When John Erskine signed up a teenage Keir Starmer to the Labour club at Leeds University freshers’ week in 1982, he had hoped to find a new recruit in the factional dogfight raging inside the party.
But he was disappointed. Erskine recalls the young law student’s politics as being of the “non-aligned, conscience-driven left” – something like a kind of political Methodism.
Instead of joining in the running battles with Militant, Starmer took the view there were “no enemies on the left” and cracked on with his studies.
The overwhelming favourite to succeed Jeremy Corbyn, who steps down next weekend, Starmer has defied categorisation, declining to become a fully paid-up member of any of Labour’s many overlapping sects.
He is neither a Corbynite nor a Blairite (to the extent that they still exist) and is irritated by other people’s urge to pigeon-hole him.
Speaking to the Guardian as he launched his pitch for the leadership last December, he said: “I don’t find the badging of people helps, really. I don’t need somebody else’s name tattooed on my head to know what I think. There are fundamental principles.”
Starmer arrived at Leeds from Reigate grammar school, the only one of five siblings from a modest semi-detached house in Oxted, Surrey, to get to university.
He has spoken movingly about his mother’s 50-year battle with Still’s disease, which ultimately led to her being confined to a wheelchair and unable to eat. “She wouldn’t have moaned. If you’d asked her how she was, she’d say ‘fine, how are you?’,” he said.
After a postgraduate degree at Oxford, Starmer moved to London where he shared a rickety flat in Archway with old school friends.
He joined the fashionably radical Doughty Street Chambers while carrying out pro-bono work for a string of apparently lost causes.
Conor Foley, an international human rights lawyer and aid worker who now lives in Brazil, worked alongside Starmer at the campaign group Amnesty International in the 90s.
The pair wrote a pamphlet, Foreign Policy, Human Rights and the UK, in 1998, making a string of recommendations, many of which were subsequently taken up by the Labour government.
Tony Blair’s incorporation of the provisions of the European convention on human rights (ECHR) into UK law in the Human Rights Act catapulted Starmer and his fellow human rights lawyers from the lefty fringe of their profession to the mainstream, as the judiciary scrambled to absorb its implications.
“There were various people who were, three years before, on the unacceptable left, suddenly found themselves in positions of authority,” says Conor Gearty, a professor of human rights law at the LSE and another old friend. “Because we knew about it and nobody else did.”
Foley agrees. “The Human Rights Act - there are probably four or five people in Britain who got that legislation and understood the importance of that legislation, and Keir and I were two of them. There were other people who played a more prominent role. But he has always understood the strategic significance of international human rights law.”
Foley says that while the pair were working together at Amnesty he didn’t sense any burning ambition in Starmer to enter party politics. “That wasn’t where we were at. I think he wanted to be a human rights lawyer. I think that was really his dream.”
And anyway the Labour party of the time wasn’t much to their liking, he says. “The Blairite party wouldn’t have been something either of us were comfortable with. Not that we were anti, we just weren’t that comfortable with it.”
Starmer’s appointment as director of public prosecutions (DPP) – a campaigning human rights lawyer turned the nation’s chief prosecutor – surprised some of his radical friends.
Leftwing critics tend to describe his five-year stint at the top of the 6,000-strong Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) as the final stage in Starmer’s metamorphosis from firebrand QC to well-coiffed pillar of the establishment.
They point to the all-night court sittings held to administer swift punishment to the 2011 rioters – which Starmer subsequently claimed had helped quell the disorder; and tough prosecuting guidance that imposed sentences of up to 10 years on benefits fraudsters.
A close ally of the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, the Salford MP and shadow business secretary has been groomed as a potential leftwing contender for the top job.
The Wigan MP has built a reputation as a campaigner for her constituency and others like it, many of which have fallen to the Tories. A soft-left candidate, she resigned from the shadow cabinet in 2016 over Corbyn’s leadership and handling of the EU referendum.
Ambitious former director of public prosecutions has led the charge for remain in the shadow cabinet. He was instrumental in shifting Labour’s position towards backing a second referendum
Pitch Launched his campaign by highlighting how he has stood up for leftwing causes as a campaigning lawyer, and unveiled the slogan “Another Future is Possible”, arguing "Labour can win again if we make the moral case for socialism"
Some individual cases are also regularly raised, though Starmer’s friends insist they are impossible to judge without knowing what advice he received at the time.
“He [Starmer] has just admitted on TV that a copper assaulted our dad. But he hasn’t done anything. He’s the man in charge ... why hasn’t he charged him?” But Starmer insisted there was no realistic chance of a successful prosecution.
His decision was subsequently reversed after an inquest found that Tomlinson had been unlawfully killed, but the police officer, Simon Harwood, was ultimately cleared of manslaughter in 2012.
Gearty defends Starmer’s overall record at the CPS, saying he managed to forge new policy ground by developing frameworks of guidance in controversial areas such as assisted dying, alongside the traditional role of making decisions on individual cases.
