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Who is Keir Starmer? A look at Britain's next prime minister

Keir Starmer, leader of the Labour Party, is seen at BBC Broadcasting House for an interview on <em>Sunday with Laura Kuenssberg</em> on Oct. 23, 2022, in London.
Hollie Adams
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Keir Starmer, leader of the Labour Party, is seen at BBC Broadcasting House for an interview on Sunday with Laura Kuenssberg on Oct. 23, 2022, in London.

Updated July 05, 2024 at 03:10 AM ET

LONDON — Britain’s next prime minister is a human rights lawyer who once called for the British monarchy to be abolished, but years later knelt before Charles, then prince of Wales, to be knighted.

He was also rumored to be the 1990s inspiration for a brooding heartthrob character in the Bridget Jones movies. More recently, he took a knee in support of Black Lives Matter.

Keir Starmer, 61, is a social liberal, fiscal moderate and leader of the United Kingdom’s Labour Party, which official results Friday showed had won a parliamentary election by a landslide. He's been a member of parliament since 2015, and leader of the opposition — Prime Minister Rishi Sunak's main rival — since 2020.

Starmer is the first Labour leader to win a U.K. general election in nearly 20 years, since Tony Blair in 2005. Over the past century, Labour has been in the opposition much more than in power.

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak (right) and opposition Labour Party leader Keir Starmer take part in a BBC debate, in Nottingham, England, on June 26.
Phil Noble / Reuters
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British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak (right) and opposition Labour Party leader Keir Starmer take part in a BBC debate, in Nottingham, England, on June 26.

But after 14 years of Conservative Party rule, several of them tumultuous — from Brexit, to Boris Johnson, to the economic instability of his successor Liz Truss — Starmer benefited from the ruling party’s perceived missteps.

Starmer promises to restore competency to government, nationalize some railways and utility companies, raise the minimum wage, tax private school tuition, improve the public health system and offer free breakfast in public elementary schools.

His election puts Britain on an opposite trajectory from Europe, where there are worries about the rise of the far-right, particularly in France.

His uncommon first name

According to his biographer, Starmer got teased as a youngster over his uncommon first name, Keir, which means dark or brooding in Gaelic and Irish.

His parents were “proper old-fashioned socialists” who may have named their son after Keir Hardie, a 19th century Scottish trade unionist, who founded the Labour Party in 1900, says Tom Baldwin, author of Keir Starmer: The Biography. (Starmer said in 2015 that while his parents admired Hardie and voted Labour, they never explicitly confirmed whom he’s named after, and have since died.)

He grew up in a posh suburb, in a blue-collar family

Another hurdle for young Starmer was social class. He grew up in an affluent, conservative suburb of London. But his family was socialist and blue-collar, and he went to public school.

“His dad [Rodney Starmer] was a toolmaker, whom probably people didn't understand as being skilled and clever, because they just saw him as working in a factory, and he always resented that — he felt them being snobbish towards him,” Baldwin says.

British environmental activists Helen Steel (second right) and David Morris (right) discuss with their lawyer, Keir Starmer (seated), as they wait for the beginning of their hearing at the European Court for Human Rights on Sept. 7, 2004, in Strasbourg, eastern France.
Christian Lutz / AP
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AP
British environmental activists Helen Steel (second right) and David Morris (right) discuss with their lawyer, Keir Starmer (seated), as they wait for the beginning of their hearing at the European Court for Human Rights on Sept. 7, 2004, in Strasbourg, eastern France.

Starmer’s father withdrew, and was sometimes surly. “He just wouldn't talk to people. He’d walk around the village sort of swearing at them,” Baldwin says.

The Labour leader has acknowledged having a difficult relationship with his late father. “We didn't talk. He never really expressed pride in what I did. He certainly didn't say, ‘I love you,’ ” Starmer said in a recent radio interview.

His mother Josephine was a nurse in Britain’s National Health Service, or NHS. She was also chronically ill herself, in and out of the hospital with Still’s disease, an autoinflammatory condition. Her health struggles are something Starmer now recalls often in speeches, as instilling in him the importance of the NHS, which provides free, taxpayer-funded health care for all.

“The NHS that had been her livelihood became her lifeline,” Starmer said in a speech at the Labour Party’s annual conference in 2021.

Following his namesake’s path, Starmer joined the Young Socialists, the youth wing of the Labour Party, at age 16. He grew up and became a human rights lawyer, fighting cases against oil companies and McDonald's.

Starmer may have inspired a character in Bridget Jones books and movies

For years, unverified rumors have swirled that Starmer was the inspiration for the brooding lawyer character of Mark Darcy, love interest of the main character in the Bridget Jones book and movie franchise. It is plausible: Both Darcy (played by Colin Firth on screen) and Starmer are human rights lawyers. Starmer lived in Oxford and Leeds, just like the series' creator, Helen Fielding. Starmer's big McDonald's litigation was making headlines in the late 1990s, around the time Fielding wrote the first Bridget Jones novel.

