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‘I want to change the country’: How Keir Starmer defied expectations to lift Labour back to power


On the eve of polls opening in the UK general election, Keir Starmer allowed himself a moment to reflect on how far he had come since he became leader of the Labour Party four-and-a-half years ago. Back then, the party was reeling from one of the worst defeats in its 100-year history.
“The optimists said it will take 10 years to fix this party and get it back,” he told reporters ahead of a final rally in the East Midlands.“The pessimists said you’re never going to fix this party, it’s never going to be in government again.” adding “here we are.”
He has now led the Labour party to victory, on track for the biggest majority in Parliament since at least Tony Blair’s New Labour landslide in 1997.
The UK’s presumptive prime minister has far outperformed the expectations of his chances when he took over from the hard-left Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn in 2020. Bland, boring, “no Tony Blair,” as focus groups often describe him, this relative newcomer to the world of politics has, in part, been a beneficiary of circumstances.
Boris Johnson’s “partygate” scandal and Liz Truss’s “mini-budget” — which tanked the pound — came at the tail-end of years of Conservative austerity that left deep cuts to many public services. All have contributed to the result we have now seen in the British general election. But Starmer has had his part to play too, demonstrating a quiet ruthlessness in changing his party, purging the Corbynites, even expelling Corbyn himself, and bringing it into a position to win and govern again.
“It feels good, I have to be honest,” Starmer told Labour supporters in London after the party crossed the crucial 326-seat threshold in the House of Commons, adding that he knew “a mandate like this comes with a great responsibility.”
He’ll now have to show whether those same skills that got him into 10 Downing St. will help him resolve a staggering list of challenges. Britons are bruised by the impact of Brexit, the pandemic and a historic squeeze on living standards. His government faces a more dangerous world and has little money to spend on improving the situation at home without raising broad-based taxes, something he’s said he doesn’t want to do.
Despite being known as “Sir Keir” — he was knighted for his legal career before entering politics — the UK’s new prime minister had humble beginnings, something he has been at pains to remind voters throughout the election campaign. He grew up, as he often recounts, in a “pebble-dashed” semi-detached house in Oxted, a London commuter town in the Surrey countryside. He was one of four children to a toolmaker father and a mother with a debilitating autoimmune condition, which meant she had to give up her work as a nurse while Starmer was a child.
Starmer’s father raised his four children and looked after his sick wife on his own, and money was often tight. “I remember when our phone was cut off because we couldn’t pay the bill,” Starmer has recalled during the campaign. “How hard it was to make ends meet.”
The young Starmer was given a leg-up in life by attending Reigate Grammar, a state school, where he secured the grades to become the first in his family to attend university. He studied law at Leeds, graduating with honors, and got accepted to Oxford University to do a BCL — a prestigious year-long graduate law course. As a young man in London in the late 1980s, he lived in a “party flat” where there was sometimes vomit in the bathtub, hosting friends into the early hours and writing radical treatises for niche left-leaning publications. But by day he was climbing the ranks to become a respected human rights lawyer.
Starmer, who has denied being the inspiration for the dashing human rights lawyer Mark Darcy in the book and film Bridget Jones’ Diary, became known for his pro bono work, including defending individuals in the Caribbean against the death penalty. He had a brush with national fame for defending two activists, Helen Steel and David Morris, a gardener and a former postman, who sued for libel by McDonald’s for distributing leaflets criticizing the fast food chain, in what became known as the ‘McLibel’ case. He was appointed Queen’s Counsel in 2002, a few months before his 40th birthday.
The following year, Starmer took on a role that would rewrite his theory of change: human rights adviser to the Policing Board in Northern Ireland. His job was to ensure that the new police service, formed after the 1998 peace agreement, commanded the trust of all communities. Before this role, Starmer had seen himself as railing against the system from the outside. This was his first experience of going inside an organization to deliver change. He found this new way was far more effective.
He took on a major role leading after that, becoming director of public prosecutions from 2008 to 2013. The role put him in charge of delivering criminal justice in the UK, running a large organization of thousands of staff and lawyers during a period of major budget cuts. He led the organization when it successfully prosecuted senior media figures for phone-hacking and politicians for fiddling their expenses.
No one was surprised when the country’s former top prosecutor entered the world of politics. After his time as DPP ended, Starmer stood for election in the safe Labour seat of Holborn and St. Pancras in the May 2015 general election, expecting to be attorney general in Ed Miliband’s Cabinet. Instead, he went straight to the opposition benches and joined a Labour parliamentary party tearing itself apart after a shock defeat.
During the Jeremy Corbyn years Starmer, a remainer, rose through the shadow ministerial ranks to become shadow Brexit secretary. While colleagues like Rachel Reeves refused to serve under Corbyn or resigned from the party altogether over antisemitism, Starmer stayed. But by March 2018, Starmer and his allies — frustrated by the antisemitism problem and by Corbyn’s foreign policy stances — knew he would stand for party leader when the time came. For nearly two years, they held secret meetings every Monday morning to make sure he was ready for a leadership campaign when the time arose.
The time came in 2020. Starmer ran, and won, a leadership campaign centered on 10 pledges to Labour members, essentially to retain the radical spirit of the Corbynite agenda with promises such as renationalizing, rail, mail, energy and water. He memorably paid tribute to “my friend Jeremy Corbyn.”
Since taking over the leadership, Starmer has expelled Corbyn from the party, introduced mandatory antisemitism training, and vigorously vetted, and sometimes imposed, candidates who will be loyal to his leadership. Encouraged by his shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves and other close aides from the party’s right wing, he has instilled a tight fiscal discipline, ditched almost all of his original leadership pledges, and draped his party in the union flag and embraced the language of security, discipline and patriotism.
It has not all been plain sailing. He lost the Hartlepool by-election — seeing a safe Labour seat fall to Johnson’s Conservatives — early into his leadership in 2020, after which he considered resigning. The experience saw him fire some advisers, appoint new people, and hardened his determination to overhaul his party.
More recently, Starmer suffered a protracted and public disagreement among his top team over whether to ditch his party’s pledge to spend £28 billion ($36 billion) per year on green infrastructure, culminating in a major reversal. He has faced criticism and lost votes over an LBC radio interview in October in which he said Israel “has the right” to withhold power and water from Gaza, which he later apologized for.
The team of advisers around him has been referred to as a “boys’ club,” accused of heavy-handedness in their purging of the Corbynite wing of the party and in their wider attitude to the party’s elected representatives.
While his dissenters balk at how different he is to the man who stood for leader four and a half years ago, Starmer is proud of that difference. “I changed my party,” he says. “Now I want to change the country.”

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