Who is Keir Starmer? There’s the basic answer: he’s the leader of Britain’s Labour party. But beyond that? Gaby Hinsliff delved into his past to find out more.
Basia Cummings: 30 years ago, a giant corporation decided to take on the little guys.
This was a time before activist consumers and Twitterstorms.
And that mismatch of power gave courage to a company whose golden arches logo had already become synonymous with the strength and the reach of capitalism.
It’s here that I want to start this week’s story – the case of the McLibel Two.
It’s an important case, for many reasons, but the reason we’re starting here is – it’s the case that made Keir Starmer’s name as a young lawyer.
“Even with limited resources, even unable to bring all the evidence to court, you can still win significant victories, through a belief in what you’re saying, a belief in free speech, and the courage to continually put your case forward.”–Keir Starmer in 1996 talking about McLibel
This is Keir Starmer in a previous life.
A radical young lawyer, fighting in the courts for human rights…
It all feels a really long way away from where we are today.
Because, one year into his leadership of the Labour party, his approval ratings are fading fast. Labour members who voted for him are not sure what they got.
Hints of the old Keir Starmer occasionally peep through. Like when he’s used his legal training to take Boris Johnson apart in the Commons.
“Standing up every week and saying it’s a stunning success is kidding no-one. That isn’t giving people confidence in the system. They would like a prime minister who stands up and says, ‘There are problems, and this is what I’m going to do about them.’”–Keir Starmer at PMQs
But sometimes he just seems lacking – in passion, in charisma, in his ability to connect, and in refusing to take a side.
It’s a long way away from how he introduced himself when he was running to become the next leader of the Labour party after Corbyn’s failure at the 2019 election.
His campaign video then showed him standing up for striking miners, poll tax protesters, environmentalists and anti-war campaigners.
[Clip: Keir Starmer Labour leadership launch video]
And that is all true… but what does he stand for today?
In the age of political showmen – many of them on the opposing political bench – he’s really struggled to establish himself as a character. And, as we know, all good stories need strong characters.
Now, if we go back to basics, in storytelling terms, character comes down to action over time.
And so, that’s what we’re doing this week. We’re investigating Keir Starmer’s action over time – his career. Because although he’s only been in politics for five years, he was a lawyer for nearly three decades before that… and the cases that he chose, the decisions that he took tell us more about him now than any number of political speeches now.
I’m Basia Cummings and, this week, with the essential help of the journalist Gaby Hinsliff, we’re investigating the lawyer who wants to be prime minister.
What his legal career tells us about his personal values and political character.
We’re asking whether a person who succeeds in the law by being reasonable and rational, who rises to the top of the criminal justice system by taking one side and then the other, can make it as a politician.
On This week’s Slow Newscast: the reasonable case of Keir Rodney Starmer.
So to 1990, and to two activists: a postman, Dave Morris, and a gardener, Helen Steel.
Gaby, you’ve been digging into this story for weeks now and you’ve spoken to a huge number of sources on the record. People who have known and worked with Starmer since the early days, who worked on key cases with him, and who have watched him change. Can you just fill us in on what happened in the courts?
Gaby Hinsliff: So this is a case of five activists originally from a little green protest group called London Greenpeace, no relation to the big famous charity, which in the late 1980s was protesting against all sorts of things. It was an anti-capitalist group, it was an environmentalist group, sort of radical protest group. And it started a campaign against McDonald’s which involved handing out leaflets outside McDonald’s restaurants, accusing it of underpaying its workers and bad environmental practices and cruelty to animals in the food chain and exploiting children through its advertising and so on and so on and so on.
And in 1990 they’re served with libel writ saying, you know, pack it in. And three of them, at that point, gave in, apologised. Two of them – David Morris and Helen Steel – didn’t want to apologise and wanted to fight the case in the courts. Now, obviously, they couldn’t afford lawyers, no money for lawyers, so the odds were completely stacked against them. This is a very complex thing to take on by yourself and they had no legal training. But someone gave them a name of a friendly barrister called Keir Starmer, who offered to help them for free, give them some background advice so they could represent themselves in court.
Helen Steel: Keir actually drafted our initial pleadings…
Basia: That’s Helen Steel…
Helen: …because we had no idea how to submit a defence or anything. Basically, if Keir hadn’t offered to write the defence for us, draft the document, we’d never have been able to fight the case.
Basia: But this was a case where the odds were firmly stacked against them.
