Made in Leeds

In an exclusive interview with Leeds Magazine in October 2023, Sir Keir Starmer discusses how his three years at university changed his life.

Keir Starmer sat in a bright, modern cafe bar, gesturing and talking

In 1982, a young Keir Starmer (Law 1985, Hon LLD 2012) “rocked up” to Leeds “with fairly long hair, a Boomtown Rats album under one arm, and Status Quo under the other”.

Quickly, the city and people began to influence him. “I absolutely fell in love with Leeds, and I’ve been in love with it ever since. It absolutely formed me, and changed my life.

“I was the first of my family to go to university. My dad worked in a factory, my mum was a nurse. It was a huge step for me and my family. We didn’t know any lawyers. I’d never met a lawyer, I’d never been in court, I didn’t really know that much about what lawyers did. And then suddenly I was here and there were the solicitors and the barristers.”

Away from his life in rural Surrey, the young Keir’s passion for social justice was formed by Leeds academics, who introduced him to the law. “It really drove me, particularly when I studied international human rights law, which had an incredible impact. In fact, it shaped my career in the early days of being a lawyer. I was already thinking how can I use this in my life to bring about social change?”

In October 2023, we sat down with the man who could be Leeds’s first prime minister, to speak to him about the three years that changed his life.

Video transcript — Made in Leeds: Keir Starmer discusses his time at university

Leeds was absolutely forming of me in terms of who I am.

With his university friends he immersed himself in the indie rock Scene in Leeds where he saw the likes of Orange Juice, Aztec Camera, and The Smiths. “We were always at gigs at Leeds, that had a huge impact on me, and my haircut.”

Keir’s love of Leeds is apparent, he comes back to the city regularly to see friends. He fondly remembers evenings in the Hyde Park and Faversham pubs, and running through Hyde Park from his digs in Chestnut Avenue.

Those formative experiences and lifelong connections were coupled with the rigors of academia, and Keir was an exceptional student. In his final year he was a co-recipient of the Hughes Prize, given to the law student with the best final year dissertation. Modules on human rights law left an indelible mark.

“As I got more and more interested, grades started improving. I arrived not really knowing what a lawyer was, and ending up with a first class degree.”

Keir Starmer sat on a chair in a bright, modern cafe bar, looking at an old photo of a class of students

After leaving Leeds, Keir became a barrister and worked pro bono to represent prisoners on death row in former Commonwealth countries, a role for which he is lionised in the legal profession.

He said: “Commonwealth countries, because of the constitutions they adopted, do have a final right of appeal to the Privy Council, and therefore people on death row in Caribbean countries were appealing to a court in London. I got instructed to do some of those cases. After I did a number of them, I got frustrated we were going case-by-case.”

This frustration led to more strategic litigations, the biggest led to 417 people’s convictions being overturned in Uganda in 2005.

The pomp and ceremony of the courtroom was a far cry from Keir’s humble beginnings. “Growing up there was always this sense of is this really for you? I didn’t really know whether law was for me until I got here. By the end of the first year I probably thought I’d be a solicitor. But then I became really interested in the advocacy and arguing a case.

“The court is a pretty intimidating place to work. I would say, particularly to any students, if somewhere in their mind they think this isn’t really for me, put that to one side because I did and then went on the most incredible journey.”

Keir Starmer smiles as he speaks to a crowd from behind a lectern. Behind him, a sign says: 5 missions for a better Britain

Many media commentators believe the Labour leader will be the UK’s next prime minister.

Many media commentators believe the Labour leader will be the UK’s next prime minister.

“I didn’t think when I was at Leeds I’d go into politics, I didn’t think as a lawyer I’d go into politics.” But, the lawyer-turned politician explained, his ambitions evolved from his determination to change things for the better.

“If things are really going to change the only place that’s big enough for that change is politics.

“In the end, the only meaningful change would come through politics.” So he put aside the law for the Palace of Westminster.

After becoming the MP for Holborn and St Pancras, Keir swiftly moved up the ranks and in 2020 became party leader, like his namesake. But unlike Keir Hardie’s time as party leader in the early 1900s, modern day politicians have to navigate the barrage of criticism from social media. “For me, because I came to politics late, I bring a resilience and sense of purpose. If you come into politics that late – and I could’ve done other things – you only do it because you’ve got a driving sense of purpose [and] sense of service.

“You have to have shutters on either side. Almost everybody thinks they can do the job better than you, it’s a bit like being a football manager. You have to just shut that noise out, you can’t get dragged into it.”

If things are really going to change the only place that’s big enough for that change is politics.

Many commentators believe Keir Starmer could be the next resident of 10 Downing Street. Does he believe he will be Leeds’s first prime minister? “Complacency is the enemy,” he said.

“We have to keep focusing on the prize. In a sense Leeds gave me such an incredible platform to stand on in my life and my career, that the idea of returning here one day in a different capacity would be fantastic. But, as I say, no complacency, every vote has to be earned.”

After the interview we walk Keir to his old student digs, and he jokes about cooking bolognese – a student staple – for his friends, going to gigs, and racing to get to lectures. We then make that same journey to campus, the weather breaking just in time for us to walk through the tree-lined avenue to the Liberty Building.

Keir opened the home of the School of Law in 2011. He returned as a Labour MP in 2020, and as leader of the opposition just three years later. Maybe the next time he enters the building, he will return as prime minister.

Keir Starmer and another person walking through a student residential street in Hyde Park
Keir Starmer stood in front of a Victorian, red-brick student house

The story so far...

  • 1985: Keir Starmer graduates from Leeds with a first class degree in law
  • 2002: Starmer is appointed to the Queens Counsel, and becomes human rights advisor to the Northern Ireland Policing Board
  • 2005: He helps overturn 417 death sentences in Uganda, and successfully represents two defendants in the decade-long McLibel trial.
Keir on graduation day, in graduation gown and holding his degree certificate, with his parents outside The Great Hall
  • 2008: The lifelong defence barrister becomes director of public prosecutions
  • 2012: Sir Keir receives an honorary doctorate from the University
  • 2014: Sir Keir is awarded a knighthood in the New Years Honours list
Keir Starmer receiving his honorary doctorate from another person, both wearing ceremonial robes
  • 2015: He becomes Labour MP for Holborn and St Pancras
  • 2016: Sir Keir becomes shadow Brexit secretary
  • 2020: Starmer becomes leader of the Labour Party
Keir Starmer sat on a chair in front of the Houses of Parliament