Keir Starmer by Tom Baldwin: The 21 best revelations from the new biography of the Labour leader

Rexa Vella

Keir Starmer by Tom Baldwin: The 21 best revelations from the new biography of the Labour leader

Keir Starmer is odds on to become the Prime Minister later this year. But little is known about the personal life of the 62-year-old Labour leader and former human rights lawyer. A new biography by writer and former Labour adviser to Ed Miliband Tom Baldwin gives the clearest picture of the man so far, with details of his tough childhood and information about his romantic life. Here are some of the things you need to know:

He constantly feared his ill mother would die

Rodney and Josephine Starmer

Rodney and Josephine Starmer

The book reveals the extent of Starmer’s mother Josephine’s health problems – she suffered from Still’s disease from her teens. That meant severe joint pain, and using a wheelchair throughout Starmer’s childhood. Josephine (known as Jo) had her four children in her early twenties, as doctors warned her she wouldn’t be able to later. There was constant concern, and hospital visits were routine. Starmer told Baldwin: “The phone in the kitchen rang. It was Dad saying he didn’t think Mum was going to make it. He wanted me to warn the others.” He tried to stay up all night in case his father rang again. Jo pulled through, and lived until 2015, just before Starmer became an MP.

Starmer’s father Rodney was an oppressive presence

The book reveals that Rodney Starmer (who gave Starmer his middle name) could be a difficult man. The young Starmers – including sisters Katy and Anna and brother Nick – weren’t allowed to watch normal TV, or listen to pop on the radio. If they did, Rodney would come in and play his classical music instead. On the rare occasions they went out, Rodney would just “sit behind his beard”, not talking to anyone. He was a keen Guardian reader who hated Margaret Thatcher.

At Rodney’s funeral in 2018, Starmer started his speech at the funeral by addressing his dad’s surliness. “Since we’re in a church I had better be truthful. He was a difficult sod” Starmer joked. And at the very end of his life, the Labour leader didn’t hug his father or tell him he loved him, which he now regrets. “I thought about trying to put my arms around him in that hospital room but — no — it wasn’t what we did. 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.” Later, a stash of newspaper clippings showed that Rodney had been quitely proud of his son.

Starmer’s brother had learning difficulties

Starmer’s younger brother Nick suffered complications during his birth, and had some fairly severe difficulties with learning – he was told he would never be able to read, a prediction which he managed to prove wrong. Nick was labelled “remedial” and undertook lessons at a village hall, doing no exams. Nick first worked on scrap cars and did some scaffolding, but struggled in life. His relationships fell apart and after being robbed by someone he lived with, and his health got so bad that he nearly died in 2022, and was taken to Leeds for major surgery. Starmer slipped off to visit him during a local elections campaign, and says to Baldwin: “Nick has had a really tough life…There’s this real, deep sadness in me about that for my brother”. Elsewhere, his sister Katy was a nurse and now works with adults who have Down’s syndrome, working 14 hour shifts during Covid. Anna went on to horticultural college, raised a family, and later worked at a centre.

Starmer’s family nickname was “Superboy”

Keir Starmer on ITN, 1994

ITN

Starmer’s family had a special name for him, his sister Katy reveals. “We used to call him ‘Superboy’ because he was so good at everything he tried – music, football, whatever he did, he did it well”. The young Keir took a leading role in the family, often doing menial tasks so as not to bother his parents, given him mum was ill. When Katy ripped her new dress on a fence, Keir sewed it up so their mum and dad wouldn’t notice. Katy also remembers her brother being “incredibly competitive” in football matches (a sport he plays to this day) – and Starmer’s competitive side, always needing to win, comes up throughout the book.

He was a rowdy child

Starmer has a “boring” image, but he was boisterous at school. “He took the view that if someone hit him, he’d hit them back harder, but I don’t think he would be the one to start it” says one schoolmate. Starmer was a bit of a trickster too. “If he saw someone walking round in the school caps – he really hated those caps – he might grab it off their head and toss it around a bit. But he wasn’t nasty or a bully”. He and Andrew Sullivan, a schoolmate who went on to become a successful right-wing commentator in America, would have political arguments about Margaret Thatcher on the top deck of the school bus, and sometimes got in trouble for misbehaviour – they were once hauled out of assembly.

Starmer’s working class childhood

Just how working class Starmer is has been the subject of debate. He has said that his father was a “toolmaker”, while others say his father owned a company. The book makes Starmer seem more normal than recent Prime Ministers: the family home in Hurst Green, near Oxted in Surrey was “cramped”: “I shared a bunk bed with my brother in a room with an airing cupboard and just enough space for a couple of small desks where we’d do our homework” Starmer says. His mother Jo never left the UK, and didn’t have a passport – the only flight she took was one to Manchester for her Lake District honeymoon.

