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The case against Keir Starmer

Keir Starmer has made his pitch for the Labour leadership on a promise to retain the party's left-wing policies, whilst also being pragmatic and electable. Yet, as Oliver Eagleton writes, a look at his chequered career to date puts his left credentials in severe doubt.

Oliver Eagleton27 January 2020

The case against Keir Starmer

Sir Keir Starmer’s campaign for the Labour leadership has somewhat glossed over his recent parliamentary record. That’s hardly surprising given that his tenure as shadow Brexit secretary is not his strongest selling point. The MP for Holborn and St Pancras devised a Remain policy that courted People’s Voters at the expense of red wall seats. While Corbyn tried to map out a viable Brexit plan after the 2016 referendum, inveighing against EU state-aid rules and competition directives, Sir Keir broke with the leadership, refused to formulate a Leave programme (aside from his deliberately unworkable ‘six tests’), and steered the party towards a second referendum. As many have argued, this was the perhaps the single biggest reason for the disastrous general election result that followed.

Sensing that this legacy might harm his leadership prospects, Sir Keir has tried to shift the focus onto his pre-frontbench career. In a stirring campaign video released in early January, he set out his achievements: he defended striking dockers and environmental activists; gave free legal advice to poll tax protesters; represented Helen Steele and David Morris in the Mclibel trial; and helped convict the murderers of Stephen Lawrence. As Director of Public Prosecutions, he grappled with MPs over the expenses scandal, prosecuted the energy secretary for perverting the course of justice, and brought cases against Murdoch-hired phone hackers. ‘I’ve spent my life fighting for justice’, he says, ‘standing up for the powerless and against the powerful’.

Sir Keir’s record is impressive, even if this summary leaves out certain qualifying details (for example, Starmer may have been assigned some of his most noteworthy cases, rather than choosing to take them on; he was found by a select committee to have restricted the scope of the phone hacking investigation; and his estimated net worth of £1–5 million makes it somewhat less remarkable that he occasionally works pro bono). Still, there’s no doubt that the Labour leadership frontrunner – once voted ‘Britain’s fairest man’ – has done some admirable things, and that his statesmanlike persona is better at rebuffing media smears than Corbyn’s admixture of defensiveness and piety. Yet, a closer look at Sir Kier’s past casts some doubt on his self-presentation as a champion of the oppressed.

Starmer’s campaign video touts his respect for human rights and civil liberties, foregrounding his opposition to the Iraq war and the NSA presence at Menwith Hill. It cites his Guardian op-ed, published in 2003, which dismantles Blair’s use of resolution 1441 as a pretext for invading and suggests that the government’s official justification lacks ‘credibility’. Yet when the SNP proposed an investigation into Blair’s apparent lying in the run up to the war – bolstered by findings from the Chilcot report – Sir Keir voted against it. He also voted for Trident in 2016, and worked tirelessly to secure Labour’s support for the Investigatory Power Bill, which expanded state surveillance and authorised the bulk collection of digital communications. As DPP, Sir Keir tempered his love of liberty by fast-tracking the extradition of Julian Assange (a process now making its way through the courts). He flouted legal precedents by advising Swedish lawyers not to question Assange in Britain: a decision that prolonged the latter’s legal purgatory, denied closure to his accusers in Sweden, and sealed his fate before a US show trial. Leaked emails from August 2012 show that, when the Swedish legal team expressed hesitancy about keeping Assange’s case open, Sir Keir’s office replied: ‘Don’t you dare get cold feet’.

Sound judgement on resolution 1441, then; but a demonstrable conviction that people who expose war crimes should face prosecution, while people who perpetrate them should not. These aren’t the only groups that Sir Keir has been particularly keen to quash over the course of his career. As head of the Crown Prosecution Service, he altered legal guidelines so that those improperly claiming benefits could be charged under the Fraud Act, which carries a maximum sentence of ten years (Emily Thornberry argued it should be increased to fourteen). Sir Keir also removed the financial threshold for such cases, allowing the government to waste endless resources arresting and incarcerating people who had claimed minimal amounts of money. ‘It is vital that we take a tough stance on this type of fraud’, he said, ‘and I am determined to see a clampdown on those who flout the system’. Never mind that fraud was estimated to account for only 0.7% of the welfare budget; that the dizzyingly complex bureaucracy instated by the Tories increased the likelihood of accidentally over-claiming; and that no ‘tough stance’ was taken on the £12 billion lost annually to corporate tax avoidance. This hostility to scroungers evidently stayed in place until 2015, when Sir Keir decided to abstain on the Tory Welfare Bill: a series of drastic cuts to social spending that disproportionately affected women, children and the disabled.

