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‘I hate this job’: What makes Keir Starmer tick?

The Labour leader and favourite to be next UK prime minister has co-operated on a revealing biography

According to opinion polls that put his party 20 points in the lead, UK Labour leader Keir Starmer is on course to enter 10 Downing Street. But what do Britons, and the rest of us, really know about the man who could become their new prime minister later this year?

Starmer is often portrayed as ideologically promiscuous – the Tories call him a “flip flopper”. He is seen as cautious, inscrutable, slightly wooden and perhaps even boring. But what is he really? The author of a new book on Starmer suggests he is also refreshingly direct.

Labour-connected journalist Tom Baldwin was recruited by Starmer’s team to ghostwrite the political leader’s autobiography when Boris Johnson was still prime minister and Starmer, a grayscale also-ran in comparison to the technicolour Tory leader, was left struggling in his media wake.

Then British politics imploded in 2022 as Johnson was evicted from Downing Street and his Tory successor, Liz Truss, almost crashed the economy. Suddenly Starmer was out in front and the autobiography, with which he was never comfortable and viewed as unnecessarily risky, was canned.


“He actually said: ‘I’m worried it’s going to make me look like a w**ker’,” Baldwin told The Irish Times over breakfast in London this week.

Instead, Baldwin convinced the Labour leader to allow him use some of the interviews they had already done, plus his own research, to write a semi-authorised account of the Labour leader’s life from childhood – Keir Starmer: The Biography, which was published this week.

It is an authoritative, poignant, highly textured (and unashamedly friendly) account of a man who has led a life full of hidden depths and contradictions. A man who hates politics – Baldwin calls Starmer an “unpolitician” – yet who is conquering the political heights of Britain. A man who revels in family life, yet whose upbringing was scarred by a dysfunctional relationship with his emotionally stunted father. An ordinary man who wants to do extraordinary things.

“He really doesn’t like the boring tag,” said Baldwin. “And I don’t think he has led a boring life.”

The basic architecture of Starmer’s life was already known. He grew up in a relatively blue collar background in a modest house in a Surrey village, south of London. He was first in his family to go to university and became a lawyer – at first practising human rights law, then as the head of the Crown Prosecution Service, for which he was knighted.

He entered politics late, aged in his 50s, and is now aged 62. An Arsenal fan, he still likes to play football (wearing his favourite Donegal GAA jersey, which he bought while working in human rights law in Northern Ireland more than 15 years); he likes to meet his mates; to go down the pub.

Baldwin has taken this basic structure and embossed it with hitherto unknown detail and depth, much of which comes from a series of disarmingly emotional interviews with Starmer, for whom public emoting would normally be anathema. The most startling revelations are around Starmer’s childhood and private life. It was always known he was close to his mother, Josephine, a former nurse who died in 2015 after suffering throughout her life from a debilitating form of arthritis.

What was not so well known, however, was Starmer’s flinty relationship with his father, toolmaker Rodney, who died in 2018 when Starmer was on Jeremy Corbyn’s shadow front bench. Rodney Starmer rarely praised his son, never said he loved him. Starmer and his three siblings weren’t allowed a television when they were kids. When their father was at the table, they ate their meals in silence. It was a cold upbringing, balanced out by the warmth of his beloved mother.

Yet Starmer later found out that his father meticulously, and secretly, kept newspaper cuttings about his son’s achievements. Baldwin writes tenderly in his book of how Starmer regrets not fully reconciling in an emotional sense with his father as he lay on his deathbed.

“Any chance Dad and I might have had to speak properly – to sort everything out – had gone. We hadn’t hugged each other for years. Not since I was a kid. I thought about trying to put my arms around him in that hospital room but – no – it wasn’t what we did,” Starmer told Baldwin. “I knew he was dying and I didn’t turn around, to go back and tell him what I thought. And I should have done.”

An obvious conclusion after reading Baldwin’s book is that Starmer, who must have been deeply affected by the distance from his father, has internalised a kind of diffidence and this is why he is not prone to emotional incontinence in public and, usually, even in private.

“Starmer is peculiarly hard to pin down because he resists being fitted into the clean lines within which politicians usually project themselves,” Baldwin writes in the biography. “I do not claim to have discovered all there is to know about a man whom I both like and trust, but still sometimes find hard to fathom.”

A regular public criticism of Starmer in Britain is that his true political beliefs are unclear. He was a human rights defender, then an enthusiastic prosecutor. He served as shadow Brexit secretary under Corbyn, then ruthlessly threw his predecessor out of the party for mishandling anti-Semitism. He campaigned for the Labour leadership from the left, but is on course to win power by tacking right.

Over breakfast this week, Baldwin said it is pointless trying to define Starmer on a traditional left-right basis. Instead, he said, he prefers to view him through the “three Fs” – family, friends, football.

“These things explain him better than putting him on some sort of an ideological spectrum.”

Baldwin said Starmer’s friendships are “extraordinarily long-lasting and intense”. He still plays eight-a-side football with his mates each week in Kentish Town in north London, where he lives, and he still even books the pitch.

Starmer fiercely shields his family – including his ill brother, who has learning difficulties – from public scrutiny, although his wife Vic, a fellow lawyer, appears at his side when they feel it is necessary.

In his book, Baldwin recounts an anecdote about how Starmer went on holidays to the Lake District with his wife and children in 2022, knocking on the door of a cottage that he had holidayed in himself as a child.

“A woman was kind enough to let us in and show us around,” Starmer said. “She noticed our car moving and thought someone was stealing it, so I explained that was just my police protection team. Her husband started laughing and saying she hadn’t clocked I was a politician. She said if I told her that earlier she would have taken the chance to push me down the stairs.”

Baldwin has concluded that this self-deprecating anecdote sums up how happy Starmer is to go under the public radar.

In his professional and political life, friends say Starmer is a “ratchet” who inexorably moves in one direction, and never backwards. Baldwin said this week that despite the occasionally-awkward politician’s “unease inside politics, he has turned out to be quite good at it”. He is laser focused on doing whatever he has to do to win power, as it is the only way to implement the change he wants.

Baldwin said he believes that because Starmer is “not bound by a particular ideology or faction, he has been able to move quickly, without baggage”. In four years, he has brought Labour from wilderness to the brink of power. Yet this flexibility, Baldwin conceded, may also be his weakness.

“He doesn’t have a faction of Starmerites. [I am worried that] there are no people who would die in a ditch for him. His deficiency about [not] being able to inspire people is a problem. How will you get anything done [in government] if you can’t inspire anyone?”

Yet winning can also be inspirational. Many of the doubts about Starmer’s leadership potential could be dispelled if he leads Labour to the historic victory that polls suggest, and which seemed so unlikely just two years ago.

“If you want to change the country, being seen as reassuring and a bit stodgy might actually be the way to do it.”

Baldwin said some of Starmer’s inner circle are worried he has revealed too much in this book – that he has given the Tories some fresh angles of attack. “If you’re 20 points ahead in the polls, why throw something new into the mixer? It’s another trip hazard.”

But Starmer understands that people want to know more about him as the election nears.

“He will do the things that he has to do, [even if] he doesn’t like it,” said Baldwin.

He said Starmer repeatedly says about being in opposition: “I f**king hate this job.”

He wants to be in power.

“His motivation is to do something rather than be something.”

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