive relationships was well understood, and nothing in British law seemed to fit. It was Starmer, working pro bono, who devised a novel way of petitioning the European Court of Human Rights citing the state’s obligation to the vulnerable. Irene Ivison sadly died before the case was completed. But decades later, another chance would come to right similar wrongs. 

Two men walk between back-to-back terraced housing in Rochdale, 2014

In the summer of 2011, a series of reports in The Times about so-called “grooming gangs” sexually exploiting troubled young girls in northern towns caught the interest of Nazir Afzal, who had just moved from London to Manchester to become CPS regional prosecutor. He asked around the office; had anything similar happened locally? A female lawyer remembered a case three years earlier in Rochdale, where the victim had been judged insufficiently “credible” to prosecute (a decision taken locally, without ever crossing Starmer’s desk). 

Watching old police footage of her describing brutal gang rape, Afzal re-opened the case, flagging it to Starmer early on due to potential media and political interest. 

Afzal felt the initial failure to prosecute had emboldened the men. “When the initial allegation was made in 2008, it was one victim and two alleged perpetrators. By the time it came to me in 2011 there were nine perpetrators and 47 victims,” he said.

But in 2012, Afzal secured nine convictions, opening the floodgates to similar prosecutions nationwide.

The verdict triggered punishing criticism of prosecutors’ earlier failure to act. But instead of becoming defensive, says Afzal, Starmer’s instinct was to open up. “Keir said ‘look that can’t be the only one we got wrong, what about the other cases that didn’t get to the stage where we prosecuted?’” 

He asked police and prosecutors nationwide to submit relevant old cases for review, and lowered the legal hurdle for overturning old decisions not to prosecute, which had required them to be not just wrong but demonstrably unreasonable. “My point and his point and one we persuaded everybody else on was that it doesn’t matter whether it was unreasonable or not, if it’s wrong it’s wrong,” recalls Afzal. “By changing that terminology we managed to get so many more cases through the door.”

What followed was a kind of national reckoning. Serial predators from Gary Glitter to Rolf Harris and the BBC presenter Stuart Hall, were jailed. The then home secretary, Theresa May, established a public inquiry into institutional child abuse, examining thousands of long-buried crimes. But Starmer did not stop at the mistakes of the past. 

Chief Crown prosecutor Nazir Afzal makes a statement after broadcaster Stuart Hall was sentenced to 15 months in prison in June 2013 after pleading guilty to 14 charges of indecent assault against 13 girls between 1967 and 1985

He rewrote CPS guidance on assessing victims’ credibility, realising that the idea of a so-called “model victim” discriminated against those cynically targeted by abusers. Prosecutors were encouraged to pursue cases once deemed too “difficult”; sex workers, or victims who’d been drinking.

“He was saying ‘don’t focus on making decisions that produce convictions now, don’t say that because she was flirting or she was wearing a short dress the jury’s not going to buy this,’” says Vera Baird QC, the Labour MP turned Victims’ Commissioner for England & Wales. “What you need to do is look at the case without those myths and stereotypes and prosecute if you think it’s a case that’s true and strong, and if you don’t succeed you will learn to deal better with those myths and stereotypes next time.” 

Starmer introduced new measures protecting vulnerable victims from excessive cross-examination, and gave victims a legal right to challenge CPS decisions on their cases. 

He has since been accused both of triggering a witch-hunt where malicious allegations were too readily believed – the former DJ Paul Gambaccini, who spent a year on bail over false allegations of molestation, recently threatened to stand against him at the next election in protest – and conversely of not going far enough to make change stick. Rape prosecutions have fallen sharply since he left, with Baird’s annual report in 2019 warning of “the virtual decriminalisation of rape”. 

Some Labour politicians now privately question whether Starmer’s willingness as DPP to accept Conservative austerity cuts weakened the service. 

The former attorney general, Dominic Grieve, dismisses the idea that Starmer went too far. “The CPS is there to respond to what the police are doing, it’s not there to carry out or to lay a climate of witch hunt, and I don’t think he did that.” 

