Keir Starmer: The Biography by Tom Baldwin review – from ‘can’t win to can’t lose’: the making of a Labour leader

<span>‘He won’t be a slacker prime minister’: Keir Starmer at the Labour party conference in Brighton, September 2021.</span><span>Photograph: Michael Mayhew/Sportsphoto/Allstar</span>
‘He won’t be a slacker prime minister’: Keir Starmer at the Labour party conference in Brighton, September 2021.Photograph: Michael Mayhew/Sportsphoto/Allstar

A cheap trick of opinion pollsters is to ask focus groups of voters to guess the favourite drink of a political leader. In the case of Sir Keir Starmer, respondents sometimes wrongly assume that his tipple has to be a gin and tonic when he is actually far more fond of a pint of real ale. Some voters are even under the misapprehension that his background is so posh that the knighthood is hereditary.

As Tom Baldwin points out in this highly informative, illuminating and insightful biography, this is one of the many paradoxes about his subject. Though often caricatured, by opponents to both left and right, as a well-heeled lawyer from north London, he has a more working-class background than any Labour leader for a generation.

The young Keir and three siblings grew up in a cramped, ramshackle pebble-dashed semi in Hurst Green, an unremarkable village on the outskirts of a very small town in Surrey. He shared a bunk bed with his younger brother in a room with an airing cupboard and just enough space for a couple of small desks on which they did their homework. Neither his father, a tool-maker, nor his mother, a nurse, had been to university.

The most significant factor in Starmer’s childhood was his mother’s illness. Jo had been diagonised as a child with Still’s disease, a vicious condition in which the immune system attacks itself. She was left with a kind of severe rheumatoid arthritis more normally only seen in someone very old. She had to have her hips and knees replaced twice. Later, a leg was amputated. Her life of constant pain, and the uncomplaining and positive spirit with which she endured it, were hugely influential in the formation of her eldest son’s character. Helena Kennedy, who later became a friend and mentor to Starmer when he was a barrister, is quoted saying: “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… it makes you less expressive.” Knowing this helps us to understand the earnest side of the Labour leader and why he struggles with the more performative aspects of politics. The author plausibly contends that he is emotionally guarded because: “For him, it seems to stem from a childhood desire not to stand out or be different from other families that appeared more ‘normal’ than his own.” A longstanding friend remarks that Starmer has “always been a very compartmentalised person”. His sister Katy reports he had to shoulder a lot of responsibilities from a young age when their mum was ill and their dad was with her in hospital or at work. “He’s had to be a grownup all his life. I’ve always been quite open about my feelings – Keir is good at most things, but not that.” At school, he was embarrassed that his parents had named him after Labour’s first leader, wishing that he was a “Dave or Pete” instead. He is still sensitive about his middle name, Rodney, possibly because he shared it both with his father and the member of the Trotter family frequently called a “plonker” in the 1980s comedy Only Fools and Horses.

Rod Starmer was a tricky character to have as your dad. When Keir delivered the funeral eulogy and referred to his father as “a difficult sod” there were nods and knowing laughter from the congregation. Rod wore the same clothes in all seasons: a buttoned-up shirt sometimes cut off at the sleeves, baggy shorts, socks and sandals. This was accompanied by a huge straggly beard without moustache. In photographs, the author remarks that “he looks like a cross between a Victorian patriarch and an American frontiersman emerging from a few years of living alone in the woods.” He was devoted to his wife, liked classical music, devoured the Guardian every day, and detested Margaret Thatcher. He also had an irascible nature and an intimidating demeanour which, in the words of his son, “drove people away”. His work did not make the family prosperous. The Labour leader, not wanting to sound self-pitying, has been wary of talking about the jagged edges of his childhood, but money was often tight. The household bills were not always paid, the telephone was cut off and the family home became increasingly shabby. Katy remembers her brother kicking a football through the back window. “We never fixed the glass because that cost money. Dad just boarded it up.”

