Gavin Millar QC, who gave Keir Starmer his first legal job as a pupil barrister, said about him “Keir’s purpose when he became a lawyer was not to make a fortune, or to build a glorious reputation…His purpose was the same as all of us in that generation who had been radicalised by Margaret Thatcher. We wanted to change the world, and we wanted to do it by using the law to entrench stronger human rights and civil liberties. That was absolutely true of Keir too.” Yet Keir was also driven by social justice, wanting to reduce inequality and lift people out of poverty.
Keir’s passion for the civil and political rights grew out of his commitment to economic and social justice. Without effective civil and political rights, economic and social rights can be sidelined.
As one of the leading barristers of the day, Keir Starmer was successful in protecting his client’s rights. He defended the miners, print workers at Wapping, the dockers in Dover, the poll tax protesters and environmental activists, as well as across the globe, and particularly in the Caribbean. Starmer’s research laid the groundwork for the Human Rights Act by showing how the previous hands-off approach to civil liberties was not working. He made contributions to developing the law in a whole range of areas of human rights, including the law of armed conflict, protest law, LGBT rights, fair trial rights and the prohibition of torture. As the Labour Government did all it could to bring peace to Northern Ireland, Starmer advised the Police Service of Northern Ireland on human rights compliant policing. As Director of Public Prosecutions, Starmer prosecuted Stephen Lawrence’s killers and reformed the approach to prosecution of rape so as to secure more convictions.
Starmer knew the world could not be changed through law alone and in 2015, he was elected as an MP. His presence in the Commons could not be more timely. Starmer’s legal background could come in more handy than ever if he is elected as Labour Party leader. Not only will he need to forensically unpick the government on how it handles everything from Brexit to the floods, but he will need to persuade the public why they should be concerned by the Tories’ attacks on human rights and democracy.
An indication of the government’s disdain for human rights and the rule of law was its attempt to progue Parliament to prevent votes on Brexit. That was stopped by the Supreme Court but now that the Tories have been re-elected with an 80 seat majority they are set on getting their revenge. This was presaged by the Conservative manifesto that promised a “Constitution, Democracy and Rights Commission”. Its remit is to include the relationship between the Government, Parliament and the courts, the royal prerogative, the House of Lords, “access to justice for ordinary people” and the Human Rights Act. What this really means is undermining democracy, attacking the independence of the judiciary, reducing the ability to challenge government decisions and removing human rights protections.
If appointing a Home Secretary who has expressed support for the death penalty was not enough, Boris Johnson’s recent cabinet reshuffle showed his direction of travel. He elevated Suella Braverman to the role of Attorney General, who recently wrote that “our Parliament must retrieve power ceded to another place – the courts”. The Tories want to command a tyranny of the majority – although due to the British voting system it is actually a minority – to trammel over the rule of law and human rights.
The Tories are attacking our human rights on at least five fronts. Firstly, they want to limit the scope of judicial review – such as that of prorogation or the plans for a third runway at Heathrow. Judicial review allows the government to be challenged in the courts if it exceeds its powers or takes decisions unlawfully, such as not taking into account factors that they are legally required to consider. Secondly, the government wants to undermine the independence of judiciary so that judges are less likely to take decisions it does not like. Thirdly, the government is looking to take us out of the European Convention for Human Rights, so that we have fewer rights to protect us from the government. Fourthly, the Tories have been reducing legal aid, so that fewer people are able to afford to challenge unfair decisions in the courts. Finally, the government has been looking to undermine the BBC and other media organisations, so that when they act illegally or wrongly there is less scrutiny of what they are doing.
The Tory onslaught on democracy and the rule of law needs a forensic, passionate and steadfast opposition. Keir Starmer’s record of standing up for human rights and justice makes him uniquely placed to do this. If he is elected Labour Party leader, he will expose the flaws in the Tories arguments and explain why we must all fight to protect our human rights. The issues of democracy and the rule of law fuse politics and law. Keir Starmer has the legal and political skills to take Boris on over these issues and defend our rights. His time is now.