Despite his beneficence towards poll tax protesters, the barrister has generally erred on the side of ‘law and order’, reserving a particular antipathy for left-wing activists. He drew up rules that gave police officers more power to arrest demonstrators, in an attempt to crack down on ‘significant disruption’ after the 2010 student protests. Officers were encouraged to arrest those ‘equipped with clothes or masks to prevent identification, items that could be considered body protection, or an item that can be used as a weapon’. Appended to these instructions was a warning: ‘criminals bent on disruption and disorder…will not get an easy ride’. As commentators noted at the time, the vagueness of these guidelines equipped police with the authority to jail anyone wearing a scarf (since it could be used to ‘prevent identification’) or carrying a placard (which has on various occasions been classified as ‘weapon’), while the ban on body protection criminalised attempts to defend oneself from police violence. Sir Keir’s stern treatment of protesters tallied with his response to the London riots, when he stressed the necessity of rapid sentencing, and made a personal appearance in court to praise the judges who were handing down harsh penalties. His predecessor as DPP meanwhile reflected that the punishments marked a ‘collective loss of proportion’, and an abnegation of ‘humanity or justice’.

As well as taking ‘tough stances’ in the courtroom, Sir Keir’s CPS advised undercover police officers on how to infiltrate left-wing campaign groups via a ‘domestic extremism’ specialist. When it was alleged that, as part of this operation, numerous undercover agents had broken the law, given false evidence in court, and formed sexual relationships with activists in order to spy on them, the CPS launched an investigation into covert policing that was widely considered to be a whitewash. It admitted no systemic failings on the part of the CPS, offered no apology to the victims, and declined to re-open cases in which undercover policework may have led to wrongful convictions. There was no redress for the countless miscarriages of justice caused by this ‘anti-extremism’ crusade – which focused primarily on environmentalists and animal rights advocates – nor did he bring charges against officers who had manipulated women into sex. This is a far cry from the feminist credentials talked up in his campaign video; though it would be unreasonable to expect more from a man who, in 2010, dismissed the concerns of Women Against Rape, a group that met with him to discuss the treatment of women who are pressured into withdrawing sexual assault allegations and then subsequently prosecuted for lying (as in the recent Cyprus trial). To his credit, Sir Keir pledged to personally review future indictments of this kind; but the campaigners’ requests – that he overturn the sentences of women jailed for retracting rape claims and place a moratorium on such convictions – were summarily thrown out.

Reluctance to re-open cases is one thing. But the decorated QC’s aversion to prosecuting law enforcers – and preference for legitimising their brutality – was most evident when he refused to indict the policemen who killed Jean Charles de Menendez, a Brazilian immigrant mistaken for terror suspect and gunned down in Stockwell tube station. Sir Keir issued the same verdict in the case of Ian Tomlinson, who was killed by police in an unprovoked attack during the G20 protests. Both charges were dropped due to ‘insufficient evidence’ – a judgement that may have been correct given the biases of the British judicial system (Tomlinson’s killer was eventually tried and acquitted, despite the DPP’s initial ruling), but one that jars with the undaunted ‘fight for justice’ to which Sir Keir is supposedly dedicated. Indeed, a comprehensive view of his record reveals more contradictions than his leadership pitch will acknowledge – broadly progressive and deeply establishment, concerned with social justice and suspicious of social movements, bane of corrupt politicians and of peaceful protesters. Competent? Perhaps. But ‘for the powerless and against the powerful’? No, Sir.

Oliver Eagleton is an editorial intern at New Left Review.