His niece was victim of a homophobic attack

Starmer is close to his family – he was Nick’s best man, and acted as best man to his sister Anna’s husband too. He tells the story of his sister Katy’s daughter Jess suffering a homophobic attack in 2022, six weeks after her wedding to her partner Samantha. As the couple were leaving the pub, “Three men came up to them. These cowards punched Jess many times, fracturing her cheekbone, for no reason except she’s a lesbian.” Starmer remains angry about the incident.

Starmer has surprising celebrity links

The young Starmer was a keen flute player, and took music lessons with a young Fat Boy Slim – then known as Quentin Cook. Cook remembers Starmer as a “decent person”, joking: “Thankfully, Keir is a way better politician than he was a violinist”. Starmer went to see Cook’s first band, called the Stomping Pond Frogs, in local village halls – “a punk forerunner of the Housemartins”.

Starmer’s parents were keen walkers in the Lake District – Jo later used a special wheelchair – and on one early trip, they met Alfred Wainwright, who wrote the hiking bible “A Pictorial Guide to the Lakeland Fells”. Wainwright was reclusive, but took to the Starmers, who would visit without their children on summer holidays there. Whenever Jo was sick, he’d send a card telling her “the hills are waiting for you”.

Starmer’s romantic past

Labour Conference - Day Three And Leader's Speech

Starmer with his wife Victoria

Getty Images

In 2007, Starmer married his wife Victoria, who is around a decade his junior, at the age of 45. He had some earlier romances too, and remains on good terms with those women. At university, and “for a good while after” his girlfriend was fellow lawyer Angela O’ Brien, while the book reveals that one of his other girlfriends was Julie Morris, an employment lawyer and former gymnast – “who his friends remember performing handstands at parties”.

The book also contains an interview with his barrister ex-girlfriend of six years Phillippa Kaufmann, who he bought a house with (which Kaufmann still lives in). Kaufmann talks of Starmer’s “phenomenal” workrate on “ridiculously small amounts of sleep”, except on holiday when “he just collapses and sleeps for ages”.

Though they split in 1999, Kaufman went to Starmer’s wedding, and donated to his leadership campaign. She praises Starmer, but says it is “great relief” not to be with him in this public part of his life. “Keir gets up and keeps going, he just does what he needs to do. But there’s not much reflection and no stopping, which can make life difficult for others around him because there really aren’t many people made of that kind of stuff” Kaufman says. She also hints that Starmer’s rejection of some of the left wing of Labour has been difficult for some of their lawyer friends, saying “some things that are happening are extremely difficult for me”.

Trips to Communist Eastern Europe

Starmer studied at Leeds University and then for a year at Oxford University, before joining Doughty Street Chambers. At Oxford, he helped produce the magazine “Socialist Alternatives”, while as a young professional, he wrote for the “Socialist Lawyer”. He went on an Interrail into Hungary and then Romania, and later went to Czechoslovakia. He said he was repulsed by what he saw, particularly in Ceaușescu’s Romania. “I got a glimpse of a totalitarian regime – I wouldn’t want to live like that,” he says.

Lived above a “brothel” as a young lawyer, before success

Starmer and some friends moved to a flat in Archway where the washing machine leaked, rotting the floorboards so that it fell through. Downstairs was a sauna and massage parlour, which one friend’s father feared visiting for fear of being seen going into a brothel. Starmer got to know the names of the women working downstairs. “They would always shout hello and share a joke with us” he recalls.

In this period, Starmer got interested in human rights, travelling to Uganda and Jamaica to try to stop the death penalty, and helping two activists in a ‘McLibel’ case, taking on McDonald’s. He later worked with the police force in Northern Ireland, before leading the Crown Prosecution Service, and then seeking to be an MP.

Starmer had frustrations with Corbyn over Brexit

Jeremy Corbyn Meet With Michel Barnier In Brussels

Getty Images

Having become an MP, Starmer became Shadow Brexit Secretary in 2016, working under Jeremy Corbyn. He recalls getting frustrated that Corbyn wasn’t listening to the Prime Minister’s words in the House of Commons. “I glanced over at Jeremy and saw he was fully engrossed reading the Hansard record of a Westminster Hall debate from the previous Friday about cycleways or something” Starmer says. “This was probably important in its own way, but it wasn’t what he should have been doing when our chance of getting a half decent Brexit deal was slipping away.”

Other frustrations from the Corbyn era came when attending synagogue in St John’s Wood – his wife Vic’s family are Jewish. “People I had got to know a bit at the synagogue would come up to me, asking, ‘What’s happened to your party? Why can’t you do something? Are you embarrassed to be a Labour MP?’ I would go home feeling angry” Starmer says.

