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Tom Baldwin's review of "Keir Starmer: The Biography" explores the journey of the Labour leader, from being seen as someone who couldn't win to becoming someone who can't lose.

Tom Baldwin’s review of “Keir Starmer: The Biography” explores the journey of the Labour leader, from being seen as someone who couldn’t win to becoming someone who can’t lose.


A common tactic used by pollsters is to conduct focus groups with voters and ask them to guess the preferred drink of a political leader. In the case of Sir Keir Starmer, some respondents may incorrectly assume that he prefers a gin and tonic, when in reality he has a preference for a pint of real ale. There are even some voters who mistakenly believe that his background is so posh that his knighthood is passed down through his family.

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.

Keir and his three siblings were raised in a small, rundown semi-detached house in Hurst Green, a typical village located near a small town in Surrey. He slept in a bunk bed with his younger brother in a room that also housed an airing cupboard. The room was just big enough to fit two small desks where they would do their homework. Keir’s parents, who worked as a tool-maker and a nurse, did not have a college education.

The most significant influence on Starmer’s childhood was his mother’s illness. As a child, Jo was diagnosed with Still’s disease, an aggressive condition where the immune system attacks itself. She developed severe rheumatoid arthritis, typically only seen in elderly individuals, and had to undergo multiple hip and knee replacements. Eventually, she even had to have a leg amputated. Despite living with constant pain, Jo remained resilient and positive, greatly shaping her eldest son’s character. Starmer’s close friend and mentor, Helena Kennedy, shares: “Growing up with someone who has a serious illness, you learn not to complain or show emotions…it makes you less open.” This insight helps explain Starmer’s serious demeanor and difficulty with more performative aspects of politics. The author suggests that he is emotionally guarded due to his childhood desire to blend in with “normal” families. A longtime friend notes that Starmer has always been “very compartmentalised.” His sister, Katy, recalls that he had to take on a lot of responsibility at a young age when their mother was ill and their father was either at work or at the hospital with her. “He’s had to act like an adult his whole life. I’ve always been more open with my feelings – Keir is good at most things, but not that.” In school, he felt embarrassed about being named after Labour’s first leader and wished he had a more common name like Dave or Pete. He also appears to be sensitive about his middle name, Rodney, possibly because it is shared by both his father and the character from the 1980s comedy Only Fools and Horses who is often called a “plonker.”

Keir Starmer in his first year at Reigate grammar school in 1974

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Keir’s father, Rod Starmer, was a challenging figure to have as a parent. During his funeral, Keir described him as a “difficult sod,” which was met with agreement and amusement from those in attendance. Rod had a consistent fashion sense, wearing the same buttoned-up shirt with cut-off sleeves, baggy shorts, socks, and sandals in all seasons. He also sported a large, unkempt beard without a mustache. In photographs, he was likened to a combination of a Victorian patriarch and a rugged American frontiersman who had spent years living alone in the wilderness. While he adored his wife and enjoyed classical music, he strongly disliked Margaret Thatcher and had a harsh demeanor that often drove people away. Despite his efforts, Rod’s work did not bring financial stability to the family. Keir has been hesitant to discuss the difficulties of his childhood, but money was often tight. The household bills were frequently unpaid and the family home became run-down. Keir’s sister Katy recalls her brother accidentally breaking a window with a football and their father choosing not to fix it due to the cost.

When Starmer’s father was present at a family meal, everyone ate in silence while he read his newspaper. The children were not allowed to listen to pop music when he was home. For a long time, Rod did not allow the family to have a television. When he finally gave in, they were only allowed to watch a small black and white TV and were not allowed to watch popular shows like Tiswas and Starsky & Hutch. This led to Keir playing football during every break and lunchtime to avoid feeling left out when his classmates talked about the shows he couldn’t watch. Even as Rod was dying, there was a distance between him and his son that could not be bridged. Starmer admits, “I thought about hugging him in that hospital room, but that wasn’t something we did.”

Many highly successful leaders have backgrounds marked by difficult childhoods, which may include the loss, illness or absence of one or both parents. This is often referred to as the Phaeton complex and can lead to intense competitiveness. Keir, who was nicknamed “Superboy” by his siblings, always strived to be the best and win at everything. Even at 61 years old, he still organizes football games on weekends and is known for his strong aversion to losing. While considered fair by his fellow players, they also acknowledge his tough and determined nature.

As the first in his family to attend university, he felt pressure from his parents to pursue a traditional career. Despite having no prior experience or understanding of the legal field, he chose to study law at Leeds. Surrounded by peers who were already discussing their plans to join prestigious barristers’ chambers, he initially felt inadequate. However, through dedication and determination, he overcame these feelings and excelled in his studies. In his shared student housing, he took on the responsibility of organizing tasks and even monitored electricity usage. Despite late night partying, one roommate remembers that Keir would always be up at 6am the next morning, diligently working on his studies.

In another year at Oxford, he became part of a publication known as Socialist Alternatives, which promoted a lesser-known branch of Trotskyism called Pabloism to a small group of readers. His focus during this leftist period was not on the sect’s intellectual discussions, but rather on distributing the magazine. “Keir was the behind-the-scenes person, the one who put in the effort,” says a fellow student. “The others just talked.”

When he was a young lawyer, he was so consumed with work that he failed to notice a thief stealing the television. His colleagues at the Doughty Street chambers, which he helped establish, have attested to his remarkable productivity and ability to focus on the smallest details. As a prime minister, he will not be lazy. While he championed progressive causes, another Labour lawyer-politician, Charlie Falconer, noted that he never strayed too far from traditional methods. Even in his days as a radical lawyer, he still adhered to conventional practices.

Starmer on his graduation day at the University of Leeds in 1985 with his parents, Rod and Jo

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After serving as director of public prosecutions for five years, he developed a greater understanding and support for state institutions, including the police and security services, which surprised him. It is worth noting that Starmer takes pride in modernizing the CPS by transitioning it from a paper-based system to a digital one. This suggests that he sees himself more as a practical solver rather than an activist.

Baldwin serves as a trustworthy source for navigating through the unexpected political journey of his subject’s later years. It is worth noting that Starmer’s current widespread expectation of becoming prime minister was not initially predicted. Just three years ago, after suffering a defeat at the Hartlepool byelection, he was in enough trouble to consider resigning. The general consensus has shifted from a belief that he couldn’t win as leader, to now being seen as unable to lose. However, his ideological stance remains unclear as this compassionate biographer acknowledges that the Labour leader is constantly evolving and difficult to define. If you are seeking a clear definition of Starmerism in this book, you will be disappointed.

This is not a typical, officially authorized biography because the subject, the Labour leader, has not provided personal papers for review and has not had control over the book’s contents. Instead, the author has had the opportunity to spend a significant amount of time with Starmer, as well as his friends and family members. This access has been utilized effectively to create a comprehensive portrayal of Starmer, who grew up in a working-class family in Surrey and has achieved milestones that no one in his family had before – attending university, becoming a lawyer, entering parliament, and likely becoming the next Prime Minister.

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    Andrew Rawnsley holds the position of Chief Political Commentator at the Observer.

  • Tom Baldwin’s biography of Keir Starmer, titled “Keir Starmer: The Biography”, is available from William Collins for £25. You can support the Guardian and Observer by ordering a copy at guardianbookshop.com. Additional charges may apply for delivery.

Source: theguardian.com