Helen: I mean, actually, at the time, McDonald’s were threatening to have us jailed, if they got an… they were applying for an injunction. And if we had breached the injunction by continuing the campaign, we could have been jailed. So, yes, there was a threat, there was also a threat that we could be made bankrupt because the complexity of the libel law means that just their lawyers… even though we were unrepresented, the cost of their lawyers would be enough to bankrupt us if we didn’t win every single thing.
Dave Morris: They were creating this climate of fear where only their rubbish propaganda advertising would be the only thing that people would hear about McDonald’s. So that was the real threat. That society would be brainwashed by their corporate propaganda.
Basia: For them, this wasn’t ever just about McDonalds. It was about standing up to global capitalism…
Somehow, they got to trial. And it turned out to be the longest libel case in English history.
Gaby: Seven years later, after they’d basically become pretty much full-time, unpaid lawyers, the two of them, the judge found for them… on not all of the points raised in the libel case, but four of them. This was a victory no-one ever expected two complete amateurs to win. And it had repercussions around the world. This was the case that everyone was following. It led to a sort of… it aired their arguments far more widely than they could ever have done than just by distributing leaflets outside McDonald’s.
And it went down in history as sort of the great famous corporate PR disaster of all time for McDonald’s.
Basia: But the case wasn’t finished. Starmer then acted for them in the European courts, challenging the refusal to grant legal aid in libel cases with significant public interest implications. And, in 2005, they won.
Dave: So the European Court verdict in 2005 was a victory on declaring that a trial had been unfair and an attack on the right to freedom of expression. And certainly it put off corporations from suing anybody else – suing campaigners, anyway, and I think corporations were being advised by their lawyers not to do a McLibel. So it was very effective in that way.
But I think, most importantly, it galvanised opposition to corporations because, for the first time in history, a corporation was on trial globally during the whole case. Of course, the longer it went on the worse it was for Mcdonald’s. And I think that that really had opened a whole can of worms about the power of corporations and what they were doing for profit around the world.
Basia: But for Keir Starmer it was a test of what he considered two of the most important human rights: the right to protest, and the right to freedom of speech.
And if McDonalds had won, it could have had a chilling impact on activism more broadly. And here was this young, radical Starmer taking on the establishment.
So the McLibel two won, even though they were hopelessly outgunned.
But this wasn’t just a case of a global corporation with expensive lawyers against two little guys.
It was actually worse than that.
They didn’t know it at the time, but McDonald’s had hired private investigators to infiltrate London Greenpeace. All of this emerged in court.
What didn’t come out in court was that they had also been targeted by undercover police officers, who were keeping them under secret surveillance.
All of that – and something much worse – would emerge later.
The McLibel case really built Keir Starmer’s reputation and he became known for a series of human rights test cases. He was the go-to lawyer for Liberty, and he worked pro bono on death penalty cases in the Caribbean.
But much to the surprise of a lot of his legal colleagues, in 2008, the radical lawyer opened up a new chapter in his life, and in our story. He moved to the heart of the establishment and got the job as director of public prosecutions at the spearhead of the Crown Prosecution Service.
Here he would be consulted by government over key criminal justice policy, he would help guide which crimes are prioritised for prosecutions, and he would be the face of politically sensitive, high profile cases.
So, after years of trying to bring change through painstaking legal battles, he was now on the inside of the justice system.
It’s here I want to bring in Gaby back in and ask, what kind of approach did he take to the job?
Gaby: So if you remember back to the summer of 2011. The Times newspaper in particular was starting to run stories about what were then called grooming gangs… these cases of girls, often very young girls, often runaways, often girls who were in care, being sexually exploited by groups of much older men who convinced them that they were their boyfriends.
And, as these stories were running, the CPS had just appointed as regional prosecutor in the north a man called Nazir Afzal, who had a reputation in the CPS for going after cases where things that weren’t being taken seriously by the criminal justice system. Crimes that weren’t being recognised. And this obviously fell into that category. He started asking around the office, “Does anyone know of any cases like this around here?” And one of the female lawyers remembered a case three years before in Rochdale.
[Clip: News clip about abuse in Rochdale]
The local prosecutor decided not to prosecute, they decided that the victim was not credible. And this often happened with the grooming gang cases because the girls have led difficult lives. And the police, in many cases, didn’t take them seriously. So he reopened the case and that led to a prosecution.
