The Speaker
Saturday, 18 May 2024 – 10:39
Keir Starmer

Keir Starmer: the most popular opposition leader in 13 years. Is it the luck of the lawyers?

NOTE: This is an opinion article – any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Speaker or any members of its team.

Keir Starmer has been the leader of the Labour Party since 4th April and has certainly made waves in Westminster.

Dragging the Labour party away from his predecessor’s, Jeremy Corbyn, more left-wing position, and the explosive sacking of Rebeca Long-Bailey as shadow education secretary, has shown him to be a decisive leader, determined to flush out any anti-Semitic traces from his party. Starmer winning the title of ‘most popular opposition leader’ in 13 years, (data from Ipsos Mori) sees him return to the sort of position of Tony Blair when he won his landslide victory for Labour in 1997. One striking similarity between these two are their pre-politics professions. Both leaders were trained Lawyers, with Sir Keir Starmer being a former Director of Public Prosecutions and one of the most successful lawyers of recent times.

This Law-Politics cross-over is not an unfamiliar event in British politics. In fact, there are many transferable skills in law which are used in politics; defending a case, compiling arguments in defence of and in opposition to, trying to convince the jury/backbenchers to be on your side, just to name a few. There has long been intense criticism of ‘career politicians’, so whilst many Conservative MPs argue Starmer’s legal background is a possible hindrance to his ability to lead an effective opposition, it would seem quite the contrary in practice. Starmer’s ability to get under the skin of the Prime Minister at PMQs is a sight to behold; he almost embraces this role of a prosecutor as he effectively holds the PM to account from the dispatch box. It could be argued, that in his so far small and new tenure, Starmer’s legal training has equipped him well for a role in politics. This, combined with previous cases of Lawyer-Politician crossovers, could certainly be evidence of the luck of the lawyers in British politics.

The 1990s ushered in a new era for politics, third-way politics. It was not just Tony Blair reshaping ‘New Labour’ here in the UK, over the Atlantic Bill Clinton won a monumental victory in the United States presidential election of 1992 campaigning as a ‘New Democrat’. Bill Clinton and his wife Hillary, who would later become a senator, Secretary of State, and a presidential candidate in her own right, were both University of Yale-trained Lawyers who had turned to politics. Other law-trained politicians include Conservative MP Natalie Elphicke, a former housing and finance lawyer, MP Stephen Barclay who served as Theresa May’s Brexit minister and currently serves as Chief Advisor to the Treasury. Similarly, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab is a trained lawyer who worked in Brussels on European Union Law. Historically, lawyers have been no stranger to the corridors of Westminster, with David Lloyd George and Clement Atlee both being lawyers by profession before becoming Prime Ministers.

MPs being Ministers in departments which suit their professional background and academic specialisation has long been hailed as an ideal casting. Non-career politicians who have a detailed understanding of their departments are not only seen as suited to the role of Ministers and under-secretaries but are a winning formula at general elections. Rishi Sunak, for example, is the current Chancellor of the Exchequer and is seen as a financial specialist since he studied economics and co-founded a large investment firm. In the same vein, Defence Secretary Ben Wallace served in the Scots Guards as a platoon commander and also spent eight years serving in the army. Ministers with professional backgrounds suited to their role are always held highly as experts in their field. It seems that why Lawyers go on to be such popular and successful Heads of State and leaders of political parties, is because they have the specific skills and professional training required for this role. Forming and stating a case for a particular policy, leading the defence or the opposition, and getting the wider public behind the cause of the party-line all require debating skills successful lawyers can claim to have. So, in the case of Keir Starmer’s promising start as Labour leader, it seems that the luck of the lawyers has served UK politicians well in the past and stands as an example of things to come.


Photo Credit: Rwendland / CC BY-SA

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