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Keir Starmer: The Biography by Tom Baldwin review — the most important political book of the year

 (HarperCollins)
(HarperCollins)

The sheer velocity with which Keir Starmer has led the Labour Party from the brink of extinction to the brink of power is unprecedented in the modern era. And – just in time – this excellent biography arrives in what is all but certain to be an election year.

Starmer is, as Baldwin writes, “someone who is both extraordinary and very ordinary”; and this tension is what lies at the heart of his politics and his character. As a working-class boy from Hurst Green in Surrey who grew up to become Director of Public Prosecutions and, more probably than not, Prime Minister, he is self-evidently exceptional.

Yet, as this biography argues persuasively, his love of normality, of family life, of his weekend eight-a-side football games is authentic and deep. Many politicians posture as regular people, when they are no such thing. But when the Labour leader declares his distaste for the “shallow men and women of Westminster”, he means it. He is, as his deputy Angela Rayner puts it, “the least political person I know in politics”.

This involves a paradox: his normality is his oddity. If he lacks the once-in-a-generation charisma that made Tony Blair the dominant political figure of his era, it is not an absence that he regards as a failure. In an age of performative politics and cults of personality, Starmer sees his task as one defined by public service and efficient delivery. In 2024, that makes him very unusual.

Baldwin’s early chapters are especially enlightening, exploring his subject’s formative years in a village “as indistinctive as Starmer himself”. His relationship with his father Rod, a toolmaker, was made complicated by the latter’s abrupt manner and aversion to displays of emotion.

His mother Jo, in contrast, was the beating heart of the family, full of love for her four children and coping with extraordinary stoicism with the debilitating consequences of Still’s disease, a rare form of inflammatory arthritis.

When cycling home from work a friend would “sail through” red lights, leaving the scrupulous Starmer in his wake

It would be pat to attribute Starmer’s combination of emotional reserve (at least in public) and compassionate politics solely to the influence of his parents. But their impact is clear enough.

The principal objection levelled at the Labour leader is that so many people still do not know what he stands for. This, Baldwin writes, is partly the result of the radically compressed strategy that he has had to enact since inheriting the wreckage left behind by Jeremy Corbyn in April 2020: “If he recognises that being portrayed as a diligent technocrat has helped reassure voters, he also knows it’s an obstacle to getting to the [next] stage..: giving people a positive reason to vote Labour”.

The politician that emerges from Baldwin’s researches travels light ideologically but has a profound set of values. If Starmer adheres to a political manifesto it is to be found in human rights law and the moral principles that underpin it. As a young barrister, he immersed himself in this branch of jurisprudence, often worked pro bono on death penalty cases overseas and wrote a series of standard texts the subject.

This helps to explain his character-defining belief in adherence to the rules. His friend and fellow member of Doughty Street Chambers, Jonny Cooper, reveals that when they were cycling home from work he would “sail through” red lights, leaving the scrupulous Starmer in his wake.

More seriously, he promised to resign as Labour leader if he received a fixed penalty notice over the notorious “beergate” allegations concerning an event in Durham in April 2021 (he didn’t). Baldwin also reveals how close Starmer came to quitting after Labour lost the Hartlepool by-election in May of the same year: “A near death experience” according to one of his aides.

The book is very good, too, on the gang of advisers that Starmer has gathered around him, people who will become extremely important in national life if Labour wins – notably, Morgan McSweeney, his campaigns director, and Sue Gray, the former civil servant who is drawing up plans to ensure that the new government hits the ground running.

But they are not in Downing Street yet. Starmer needs a swing bigger than Blair achieved in 1997 just to secure a one-seat majority. As Baldwin notes, the culture of upheaval and flux that has helped him to turn Labour round in record time could yet come back to bite him: “The electorate is so volatile that only a fool would take his victory for granted.” Win or lose, this will be the most important political book of the year.

Keir Starmer: The Biography By Tom Baldwin is published by Harper Collins (February 29, £25)

Matthew d’Ancona is an Evening Standard columnist