[Clip: News clips about conviction of nine men who sexually exploited young girls in Rochdale]
And at that point it was potentially quite embarrassing for the CPS because they’d obviously dropped this case before and it was successfully prosecuted, so it was clear that they’d made a mistake initially and there is obviously a potential temptation at that point to brush it all under the carpet and make it go away. But what Nazir Afzal told me was that it was Keir Starmer – of course, by then, DPP, running the CPS – who said, “No, if we’ve got it wrong in this case then we have probably got it wrong in other cases and let’s go out and find them.”
Nazir Afzal: One of the things that we did in the Rochdale case was to reverse a decision that had been previously taken not to prosecute. And so 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, or we dropped, or whatever it might be?” So he set up a national panel which was chief constables, myself and a couple of other chief prosecutors, him chairing it.
And that panel invited police officers and prosecutors from around the country to refer cases that they had concerns about from the past, you know, non-recent cases – we called them “historic” then; we don’t do that any more. And we were now looking at cases ten years, 20 years beforehand and revisiting them and deciding whether or not we should reinvestigate them, or the police should reinvestigate them, or whether we should change the decision not to prosecute to one to prosecute because it was essential that we put right our mistakes.
Basia: For Keir, being DPP was a chance to effect change from within the system…
Gaby: And from that opens the floodgates, not just to grooming gang prosecutions – we’ve seen dozens of them now – but also to a whole sort of buried episode of historic sex crimes where people presumably thought they would’ve got away with it. And that’s when you see big name prosecutions: Gary Glitter, Rolf Harris, Stuart Hall. But also so many people coming forward with allegations about childhood sex abuse that Theresa May sets up a public inquiry.
And from then you also see Keir Starmer at CPS changing the way these cases are prosecuted in the future. So he changes the definition of what makes a “credible victim” because the CPS had guidelines on what tests a victim had to pass before you thought you could bring this case before court. And he said to his prosecutors: bring the more difficult cases, the cases where you don’t think a jury will be sympathetic. Try them.
Nazir: They were untouchable, or they thought they were, and no reason why they shouldn’t think that because having decided not to prosecute these cases overtly we’re giving them licence to do what they want. The Rochdale case being a case in point. When the initial allegation was made in 2008, it was one victim, Girl A, and two alleged perpetrators. Once that had been decided not to prosecute, by the time it came to me in 2011 there were nine perpetrators and 47 victims, and so the decision not prosecute led to 45, 46 other girls suffering and more perpetrators getting involved. So that’s the consequence of not doing your job properly.
We had this ridiculous model of a victim; she had to come out of a nunnery, that you know she must have been fighting off the rapist, all those myths and stereotypes. And we had to challenge ourselves on that. And, additionally, there was another major policy change in 2013, which again 2012-13, which he brought about, which was that we shouldn’t just be focusing on the credibility of the victim, we should also be focusing on the credibility of the suspect. So if you’re looking at her mobile phone history or her Facebook or her social media history, you should be looking at the suspect’s social media history, his phone history, and people who know him. So actually you’re looking at both sides of the investigation.
Basia: By this stage, the CPS was facing severe cuts as a result of the coalition government’s austerity programme – cuts, incidentally, that Starmer did not resist, Dominic Grieve told us – and these were expensive, complex prosecutions. But Afzal says that they were important enough to Starmer that he made sure that they were resourced. The cases also led to changes in the way that sex offence cases involving vulnerable victims were handled in court
Nazir: We also worked with the judiciary, two major things with the judiciary. One is that we brought in a video which juries will see before a trial which talks to them about consent… it didn’t happen before that.
The second thing was the trial process itself. In the Rochdale case, Girl A gave evidence for six days, she was cross examined by 11 barristers, nine of them calling her a liar over and over again. That is the most traumatic thing you can imagine and it achieves nothing. And so, again, only at the level that Keir could do it, I couldn’t do this, but we discussed with the judiciary about the process itself, as a result of which we now have something called “ground rules hearings”. So before a trial starts the judge looks at the evidence and says, ‘Right, there’s nine barristers in this room, one of you can ask questions of this woman or girl and having heard her evidence, read her evidence, you have 45 minutes,” And that – putting a time limit on it so that there’s no badgering and no regurgitation and no retraumatising – means that all you’re doing is focusing on the quality of the evidence and you’re not able to destroy a witness, which sadly the process did over and over again
So there are two major significant changes to the way the judiciary works and they were brought about under his leadership.
Basia: Gaby, what do you think this shows us?