As for cuts, he and Starmer both pushed back against a second round in 2013 but Starmer did not resist in 2010, he confirms: “Nope, not at all. He said ‘I understand that this is the situation the country’s in and we have got to try to deal with it’.” 

But linking falling rape prosecutions to those cuts is another matter entirely. Baird doesn’t think budget was the problem, and Nazir Afzal remembers Starmer actively prioritising resources for long, complex sex offence cases. 

This year, in a judicial review launched by several women’s charities (coincidentally led by Philippa Kaufmann QC) probing whether the approach to tackling difficult cases was dropped under his successors, the appeal court ruled that there was no evidence of a change.

It illustrates something of the pressures on Starmer that in the summer of 2011, when the Rochdale case was re-opened, grooming was only one issue in an overflowing intray. 

That July, he testified before MPs probing tabloid phone hacking. 

The saga began before his time, with the 2006 jailing of News of the World reporter Clive Goodman for intercepting royal aides’ voicemails. 

Following new hacking claims in 2009, both Starmer and the police had reviewed their files, concluding there were no grounds for further prosecutions. But by 2011, with hacked celebrities successfully suing News International for damages, a public spat erupted between police and prosecutors over who was to blame for seemingly slow progress. 

The following summer, the CPS finally charged the former News of the World editor Andy Coulson and former Sun editor Rebekah Brooks with conspiracy to intercept voicemails. Brooks was acquitted but Coulson went to jail.

Andy Coulson, former editor of the News of The World, leaves Lewisham police station in July 2011 after his arrest by police investigating phone hacking

Since Coulson had worked for David Cameron and Brooks was his good friend, the case was politically sensitive, although Grieve vehemently denies any government pressure was ever applied to Starmer over it. 

But News International reporters had tailed politicians investigating hacking and Starmer was, says Cooper, well aware of being a potential target. “He wasn’t going to be intimidated or knocked off course, but he was aware of the fact that there would be people who then became much more interested in him.” 

There may, admittedly, have been limited dirt to dig on a man so punctilious that when they cycled home from work, Starmer stopped at every red light while Cooper sailed through. Nonetheless, for anyone with political ambitions, the Murdoch press was a powerful enemy to make and the fallout from the trial may not be entirely over. Brooks resumed her career at News UK after the trial, and now serves as its chief executive overseeing Rupert Murdoch’s British titles – whose reach and influence within British politics remains famously extensive. 

The summer of 2011 saw one final significant controversy. On 4 August, armed officers shot dead a suspect named Mark Duggan in north London, sparking days of rioting across British cities that brought police perilously close to losing control.

Police officers in riot gear stand near a burning car in Hackney, August 2011

The CPS responded with all-night court sittings to process defendants. But the seemingly harsh sentences dished out – 16 months for a looter who stole ice-cream from a Manchester branch of Patisserie Valerie, or six months for stealing bottled water from a supermarket – made headlines, particularly since the defendants were disproportionately young, Black men. 

Judges decide sentences. But it was prosecutors who charged the looters with burglary, not theft, and provided statements revealing the impact of the violence on frightened shopkeepers or families barricaded in at home.

“People need to put themselves back in Salford and north London in the summer of 2011,” says Afzal now. “I had helicopters over me, I didn’t know whether it was safe to go out the door. This was not a straightforward theft, it was theft in certain circumstances.” The community impact statements, he says, merely gave judges the full picture. “They were then sentencing these individuals with the context and the backdrop of people’s fear, of the fact that all right they may have only stolen XYZ but it meant that person couldn’t work in their shop for weeks.” 

Yet these convictions of young Black men, over riots triggered by the death of a Black suspect for which no police officer stood trial, only fuelled a longstanding sense of injustice for some. 

