After a decade in the political wasteland, members of Britain’s main opposition Labour Party have chosen a moderate, un-flashy lawyer as their new leader. Their hope is that turning the page on the socialist radical Jeremy Corbyn, who was resoundingly rejected by voters last year, will see them re-take power.
Keir Starmer, 57, offers dry competence and seriousness after a turbulent five years under the firebrand Corbyn. At a time when the U.K. is grappling with the global coronavirus crisis and its own exit from the European Union, a steady hand could prove popular.
“Maybe being boringly competent is a magical thing -- because we haven’t got many boringly competent politicians at the moment, particularly in government,” said Steven Fielding, a professor at Nottingham University and historian of the Labour party. “People just flock to him like a safety raft from a sinking ship.”
Starmer faces one urgent decision before he embarks on his long-term mission. First he must decide how far he should support Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s strategy for countering the pandemic and how stridently he should speak out against the government’s mistakes. There has been speculation that he could even join a government of national unity to see the country through the crisis, as happened in World War II.
In the years ahead, Starmer’s defining task will be to revive a battered opposition party, broken by its worst election defeat in 80 years, and then persuade Britain’s 47 million voters that he is the prime minister the country needs to put itself back together.
Starmer was born in 1962 in south London to a nurse and a toolmaker. He was the first member of his family to go to an academically selective grammar school. After studying at the universities of Leeds and Oxford he began the 30-year campaigning career in human rights law that would set him up for front-line politics.
He represented peace activists and environmental campaigners, and led a legal challenge against the sinking of an oil rig.
Gavin Millar, a top lawyer who interviewed the young Starmer for a junior position in the late 80s, remembers him as “very radical” with strong views about the law. In a legal world of high intellects, Starmer’s first-rate brain stood out, but so too did his commitment to the protesters and activists fighting the powerful during Margaret Thatcher’s decade of Tory rule.
The two shared an office, where Starmer, who loved indie-pop bands such as The Smiths, was known for working long hours. “I got a lot of two-in-the-morning emails from him,” Millar said.
Competency. What a concept.
Wish we had it here.