Gaby: I think this illustrates this idea of his that he could bring change from within more easily than he could from outside an organisation as a jobbing lawyer. Just bringing case after case, you’re not going to achieve these kinds of structural changes. But I think it also shows you an emotionally engaged Starmer here. I mean, Nazir Afzal told me that Keir was apoplectic about the way these girls have been treated. It wasn’t just another day in the office to him, this was something in which his emotions were invested.
Basia: There’s one more big episode that we want to talk about from Starmer’s time at the CPS.
Gaby: So this in August 2011 and it started with the death of a suspected gangster called Mark Duggan who was shot dead by armed police who surrounded the cab he was travelling in. So riots break out in London.
[Clip: archive of riots after death of Mark Duggan]
Gaby: And mass panic. Public alarm. Police were so stretched it looked as if they were losing control. Huge public uproar. Political uproar.
The CPS responds robustly: there are all-night court sittings to process this huge volume of defendants; police cells are full to bursting; and then the sentences start to come out. And there was controversy. There were some alarming headlines about the kind of sentences that were starting to be handed out. 16 months for stealing an ice cream from a branch of Patisserie Valerie in Manchester. These were not the sort of sentences people associated with that kind of crime.
And so there begins to be a sort of conversation about, well, hang on, it’s disproportionately young Black men who were being convicted in riots sparked by the death of a Black man for which no police officer ever stood trial for or was held accountable. And that, for some communities, was seen as an example of all the reasons they distrusted the police.
And, on the other side of the ledger, this was sort of terrifying for the general public, during which people were frightened to come out of their homes. It was terrifying for shopkeepers who were stormed by mobs breaking into their shops. And the sentences and the criminal justice response was a reaction to that, it was a reaction to… this had been a terrifying episode in which the sentences needed to reflect the violence used and needed to serve as deterrents.
Nazir: People need to put themselves back in Salford and north London in the summer of 2011. Where I live in Manchester, 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. And so the only thing that we did differently as an organisation and, again I started it and Keir was supportive nationally, was to put before the court what we called “community impact statements”. This was a Blair initiative. It was an initiative change that enables us to do that. Everybody’s heard of victim impact statements, so that if you’re a victim the judge sees how it’s impacted on you. What we said was that the law allows us to do this, so we got community impact statements.
So there were statements from members of the community in Salford or Manchester, or wherever they may be, saying the impact of the events of that day or those days had on them. The judge saw that, so they were then sentencing these individuals with the context and the backdrop of people’s fear, of the fact that.. alright, they may have only stolen X, Y or Z, but it meant that person couldn’t work in their shop for weeks or months on end afterwards. And so the judges were allowed to take that into account by law. All that we were doing was giving the judge as much information as possible. So I don’t have any qualms about those decisions at all.
Gaby: I think here you see almost the hard end of being DPP and particularly for someone who would go on to be a Labour politician. We saw in the Rochdale case someone who was on the side of vulnerable victims against serial sexual predators and it was a groundbreaking position to be in, but it’s also a politically comfortable position to be in, and I think the London riots are showing something different. They’re showing Keir Starmer grappling with the hard end of criminal justice and it’s a case that people will come back to in future years when they’re asking themselves, “Whose side was Keir on?”
Basia: So let’s just take a moment here to review: the McLibel Two, taking on a corporate giant; The Rochdale grooming case where vulnerable young girls were targeted – and then found their cases being disregarded because prosecutors and police felt they would not make credible witnesses; and then, finally, the riots of 2011 and the prosecutions that all flowed from the police shooting of a Black suspect. I want to return to Gaby and explore the significance of these three cases that we focus in on. Gaby, can you tell me why you chose them?
Gaby: There are so many moments that we could’ve chosen, so many big, high profile cases, but I think these are the ones where you see Starmer’s past and present collide. So they tell us a lot about issues that mattered to him then and matter to him now, they tell you about how he operates within the system.
A lot of people aren’t sure they know what Starmer stands for. Some of the decisions he’s taken as leader – opposing immediate tax rises, or having press conferences in front of a Union Jack – leave Labour members who voted for him wondering, well, what happened to the radical socialist that they were being sold? And a lot of the voters that Labour needs to win back still aren’t quite sure who he is.
If you think about Jeremy Corbyn – he prided himself on never having changed his mind about anything, still having all the same views he held half a century ago. You can see that as evidence of principle or you can see that as evidence of stubbornness, but it means you know where you are. But Starmer definitely prides himself on changing his mind when the facts change – at 58, he doesn’t stand by everything he believed in his 20s.