If Starmer senior was present at a family meal, it was eaten in silence while he read his newspaper. The children weren’t allowed to play pop music when he was home. For a long time, Rod would not let the family have a television. When he relented, the access to a small black and white TV was strictly rationed and the children weren’t allowed to see Tiswas, Starsky & Hutch and other shows that their contemporaries were watching. One of the reasons the young Keir played football during every break and lunchtime was to avoid the conversations his schoolmates were having about the TV programmes he hadn’t been allowed to watch. There was a remoteness to the relationship between father and son which was not bridged even when Rod was dying. Starmer tells the author: “I thought about trying to put my arms around him in that hospital room but – no – it wasn’t what we did.”

A challenging childhood, involving the death, illness or absence of one or both parents, is frequently to be found in the background of super-driven leaders. There’s a name for this phenomenon: the Phaeton complex. A frequent result is fierce competitiveness. His siblings called the young Keir “Superboy” because “he always wanted to be the best at everything and to win”. At the age of 61, he is still organising eight-a-side weekend football on a pitch near his home. Fellow players agree that he absolutely loathes losing. “Keir is fair,” reports one. “But, my god, he’s also hard.”

As a young lawyer, he was once so preoccupied with work that he didn’t notice a burglar making off with the TV

The first in his family to go to university, and under some parental pressure to study for a “proper profession”, he chose to read law at Leeds, though he had never met a lawyer nor really understood what they did. Finding himself surrounded by fellow freshers who were already talking confidently about which barristers’ chambers they aimed to join, he conquered his initial feelings of inferiority through hard work. In the scuzzy student digs he shared with friends, he took it upon himself to organise everything and would patrol the house at night trying to cut down on the use of electricity. Even if there had been hard partying the night before, one housemate recalls: “Keir would always be up at six the next morning, getting on with his studies.”

During a subsequent year at Oxford, he involved himself with a magazine called Socialist Alternatives, which propagated an obscure offshoot of Trotskyism called Pabloism to a tiny audience of readers. During the most leftwing phase of his life, his most notable contribution was not to the sect’s ideological debates, but getting the magazine out. “Keir was the backroom guy, the one who did the hard work,” reports one contemporary. “The rest sat around and talked.”

As a young lawyer, he was once so preoccupied with work that he didn’t notice a burglar making off with the TV. There is more testimony to his “absolutely phenomenal” productivity rate and capacity to immerse himself in detail from fellow barristers in the Doughty Street chambers he helped to found. He won’t be a slacker prime minister. About the progressive causes he represented, there is a telling quote from another Labour lawyer-politician, Charlie Falconer: “He is very impressive, but he never strays too far beyond the bounds. Even when he was a radical lawyer, he was one of a conventional sort.”

Five years as director of public prosecutions left him more sympathetic to state institutions such as the police and the security services than he expected when he took up the job. It is revealing that Starmer takes particular pride in making the CPS more efficient by changing it from a paper-based organisation to a digital one. This adds to the overall impression that he sees himself less a crusader and more a problem-solver.

Baldwin is a reliable guide to the twists and turns of his subject’s late-life switch into politics. We are reminded that it is much against initial expectations that Starmer is now almost universally anticipated to become prime minister. Less than three years ago, around the time of the “near-death experience” of the Hartlepool byelection defeat, he was in such trouble that he gave serious thought to quitting. The consensus has shifted from can’t-win when he became leader to can’t-lose. And yet his ideological position remains fuzzy because, as this sympathetic biographer acknowledges, the Labour leader is “a moving target” who is “peculiarly hard to pin down”. If you are hoping to find a definition of Starmerism in this book, you are going to be disappointed.

This is not an “authorised” biography in the usual sense of the word, because the Labour leader has neither handed over boxes of private papers for examination, nor had control over the contents of the book. What Baldwin has had is the benefit of extensive time with Starmer, his friends and members of his family. The author has used that access extremely productively to build up the most complete portrait we have yet been offered of the upwardly mobile, working-class boy from Surrey who has gone where no member of his family had gone before – university, the bar, parliament and, almost certainly next, Downing Street.

  • Andrew Rawnsley is the Chief Political Commentator of the Observer

  • Keir Starmer: The Biography by Tom Baldwin is published by William Collins (£25). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at Delivery charges may apply