The Labour Leadership Contest 2020: Keir Starmer

The Labour Leadership Contest 2020: Keir Starmer

The Labour Leadership Contest 2020

Sir Keir Starmer KCB QC MP

Sir Keir Starmer has emerged as the bookies’ early favourite in the Labour leadership race, with a healthy lead in the only poll of Labour members so far in the race, enough nominations from Labour MPs to already get him to the next stage in the contest, and the backing of the UK’s largest trade union, Unison.

A significant figure in Jeremy Corbyn’s Shadow Cabinet, Starmer is a self-avowed socialist from Labour’s ‘soft left’ but may be the candidate who can unite the Labour Party’s rival factions. This could serve him well against his likely main challenger, Rebecca Long-Bailey, who is widely viewed as the ‘continuity-Corbyn’ candidate, drawing support almost entirely from Labour’s left.


A barrister, Starmer was already well known before entering Parliament from his role as Director of Public Prosecutions. He was called to the Bar in 1987 and co-founded Doughty Street Chambers in 1990, specialising in human rights cases. He came to prominence through cases including his defence of environmental activists in the 1997 ‘McLibel case’, and through the prosecution of the Editor of the News of the World, Rebekah Brooks, over the phone hacking scandal.

After stepping down as Director of Public Prosecutions, Starmer chaired Labour’s Victims’ Taskforce in 2014 to advise the party on its proposed victims’ law. That same year, he was awarded a knighthood for “services to law and criminal justice.” In December 2014, he was selected for the safe Labour seat of Holborn and St Pancras, which had been held by the former Labour Health Secretary Frank Dobson since 1979. He was elected with a 17,000 majority in 2015.


Within days of his election in 2015, Starmer was being encouraged to stand in the Labour leadership contest, sparked by the resignation of Ed Miliband. At the time, he said whilst “flattered” he felt that Labour needed someone with more political experience. He nominated Andy Burnham as leader.

Starmer was appointed as Shadow Immigration Minister by Jeremy Corbyn in September 2015 but resigned from the frontbench over Corbyn’s leadership in the wake of the EU referendum in July 2016, alongside many Parliamentary colleagues. Starmer returned to the frontbench after Corbyn was re-elected as leader and was promoted to Shadow Secretary of State for Exiting the EU.

As Shadow Brexit Secretary, Starmer built his reputation as a staunch anti-Brexit campaigner. He gradually but successfully pushed the Labour’s Brexit position from its early position of ‘constructive ambiguity’ to a manifesto commitment to a second referendum, despite significant resistance from Corbyn’s closest allies. In the process, Starmer’s popularity among Labour’s heavily pro-Remain membership increased significantly.

Immediately after Labour’s defeat in the 2019 General Election, some on Labour’s left have tried blame the result on Starmer for dragging Labour toward a more Remain-friendly policy, which critics view as alienating Leave-supporting Labour voters. However, most Labour MPs respond that Jeremy Corbyn was a far bigger factor in Labour’s defeat than its Brexit policy, and not committing to a second referendum would have been more damaging. This is likely to be an argument that drags on throughout the leadership election.

Beyond his Brexit brief, Starmer has frequently called on the Conservative government to end the homelessness crisis and provide local councils with more funding, calling it a “moral emergency” and stating that quality housing was a “fundamental human right.” He has also been critical of the right-to-buy policy, believing that it contributes to over-crowding.

He has also been critical of HS2, taking to the chamber to argue that noise and disturbances from construction had caused a “devastating impact” in his constituency and calling on the Government to bring in measures to mitigate the level of disruption.

Following the General Election in 2019, Starmer provided an indication of what his leadership would entail; he called for the Labour Party to return to being a “broad church,” stating that “the case for a bold and radical Labour government is as strong now as it was last Thursday” (the 2019 General Election). He added: “I want trust to be restored in the Labour party as a progressive force for good: and that means we have to win. But there’s no victory without values.” These values include opposing “the moral injustice of poverty, inequality, homelessness” and advocating for human rights and internationalism.

Starmer’s opening bid for the leadership has focused heavily on his history of legal activism and working-class background and he has attempted to position himself as a candidate who can unite both the left and moderate wings of the Labour Party.


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