He was on Desert Island Discs last November and Lauren Laverne asked him about the views he expressed in his 20s when he was writing for a short lived, quasi-Marxist magazine called Socialist Alternative.
“Certainly I started by thinking I had all the answers. And as I’ve grown up I’ve learned the power of saying ‘I don’t know, let’s have a look at that.’ And that’s been a very important lesson for me.”
Interviewer: “And are you prepared to say that as a leader?”
“I’m prepared to say it and do say it. I think it’s very important to say I don’t know. The best decisions that leaders make are those that are fully challenged by other people, and I think the power of saying ‘I don’t know’, the power of looking at a decision and saying is that actually right…”-Keir Starmer on Desert Island Discs
Basia: I should say, his music choices were not bad. A bit of Northern Soul and Orange Juice from his younger days; Beethoven, twice, to remind him of his wedding day and his Dad; Jim Reeves for his Mum; and Stormzy for his kids.
So at least we’ve filled him out as a character a bit more here.
Gaby: He’s one of those people who wants to change things from inside the system, not smash it up and start again. And he achieved change quite seamlessly, I think. He’s one of those people who makes other people think it was all their idea. He’s not confrontational.
But this is also someone who, when he joined the very left-wing Haldane Society of Socialist Lawyers, suggested they drop “socialist” from the name, which went down extraordinarily badly. And he was the defence lawyer who helped get Private Lee Clegg off a murder charge – and this is a British soldier convicted in the early 1990s over the fatal shooting of two teenage joy riders in Northern Ireland – so a hugely controversial case on the left. There was great consternation among his left-wing legal friends when he took that case.
And, as head of the CPS, he came in under a Labour government, but he had a perfectly smooth relationship with David Cameron’s coalition government. He played his part in implementing austerity cuts at the CPS and, when I interviewed the then Tory attorney general Dominic Grieve, who was his main sort of day-to-day contact in that government, Dominic Grieve absolutely sings his praises.
He really is not easy to pigeonhole and that, I think, is what people struggle with now.
Basia: Part of the journey he went on in his career was from the idealist human rights lawyer to the director of public prosecutions, which is quite a leap and leaves you wondering: was he really ever that radical at all?
So let’s get back to the McLibel Two because this case really shows us how far Starmer has come. And, as I said earlier, London Greenpeace had been infiltrated by undercover cops. And, in fact, shockingly, the man that Helen Steel was living with when she was served the libel writ, someone she thought was a fellow committed activist, turned out to be an undercover cop.
Helen: I was living with him at the time that I got the writ from McDonald’s and he picked me up from meetings that we had with Keir Starmer and you know, obviously, I talked to him about how we were fighting the case and what we planned to do. He actually tried to persuade me not to fight the case
Basia: After the McLibel trial began, Helen’s boyfriend vanished, pleading a breakdown. When she tried to trace him, she realised everything he had told her was, in her words, a “pack of lies”.
Helen: After he disappeared, I was extremely worried about him. He kind of feigned a mental breakdown at the time he left and I was extremely worried about him. I was still in love with him as well, and so I tried to find him and basically everything that I found – everything that I investigated – turned out that he’d told me a pack of lies.
And then, one day, when I was on my way home from the McLibel hearing, I went into St Katherine’s House, the registry of births, deaths and marriages, which at that time was in the same street as the High Court, and looked through the death records and found that he had actually been using the identity of a child who died when he was eight years old.
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. And it also meant that if he’s not real and I thought I knew him so well, how can anything – how can anyone else that’s in front of me – how can I know if they’re real, or if they might be a police spy? It really messes with your head.
Basia: Years later, it became apparent that other women had suffered in the same way – and police forces had colluded in these sham relationships.
Helen Steel and Dave Morris are both due to testify to an inquiry into undercover spying set up by Theresa May when she was prime minister, which will examine the practice more broadly.
And, actually, Starmer himself has faced calls from activist groups to testify to the inquiry too.
What did he know when he was Director of Public Prosecutions? And what did he know about other cases involving evidence secured by undercover officers?
There’s more, though. This is a really key moment, a moment of collision between past and present that Gaby talked about.
Gaby: We have a real clash here between the sort of people Starmer had always defended in the past: peace protestors, striking trade unionists, lots of radical progressive causes – and the state, which we now know in the 1980s and 1990s was infiltrating not just criminal gangs, as people might expect, but also much more benign political activist groups, trade unions, radical grassroots movements and so on.
And as DPP, Starmer did obviously have to work closely with the police and intelligence services. That’s part of the job and that’s why some of his more radical old comrades were surprised when he took it. I think it was seen as going over to the dark side.
