What next for a renowned human rights barrister who was until recently Britain’s top prosecutor? As he fights for nomination to be a Labour MP, Sir Keir Starmer tells Martin Bentham about his new brief: the housing crisis and social inequality.
Keir Starmer laughs as he is reminded about how his supposedly “boyish looks and hipster haircut” led to him being tipped on a legal website for inclusion in a new barrister “Hottie List” published earlier this year.
“All good fun. Everyone should be ready to have the mickey taken out of them,” he says of the tongue-in-cheek accolade, which included a claim by the authors that his stylish image “thrills admirers” across London’s legal world.
Such praise might be flattering, but Starmer, a 51-year-old father of two, has attracted far more serious acclaim during a stellar legal career.
It has seen him become one of the country’s most renowned human rights barristers and then, until he stepped down last year, Britain’s top prosecutor. He was knighted in the New Year’s Honours List for services to the law.
Now, however, his focus has switched to politics following his announcement that he is seeking nomination as Labour’s candidate to fight Holborn and St Pancras at the general election in place of the outgoing Frank Dobson.
The reason, he explains as he sits in his Doughty Street chambers only a few doors away from the one-time home of Charles Dickens, is a determination to reverse what he believes is a growing inequality within society that has already produced diminished social mobility and a “real housing crisis” in London, compounded by widespread job insecurity and low pay.
Each he sees as a blight that will worsen if the Conservatives return to power: a conclusion reinforced, he says, by his experience as Director of Public Prosecutions when he witnessed the impact of severe spending cuts in his own organisation and the wider criminal justice system.
“My primary concerns are the growing inequality in our society and the reduction in opportunity,” he says. “Most people have lived most of their life assuming that inequality would reduce and the next generation would have better opportunities than the current one. In the past four or five years, that assumption has fallen away.
“All of that has driven me to the conclusion that if I am serious about change I ought to go into politics to do something about it.”
With several MPs complaining that the pay is too low, some might wonder why Starmer, who received nearly £200,000 a year as DPP and could enjoy similar earnings by staying at the Bar, might choose a life at Westminster.
He says, however, that the move was “inevitable” and reflects a staunch Labour upbringing that began when his parents named him after the party’s founder, Keir Hardie.
“I had a very traditional Labour background,” he says. “I was the son of a toolmaker and a nurse, first-generation university, so not from a family of lawyers or professionals. My dad worked in a factory all his life. It was a classic case of having real opportunity provided by the welfare state – the provision of decent education opportunities, being able to go to university.
“Even now my sister is on a zero-hours contract. So my roots might be different from what people might assume and are firmly in the social justice area.”
His legal career has reinforced his political views. After Reigate Grammar School and law degrees at Leeds University and Oxford, Starmer joined Doughty Street chambers. There he began fighting “frontline legal aid cases”, involving “employment, welfare, housing and trade union” rights representing people “in most need of protection”.
Next came legal policy battles over issues such as the death penalty in Caribbean and African countries. Starmer says his most notable success led to the removal of 419 people from death row in Uganda.
A five-year term heading the Crown Prosecution Service followed, during which he was responsible for decisions on issues ranging from the death of news- vendor Ian Tomlinson in the G20 protests to phone hacking and terrorism. He also drew up prosecution guidelines on assisted suicide, crimes on social media and child sexual exploitation.
The latter issue was thrown into focus by the recent report on the authorities’ failure to prevent the abuse of 1,400 children in Rotherham over a 16-year period, which included Starmer’s time as DPP.
He accepts that mistakes were made and says that he sought to implement a new approach in response. “I was pretty clear when I was DPP that we had to change the approach to the investigation and prosecution of these offences and that the approach that had previously been taken was wrong,” he adds.
“It’s too early to say whether the changed approach will improve things. You can’t change a culture overnight. Look at domestic violence. It’s taken a long time and to some extent we are still in the foothills. If anybody thinks this culture change is going to be quick or easy they’re mistaken.”
As a parent of a boy aged six and a three-year-old daughter, a career in Parliament will be difficult, as Starmer concedes, admitting that caring for children is harder than even his toughest legal battles.
“Our first child was born a week before my interview to be DPP. I practised my presentation on my wife in the middle of which he threw up, which was perhaps an indication of what I was saying,” he jokes, grinning as he recalls the moment.
“Then the first time I took my son into my office as DPP, he picked up a copy of the code for crown prosecutors and started eating it, much to the amusement of all the staff.
“It is difficult. The only way to do it is to be really disciplined. I tried to ensure there were a set number of days a week I was home for bathtime and that I had some preserved time at the weekends. If you speak to my wife she’ll say that didn’t work very well. But that was the intention and sometimes the practice.
The arrival of children has focused Starmer’s attention on how to achieve a better future for all Londoners. It is something he intends to prioritise if he reaches Parliament, with housing and low pay of particular concern.
“There is a very real housing crisis,” he adds. “It operates on almost every level. If you’re a council tenant, a social tenant, or if you’re a private tenant, when your rent is likely to be increasing every year to very high rents that most people can’t afford. If you want to buy in Holborn and St Pancras it’s almost impossible unless you have a very high income. This is a growing issue across London, across the country, and it’s part of my concern about inequality.
“Low pay too. The growth of low pay, zero-hours contracts, people who are technically off the jobless register but are hovering just above barely able to survive. It’s got to be addressed. It’s one of the root causes of the unequal way in which we are coming out of this recession and that’s why I am very supportive of a living wage. The idea of paying people properly instead of propping them up with benefits is right.”
Starmer says he has chosen Holborn and St Pancras, which Labour won in 2010 by nearly 10,000 votes, because he has lived there, in Kentish Town, for 15 years, worked in St Pancras for longer, and has his children in a local school.
A two-month selection battle this autumn awaits. So whether Starmer’s name will be on ballot papers next May remains to be decided. But what seems certain is that a true champion of the underdog could be heading to Westminster if it is.
Bentham, Martin (September 8, 2014). Hot, ready, legal: Britain's former top prosecutor Sir Keir Starmer turns his focus to politics. The Evening Standard. Retrieved from: http://www.standard.co.uk/lifestyle/london-life/hot-ready-legal-britains-former-top-prosecutor-sir-keir-starmer-turns-his-focus-to-politics-9717970.html