On a BBC podcast in 2020, Fielding sounded tight-lipped and happy to keep people guessing. “I had several different boyfriends, all very gorgeous,” she said. But she later told another interviewer that she’d never met Starmer.

Starmer has said he’s “flattered” if it’s true.

From human rights lawyer to crime-fighting prosecutor

He worked as a human rights lawyer for about 20 years, and served as an adviser to police in Northern Ireland after the Good Friday Peace Agreement, signed in 1998. But then he switched sides and became a prosecutor. For five years, he served as the director of public prosecutions for England and Wales.

That switch — from defending people accused of being criminals, to prosecuting them — is something that annoyed some of Starmer’s left-wing human rights colleagues, his biographer says.

Then-director of public prosecutions, Keir Starmer, arrives at a radio studio on Feb, 25, 2010, in London.
Oli Scarff / Getty Images
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Then-director of public prosecutions, Keir Starmer, arrives at a radio studio on Feb, 25, 2010, in London.

“He’d set himself up as railing against the state — a sort of self-consciously radical person. But then he slowly changed, to where he could exercise more influence,” says Baldwin. “He adopted a more authoritarian approach to crime.”

When riots broke out in London in 2011, Starmer revised the rules to fast-track prosecutions, arguing that speedier trials for offenders were a more effective deterrent to crime, than long prison sentences.

In 2014, Starmer received a knighthood for his criminal justice work, becoming Sir Keir. At his knighthood ceremony, Starmer — once caught on camera calling for the British monarchy to be abolished — knelt before Charles, then the prince of Wales, who tapped him on both shoulders with a sword.

A year later, Starmer won a seat in the U.K. Parliament, representing the Holborn and St. Pancras constituency in north London.

In 2015, Starmer enters Parliament. In 2020, he becomes Labour leader.

A fellow Labour lawmaker recalls Starmer’s first day on the job. She’d heard about his work in human rights and criminal justice, and his knighthood.

"I actually poked him in the back and said, ‘You’re that Keir Starmer.’ And he said, ‘Yes, I am.’ And I said, ‘I'm going to make you the leader of the Labour Party,’ recalls Carolyn Harris, a member of Parliament from Wales. “He smiled and he laughed, and he said, ‘Well, we need to have a cup of tea and talk about that then.’”

Keir Starmer and wife Victoria accept the applause of delegates following his keynote speech to the Labour conference for the first time as party leader on Sept. 29, 2021, in Brighton, England.
Dan Kitwood / Getty Images
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Keir Starmer and wife Victoria accept the applause of delegates following his keynote speech to the Labour conference for the first time as party leader on Sept. 29, 2021, in Brighton, England.

Harris says she spotted in Starmer a pragmatist willing to do what it takes to get elected nationally. Namely, move the party toward the center, after the left-wing leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, who was often compared to Bernie Sanders.

Five years later, Starmer was chosen by his Labour colleagues to be their leader, succeeding Corbyn, who had been one of his mentors. But then he swiftly suspended Corbyn from the party, following accusations of antisemitism. Corbyn remained in Parliament as an independent, and retained his seat in Thursday's election.

When climate activists heckled Starmer during a speech this spring, Starmer made an off-the-cuff comment that revealed how he envisions a post-Corbyn Labour Party.

“We gave up on being a party of protest five years ago!” he told the crowd. “We want to be a party of power.”

Some call Starmer dull and boring

The Labour Party has promised to improve relations with Europe, tax private school tuition, ban the sale of gas and diesel cars by 2030 and restore competence to government.

But Starmer’s victory may be less about his party’s platform, or his own charisma. Some British headlines have dubbed him “boring.” One recent poll shows more people disapprove of his handling of the party, than approve of it.

Labour Party leader Keir Starmer and candidate for North East Derbyshire, Louise Jones, hold a Q&A with the workers of the Global Brands distribution company on Tuesday in Chesterfield, United Kingdom.
Christopher Furlong / Getty Images
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Getty Images
Labour Party leader Keir Starmer and candidate for North East Derbyshire, Louise Jones, hold a Q&A with the workers of the Global Brands distribution company on Tuesday in Chesterfield, United Kingdom.

A Labour victory says more about voters’ disgust with the governing Conservatives, says Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee. “Boring looks quite good after Boris [Johnson] and Liz Truss! I think a lot of people want somebody who's going to manage things in a sober and sensible way.”

The trick will be for Starmer to manage expectations. He inherits a country hobbled by years of Conservative-backed austerity measures, and government coffers are near empty.

“Keir Starmer faces a very acute dilemma. Expectations of big change are running very high. But his policy list is modest and cautious,” says David Willetts, a member of the Conservative Party who holds a seat in the House of Lords.

“Expectations are running far ahead of what he can actually do," he says.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Lauren Frayer covers India for NPR News. In June 2018, she opened a new NPR bureau in India's biggest city, its financial center, and the heart of Bollywood—Mumbai.