“That is such a hard thing for any of us to do: to be both reactive, and also to have the capacity to be able to engage and drive the agenda.”
Both of these skills should have better prepared him for life in Westminster. But his legal background hasn’t enamoured him to everyone.
He was persuaded to run for parliament in 2015 in part by his longtime friend Ed Miliband, whose London home is not far up the Northern line from the Victorian terrace in Kentish Town that Starmer shares with his wife, Vicky, and two children.
Labour appeared set to win, and he told his local paper, the Ham and High: “I’ve got my eyes set on winning Holborn and St Pancras and then doing whatever I can do to help a Labour government change the things that need changing.”
Instead he found himself in a parliamentary party relegated to opposition and wracked with division.
During the darkest days of the Brexit drama, when Labour became embroiled in one parliamentary clash after another, Starmer was often criticised by colleagues for being too much a lawyer and not enough a politician.
One shadow cabinet colleague laughingly cites his resignation as shadow immigration minister in 2016, at the later stages of the mass exodus from Jeremy Corbyn’s team in the aftermath of the Brexit referendum, as an example of his lawyerliness. “It’s a classic – you have to read it three times to see what he’s saying.”
In it, Starmer said the “challenge of leadership” was different in the light of the referendum result, but that he had “maintained his support” for the embattled Corbyn until most of his team resigned. “It is simply untenable now to suggest that we can offer an effective opposition without a change of leader,” he concluded.
Whatever his qualms about the leadership, Starmer made the fateful choice to go back on to the frontbench in October 2016 after Corbyn convincingly saw off Owen Smith’s challenge.
In the following three years he played a crucial – and, to some colleagues, infuriating – role in inching his party towards supporting a second EU referendum.
He chaired the “compositing” meeting of grassroots delegates at the 2018 conference in Liverpool that resulted in a referendum finding its way into Labour policy as an “option” that should remain “on the table”.
He earned rapturous applause from the remain-supporting membership when he used his speech to drop in the idea – then anathema to the leadership – that if another poll were held, remain would have to be on the ballot paper.
There followed many months of parliamentary wrangling with the Tories in public, and political clashes among Labour’s most senior figures in private.
Starmer styled himself as the torchbearer for the composite – and thus for the idea that a referendum couldn’t be ruled out.
In public, he stuck scrupulously to the letter of every iteration of Labour policy. But in private, says one shadow cabinet colleague, the discussions were more robust.
“He stretched the case as far as he could go but not to a point where he could be said to be out of line. But in the private meetings he was pushing very much harder. At every stage, we felt, and I said this many times, this is just a fucking ratchet.”
Some former MPs who lost their seats in pro-Brexit constituencies blame Starmer, in part, for the party’s policy, which took many months of wrangling to arrive at and which infuriated leave voters.
He insists it was a sensible way of dealing with a deeply divided party, with a deeply divided electorate, that once arrived at was not explained or sold to the public.
Certainly he made few frontline media appearances during the campaign, instead touring local constituencies to boost morale with members and candidates, a role he had also played in 2017, awarding himself the moniker Captain Marginal.
Is he now more politician than lawyer? Angela Smith, the Labour leader in the House of Lords, who has sat in the shadow cabinet throughout Starmer’s time in parliament, believes so.
“I don’t think anybody who’s dealt with the Labour party, the shadow cabinet, the issues that he’s dealt with over the past few years, could be accused of not being a politician,” Lady Smith says.
“He’s not the kind of weirdly Machiavellian type some people associate with the word politician, but he gets the politics of an issue.”
Erskine, who has watched Starmer’s progress from afar since the Leeds days, says “everything is of a piece. It’s of conscience, it’s about incredible intellectual rigour, it’s about being measured. And whilst it’s not me, I have a lot of respect for it.”
That measured style until recently appeared out of political fashion. Whatever Corbyn’s shortcomings, he was capable of rousing passion in his army of supporters. Even Starmer’s most staunch supporters concede that is not really his style.
One old friend recalls asking him to make a speech to a school about how he had risen from a pebble-dashed semi in Oxted to the top of his profession. It was an inspirational story, he recalls, but not an inspirational speech. “He’s no David Lammy, Keir.”
Another cites what they recall as a serviceable but not outstanding address at the funeral of his predecessor in the Holborn and St Pancras seat, Frank Dobson, last December, with the great and the good of the Labour party, including four past and present leaders, in the congregation.
One mourner recalls a non-plussed Labour grandee muttering afterwards: “That’s the trouble with Keir: he doesn’t rise to the occasion.”
But Smith, who has seen Starmer up close over the past five years, has little sympathy for those who complain that he lacks pizzazz.
“I get quite irritated when people talk about him being dull. He’s serious – and I rather like people being serious, particularly when you’re dealing with serious issues,” she says.
And with politics-as-usual on hold as the world wrestles with Covid-19 and its consequences – which have already swept decades-long orthodoxies in their wake – she adds: “He’s a serious grownup politician. I think he’s the right person at the right time.”