Basia: And that’s really interesting because the stance Starmer takes today goes against what he learned in those very early days of his human rights career.
Gaby: I think if there’s one decision he’s taken since becoming leader which puzzles many of his old friends and fellow travellers, it’s his decision last October to whip Labour MPs to abstain on the Covert Human Intelligence Sources Bill (everyone calls it the “Spy Cops” Bill).
It is pretty controversial. It offers full immunity from civil or criminal prosecution to undercover officers who commit crimes in the course of maintaining their cover, sort of not to be rumbled.
And two Labour frontbenchers quit over his abstention.
Starmer’s predecessor as DPP, Lord Macdonald, has publicly expressed concerns about the Bill.
So has Dominic Grieve, who was attorney general, as we said, for much of Starmer’s time as DPP.
And rebels in the Lords included Baroness Helena Kennedy, his old friend and legal mentor, and his former shadow cabinet colleague Shami Chakrabarti, Baroness Chakrabarti, who led the civil rights group Liberty in the noughties when he was its go-to barrister.
Basia: So, hang on a moment, let’s just be clear here: that’s his predecessor; his direct political report; his legal mentor; and his human rights ally. All of them now lined up against him on the spy cops issue.
So Gaby interviewed all of them.
This is Shami Chakrabarti…
Shami Chakrabarti: I can support the principle of undercover policing, of course. It’s essential to have security, individual and national security. And, further, I support the practical reality that sometimes undercover – it’s not just cops, it’s undercover agents of the state, agents of M15, MI6, the police and other authorities – sometimes they’re going to have to commit crimes in order to keep their cover. So [it’s] ludicrous, I accept, to expect someone to go undercover in a terrorist cell without potentially committing the crime of being a member of a banned organisation. That’s the status quo.
But what isn’t the status quo is the idea that, once you’ve done that, you have total immunity from prosecution. But I don’t do it with a golden ticket or licence that will cover anything I do regardless of whether it was proportionate or not.
And my concern about the Spy Cops Bill – long title: Covert Human Intelligence Sources (Criminal Conduct) Bill – is that it goes just a step too far. It’s a land grab. It doesn’t put the existing complex arrangements just on a clear statutory footing, which to some extent would be fine, it goes further and grants that total immunity from both criminal prosecution and civil liability, which is important too for third-party innocents who get in the way and are collateral damage in a car chase or whatever it happens to be. This is possibly, constitutionally, the most dangerous piece of legislation that I’ve ever engaged with in my adult life.
Basia: And she really thinks that Starmer is in the wrong place on it..
Shami: The Labour Party should be the party of human rights. It has been the party that has brought in most human rights and equality legislation throughout the decades, and I think that if we want to be patriotic, which is apparently what so many people are encouraging us to be, there’s nothing more patriotic in my mind – apart from the NHS, of course – than the rule of law.
Basia: You can tell that she was dismayed, but she’s also got experience of leading an organisation – does she give him any sympathy ?
Shami: I guess leadership is always lonely, but part of leadership is about listening to friends and critical friends alike. And I think part of leadership is about explaining your… if you have changed your position on things that you’ve been associated with in the past, it’s as well to explain. I just think people need to come with you in your thought process and, in some respects. this is a leadership that does so much of its working out in public. I mean we’ve been, I think… we’ve probably seen rather too much briefing from leadership sources in recent months about, first, we’re going to have a narrative, and then we’re going to have policy, and what the narrative’s going to be. In some respects there’s been, ironically, so much showing of your workings in public, and yet, on things like this, I’m still at a loss to understand what the argument really is.
Basia: Helen Steel, who went through the trauma of discovering that she’d been living with an undercover cop, told us her big fear is that the Spy Cops Bill could make it harder for women in her position to bring cases against the police.
Helen: If it happens to women again in the future, it would basically prevent women from bringing such a case… to give officers, basically, legal immunity from anything and everything that they do. It’s absolutely shocking that anyone could think that’s an appropriate law to pass
Basia: So I wanted to ask Gaby: why is Keir Starmer now so relaxed about this bill?
Gaby: Well, Labour says that, in practice, immunity is just being granted behind closed doors anyway, so it’s best to have this out in the open and on a statutory footing, so you can ensure it’s compliant with legal safeguards. But, as we’ve heard, not everyone is convinced. Some of his critics think it’s pure political calculation – that he’s worried about the Tories saying he’s soft on national security, so he doesn’t want to give them an opportunity to say that.
