In an unusual departure from the norms of the genre, Michael Ashcroft begins his unauthorised biography of Keir Starmer, Red Knight, with a lengthy peroration about himself. Ashcroft informed Starmer of his project, but received no reply; it emerged over time that not only did the Labour leader not wish to cooperate, he had asked his associates not to either. “His response,” Ashcroft concludes, “has done a fine job in convincing me that he thinks it would be perfectly acceptable for him to move into 10 Downing Street without a book of this kind asking some probing questions about him.” Well, hold on a tick: I definitely never got that memo, that it was a matter of democratic accountability for any prospective prime minister to have their life story told by Michael Ashcroft. He is, after all, a Tory peer, perhaps predictably a major donor to the Conservative party, and a former tax exile. Some might think he’s a little partisan.
If this querulous overture makes little sense on its own terms, it nevertheless helpfully locates the two main qualities that limit Red Knight as a work of searching biography. The first is the author’s own narcissism, which leaves him blankly unable to understand a worldview other than his own, mystified by behaviour and life choices that will strike your average pinko as completely normal. Why would Starmer campaign so hard against the death penalty in Belize and Uganda, when his clients had been convicted of “shocking crimes”? Why would this prominent human rights barrister oppose the death penalty at all, when 15 years later he’d be leader of the opposition? “It is worth considering the viewpoints of the voters to whom Starmer must appeal if he is to return the Labour party to power,” Ashcroft concludes, apparently unaware that some people oppose capital punishment as a breach of fundamental values – values which, in the field of human rights, are universally held. He combs the shadows for the real reason Starmer became involved in Labour politics as a teenager, beyond the “obvious reason: his parents voted Labour”. He notes rather ominously that even on Desert Island Discs, the Labour leader “did not answer this question directly”. But does it really need an ulterior motive? It’s a pretty mainstream political party, it’s not the Baader Meinhof. Why did he live in a flat above a sauna in north London in the late 80s, when “some of his later flatmates were young women. It seems unlikely that they would have been happy to live above a den of vice.” Aha, you haven’t met young 80s women of the left, Michael. We loved vice.
The second problem is, of course, that very few of Starmer’s friends, colleagues, associates, former teachers or tutors were prepared to be interviewed. There aren’t even any vocal enemies, until you get to the aggregated columnist critique pasted together from the months after Starmer won the leadership. So a frankly incredible amount of quote time is given over to people who were kicking around the same environments – Leeds Labour Club while at university, for instance, or the Socialist Society – and “can’t remember Starmer at all”. It makes you wonder what the author left out.
Consequently, many of the conclusions are highly speculative. Since Starmer wasn’t terrifically involved with Leeds Labour Club, and since at the time there was a battle against the militant tendency, it follows that he “saw things in black and white terms, simply believing there were no enemies on the left”. Does it, though? How many people joined a Labour club at university, went to the first meeting, couldn’t work out what everyone was fighting about and never went back?
There is one further interruption to the narrative, which has quite an unabashed agenda: to show that Starmer is not who he’s pretending to be. Because Rodney Starmer, the Labour leader’s father, was not employed as a toolmaker, but self-employed; and because the parents bought a house and once posed for a photograph with the Duke of Kent, “perhaps it would be most accurate to say that [his background] was neither ‘working class’ … nor ‘posh’ but … petit bourgeois”. Because, through some laboriously described process, Starmer’s grammar school sought independent status during his time there, he went to a “fee-paying school”, even though his parents never paid any fees. Because in a university magazine personals ad, someone called Starmer “King of Middle Class Radicals”, this “proves that, since he was 21 years old, this former Surrey grammar school boy has been fending off accusations of being more bourgeois than he would care to admit”. The broader political initiative, a billionaire policing the boundaries of working-class authenticity so intensely that nobody without rickets can ever be Labour leader again, is so absurd it’s almost endearing; but it doesn’t provide a very three-dimensional portrait of the man.