Metropolitan Police officers arrest a man suspected of involvement in the riots

As DPP, Starmer demonstrably moved the dial on sexual violence. In his final year the CPS carried out 3,692 rape prosecutions, with a record high conviction rate; that had fallen after his departure to 3,034 by 2018-19, at a time when actual reports of rape were rising. He also left behind a more diverse organisation, with five of 13 regional prosecutors from ethnic minority backgrounds. But shortly before he left, he pointed out that in the previous 12 years the CPS had brought just four charges of manslaughter over deaths in police custody or following police contact; none ended in conviction. 

When a statue of slaver Edward Colston plummeted into Bristol harbour last summer, at the height of Black Lives Matter protests around the world, the ripples spread far and wide. 

Three decades earlier, Starmer could easily have been defending protestors like this in court. Now the Labour leader was being asked to pick sides in a culture war. He chose both, or as some saw it, neither. Starmer kneeled in solidarity with protestors but said the statue should have been consensually removed, not toppled. He referred clumsily in a TV interview to the “Black Lives Matter movement, or moment”– words interpreted, to his mortification, as dismissive – and described protestors’ demands to defund the police as “just nonsense”. 

That slogan’s meaning is disputed; it originally meant diverting money from a trigger-happy US police force into social programmes, but some of those chanting it clearly had a more radical dismantling of the police in mind. 

A British Black Lives Matter spokesperson however dismissed the Labour leader as just a “cop in an expensive suit”. 

The statue of slave trader Edward Colston on its way to being dumped in Bristol docks, June 2020

The curious thing is that a lawyer steeped in complex rights-based arguments should find this so difficult. Was this not what he trained for? In law, Keir Starmer earned respect for being able to see both sides of the question, a thoughtfulness that might prove useful in government. But in opposition, his aversion to binary views on complex issues – trans rights or gender critical feminism? Corbyn or Blair? rebel or cop? – can sound like sitting on the fence. 

“It’s undoubtedly the case that if you are rational and behave with tremendous integrity – which I think are really hallmarks that I would identify in Keir – your success in the hurly-burly of politics is not, particularly at the top, guaranteed,” says Dominic Grieve, another lawyer-turned-politician. “Roles will be found for you within the political system which value those particular attributes. But whether they make the leader of a political party in the modern era or indeed in any era frankly – that I think is more of an open question.”

Keir Starmer’s record in the law is revealing. It shows a thoughtful man committed to social change, but not a revolutionary; someone operating skilfully within the system, not seeking to smash it.

It suggests a long-term thinker, confident in his own judgment, intensely focussed. When the McLibel Two were drowning in the details of their case, Dave Morris recalls, Starmer’s advice was that “you don’t have to chase every hare that’s set running”. That remains his watchword, the reason he won’t demand Cabinet heads roll over Covid-19. What he’s got his eye on is the investigation after it’s all over,” says Mark Stephens. “He knows that’s where the corruption is going to come out, that’s where the political stick will be, so he doesn’t have to distract himself with that now.” 

But Starmer’s record also offers his opponents a target to attack. For the radical left, he’s too much of a cop; the Tories conversely will portray him as soft on crime. Priti Patel, the home secretary, has already accused him of a “lack of interest in wanting to prosecute such horrendous crimes against women” despite a record at the CPS suggesting the opposite; she cited the bungled 2009 case of black cab rapist John Worboys, at whose trial the current prime minister’s fiancee Carrie Symonds famously testified, and the original dropping of the Rochdale case. The chief culprits in the Worboys case were a flawed police investigation and misjudged attempt to parole him, not CPS charging decisions. The Rochdale case was dropped locally without ever crossing Starmer’s desk. 

Starmer and his wife Victoria clap for carers, May 2020

But facts evaporate in the heat of an election; simple human stories stick. And Keir Starmer still lacks a simple story about himself.

When a barrister dons his wig in court, it makes him more anonymous. The gesture symbolises a removal of the emotional self, revealing the pure lines of the argument. But politics is different. Sometimes it’s the man who brings the argument alive.

Photographs Getty Images, PA, Shutterstock, Alamy

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Obstacle course

Obstacle course

Before he can win power, Keir Starmer has a series of challenges ahead of him: dealing with the Left, rebuilding the Red Wall and finding a way to defeat Boris Johnson

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