But what struck me is that, before he ever went into politics, as DPP, he took a pretty robust approach to some issues that were causing civil liberties concerns. He wasn’t someone that kept home secretaries awake at night, wondering what he was going to argue with them about next.
So I wondered whether working closely with intelligence and security services – both as DPP and, before that, as a human rights adviser to the Northern Ireland Policing Board – had shifted his perspective. Did he come to think some things were a bit more complicated than he’d thought in his 20s?
Basia: We also heard from Ken Macdonald, now a Lib Dem peer and Starmer’s predecessor, who also was accused of selling out when he joined the CPS.
Ken Macdonald: Everything changes, everything changes… and I guess this is part of the process that people outside see as part of the sellout, that you begin to factor in things that you hadn’t thought about before. I mean, 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 – you’re coming to a conclusion that you think is genuinely the right one from all these different perspectives and that sometimes leads to a different conclusion.
You feel a great sense of responsibility in that job that you somehow… I mean, it surprised me, and I know from talking to Keir that it surprised him.
Basia: But Macdonald, who has expressed reservations about some aspects of the Spy Cops Bill himself, doesn’t rule out some element of political calculation, too, for Keir Starmer
Ken: He’s not DPP any more. He’s leading a political party and he wants that political party to win the next election. He wants to be prime minister. So he will be making other judgements that he thinks assist in those things happening, and they will be political judgements.
I mean, I happen to disagree with him about aspects of that Bill, but I entirely understand why, from a political point of view, he’s taking the position that he is.
Basia: Changing things from the inside of the system sometimes requires compromises, and that’s perhaps where Starmer parts company with the McLibel Two – they still regard him with great affection, but they are suspicious of conventional politics.
Helen: I had a conversation with him where I expressed my concerns about what a loss he was going to be to people suffering oppression and injustice around the world. I mean, at the time, he was doing lots of death row cases in Jamaica, keeping people alive. I expressed concern that if he went over to the CPS, effectively it would be a massive loss to people fighting for justice. And he said, “Is it the job that makes the man or the man that makes the job?”
And I think, personally, the reality is, however good your intentions might be, if you step into the establishment and become part of the establishment, you may succeed in creating a small amount of change, but I think the establishment shapes you more than you shape the establishment.
Basia: So, Gaby, let’s go over this. He’s gone from fighting the case of Helen Steel, who was horribly violated by an undercover cop. And, after those years in the system and working closely with police, Keir Starmer now takes a position which is a very long way away from his idealistic past.
So, what are you seeing?
Gaby: Keir Starmer would hardly be the only politician, or indeed person, whose views have changed as they get older. But I think, even as a young radical lawyer, Keir had a reputation in court for being very measured, very reasonable, very balanced – he didn’t really do passion and theatrics. He saw things from all sides. And in Northern Ireland, working first on the Lee Clegg case and then working for the policing board, I think, showed him sides of national security issues he hadn’t seen before. He’s also said in the past that Northern Ireland was where he realised he could change policing tactics much faster from inside the board than litigating against them from the outside. And I think he saw becoming DPP similarly, as a chance to reform the criminal justice system from the inside, in line with his beliefs. And I think he now feels much the same about the Labour party.
But as we heard Helen Steel say, power involves trade-offs. Getting your hands on the levers of actual change means you can do things, but it may mean getting your hands dirty as well. And, in the end, it’s all about what you achieve – were the compromises that you had to make along the way worth it?
Basia: And as we’ve heard, in our third case, as DPP during the 2011 riots, Starmer presided over this flurry of cases that led to some really harsh sentences. In other words, it was what the CPS saw as the right of the community to feel safe that came first.
But this question, over whether a middle-aged white guy like Keir Starmer really understands marginalised young Black men, won’t go away. Last summer saw Black Lives Matter protests erupting across major British cities and around the world, and the statue of a slaver toppled in Bristol.
If they’d happened when Starmer was in his 20s, he’d probably be the defence lawyer trying to get protestors cleared.
As DPP, he’d have been weighing up whether prosecution for criminal damage was in the wider public interest.
But as Labour leader he was required to be either for or against statue toppling, taking into account the interests of vulnerable groups denied justice and his own rather cautious, law-abiding instincts.
He also had to decide whether to publicly take the knee, something Labour’s younger urban voters absolutely expected but which might bomb in red wall seats
So with all these factors piling up last summer, Starmer does this TV interview in which he’s asked about one of Black Lives Matters’ best known slogans – defund the police – and he says this.