Starmer had ambitions for the leadership and — a team — in place from 2018

Ever since his election during Miliband’s 2015 loss, some had seen Starmer as leadership material. While he doesn’t put it that way, Starmer started forming a team who could make him Labour leader in March 2018, in frustration at Jeremy Corbyn’s reaction to the Salisbury poisonings. After that weekend, Jenny Chapman says: “I called Keir, and asked him if he’d ever thought about being leader. I can’t quite remember how he replied but it was along the lines of, ‘Yes, that’s something I might want to do.’” From that point, a team called the ‘Arlington Group’ formed. Starmer met election guru Morgan McSweeney in Summer 2019, who talked about winning public support. Corbyn lost a general election later that year.

Starmer has a sometimes tricky relationship with Angela Rayner

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer and Angela Rayner (Gareth Fuller/PA)

PA Wire

After being elected Labour leader in 2020, Starmer has had an up and down relationship with his deputy party leader Angela Rayner. The duo had a “robust” talk after the party lost the Hartlepool by-election, where he removed her from the post of elections coordinator. He admits their relationship hit a “rocky patch” after that, but they both agree it has improved since then. Rayner gives Starmer faint praise in the book. “I would call him a constant professional – a real public servant – like a health and safety inspector who sees his job as not about him” she says.

Starmer talks regularly with Tony Blair

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer with Sir Tony Blair (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

Tony Blair says that Starmer “kept his distance” after winning the Labour leadership in 2020, but they are closer now. “Keir’s taken the party back from the brink of extinction” says Blair. “I think that’s quite remarkable”. Blair says “We talk a lot these days. The reason why – the difference – is that Keir’s now thinking about government”. Blair hints that his Tony Blair Institute could help give Starmer policies in power. Despite that, in the book, Starmer criticises the Iraq war. “The more I looked at it, the more I realised war could not be justified. I thought that this war in Iraq was a huge mistake. I still do.”

Perhaps his best friend in Labour is Ed Miliband

Starmer met the younger Miliband brother in 2008, when a friend told Ed he might want to be an MP one day – they live nearby. The pair have remained friends, with their wives getting on well, and Miliband’s sons talking to Starmer about football. In summer 2023 they went to see a local band called Centrist Dad, fronted by ITV’s political editor Robert Peston, with Ed Balls on drums.

Starmer got help getting elected from Alastair Campbell’s partner Fiona

When Starmer was trying to get selected in Holborn and St Pancras, he met Fiona Millar, a journalist and education campaigner who had served the last government as a Downing Street adviser. She helped him meet local Labour supporters who would vote for him during the selection process. Starmer got an impressive set of endorsements, including from Fiona, but words from Alastair Campbell – who was giving Starmer some informal media advice – were not offered. “This was because of concerns that Campbell’s role in making the case for the Iraq War had made him a polarising figure among some party members” reports Baldwin.

He fell out with Andy Burnham

The Funeral Of Labour MP For Rochdale Sir Tony Lloyd

Getty Images

Starmer backed Andy Burnham for Labour leader in 2015, but the two are not particularly close now. Starmer travelled to Manchester to ask the mayor for his support. Burnham is said to have told him: “I can’t be seen to be backing a London lawyer against two women from the north” – Rebecca Long-Bailey and Lisa Nandy. Burnham has since publicly complained that Starmer’s office has briefed against him.

He considered resigning as Labour leader after a losing a byelection

Starmer considered resigning after the party lost the Hartlepool byelection in 2021. “I felt like I had been kicked in the guts” he says. “The result was terrible and I had a moment where I thought we are not going to be able to do this”. Arriving in the office, the Labour leader told aides he was going to resign. They told him not to – and his wife Vic helped persuade him to stay in post.

He’s planning for power – including citizen’s assemblies

Sue Gray (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

PA Wire

The book contains an interview with Sue Gray, the civil servant at the heart of “partygate” who is now Starmer’s Chief of Staff, and which refers to their plans for power. “I don’t want WhatsApp being used for policy” Gray. Gray says she’s looking at the possibility of “citizens assemblies”, in which a hundred representative voters meet to help shape policy. Gray also denies that she ever worked as a spy – something some have alleged.

Starmer also talks about devolving decision making away from Westminster, his goals to build 1.5 million homes in five years, and plans to “unblock the electricity grid” to meet a target of carbon-neutral “clean power” by 2030. “I don’t want a discussion in the first hundred days if we win the election” he says “that we could be having now”.

His wife Victoria doesn’t want to move to No 10

Starmer’s wife Vic has lived in Kentish Town all her life, and says that Starmer becoming PM will have its downsides. “If it happens, I won’t want to leave Kentish Town” she has told him. Starmer says he’s worried about the impact on his children. “These are really important ages, it will have an impact on their lives and I’m worried” Starmer says. Their daughter too says she won’t want to move to Downing Street.

MORE ABOUT

SOURCE

Leave a Comment