[Clip: Keir Starmer on defund the police]
Gaby: It’s a “Which side are you on?” moment, and Keir’s answer is basically, ‘Both sides.” He took the knee in solidarity with BLM, but then rejected one of its best-known slogans. And Black Lives Matter in Britain hit back hard, issuing a statement saying, “Keir’s a cop in an expensive suit.”
On identity issues, people want conviction, clarity, passion. And here he is trying to explain, in a very reasoned manner, “Well, it’s a bit more complicated than that.”
Nazir Afzal told me Starmer was really committed to diversity at the CPS, and he backed Nazir up at times when he felt singled out for criticism because of his ethnicity.
It’s worth saying, as well, Starmer was an ally for gay rights from very early on. He was interested in green politics even before the McLibel case. He ought to be comfortable with identity politics. It should in a way be his home turf. But modern identity politics is very binary. Trans-women are women. Defund the police. Get Brexit done. There’s no room for middle ground. There’s no room for reasoned argument. There’s no room for, ‘Well, actually, it’s a bit more complicated than that.” And on the one side this and on the one side the other.
Basia: And, by now, he’s been in the job a year. He’s definitely shown us that he can hurt Boris Johnson, but it seems like we end up concluding that he’s just a bit too cautious or hasn’t done a good job of telling voters who he actually is?
Gaby: I think the really clear thread through his career is protection of the vulnerable. That’s what human rights is about; it’s saying, “These are the things we hold sacred, your right to life, your right to free speech. And if someone powerful tries to take them away then the law will step in.”
But the thing about human rights is they’re very apolitical. They don’t discriminate. The worst person on the planet has the same rights as the most saintly person. So you have to put your emotions to one side and focus on the principle. And that helps him to see vulnerability where it’s not obvious. And that’s obviously what the police officers interviewing the Rochdale girls didn’t do – they just thought those girls were trouble. They brought their prejudices into it, rather than looking at the facts. And that can be a strength, that ability to focus on the factual argument.
But what I think Starmer still struggles with is how to marry all of that with a political world that’s all about emotions and where you’re constantly being pushed to pick a side and to have simple clear views that everyone can understand.
Leave or remain? Corbyn or Blair? His ability to see both sides of the question make him a great lawyer, it might well be useful in government, but does it make a good leader of the opposition… is the question.
Basia: And there’s something else, too, something from his childhood. When he was young, his mother was very ill for a really long time, and his father was pretty distant. And that Desert Island Discs interview revealed a lot – this awkward relationship with his father, and this probably instinctive emotional caution.
Baroness Helena Kennedy, Starmer’s legal mentor when he was starting out as a barrister, told us how listening to that interview made her feel
Helena Kennedy: If you listened carefully to Keir’s Desert Island Discs, 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, who adored his wife, was a devoted husband, but somehow didn’t give as much of himself to his children. And so I think that the business of emoting… when you live with somebody… I have a close friend who was brought up with a very disabled sister… when you’re in a family with someone who has got something really seriously wrong with them, you don’t feel you can complain, you don’t emote. You learn to close off your needs and emotions.
So my feeling when I listened to Desert Island Discs, I understood something about Keir that I hadn’t as his colleague and friend before. There’s just a little area of distance which is self-protective. I think that is about being brought up in a family with the concentration of kindness directed towards your mother, and she deserved it, but you couldn’t ever complain, it makes you less expressive.
Basia: So we started out asking: who is Keir Starmer, really?
And this might be where we find part of the answer to our question. Not in his career in the law, but in his upbringing.
As for his legal career, we’ve seen that human rights is the thread running through it all.
And that if he ever was a radical, he’s certainly a reformed one today.
He was capable of pushing through progressive change, but he came to believe that change might happen faster from the inside of an organisation.
And he convinced himself that he could bend the world to his will, rather than be changed by it. As he put it to Helen Steel of the McLibel Two, is it the job that makes the man or the man that makes the job?
Close colleagues, fellow travellers and political rivals all see that he’s an exceptional lawyer, but not everyone is convinced that that counts when it comes to politics.
We’ve learned that Starmer’s legal career showed he was adept, tactical and persuasive in front of a judge, but he rarely had to turn up the emotion and passion because he didn’t often have to convince a jury.
Well, now he really does…
Thanks for joining us this week. This episode was reported by Gaby Hinslif, edited by David Taylor and produced by Matt Russell.
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