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It’s all about barrister v solicitor as Labour leadership contest gathers pace

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Age-old divide rears its head in latest political battle

Sir Keir Starmer QC and Rebecca Long-Bailey

In the red corner is Rebecca Long-Bailey, one-time commercial solicitor and now shadow business secretary. In the other red corner is Sir Keir Starmer QC, the Doughty Street human rights barrister, and current shadow Brexit secretary.

Both are frontrunners in the Labour Party leadership campaign to succeed Jeremy Corbyn.

All lawyers know, however, that there is a professional divide here too: between the solicitor and the barrister, between the trusted advisor and the advocate, between a career in the safe harbour of a commercial law firm and one in the more precarious-but-glamorous environs of an elegant town-house chambers.

Long-Bailey (or ‘Wrong Daily’ as she has been nicknamed) studied law part-time whilst doing odd jobs. She opted for security: steady, well-paid employment at a series of respectable firms, including Pinsent Masons and, latterly, Hill Dickinson. Her actual experience has been harder to pinpoint. She says she “worked on NHS contracts”. This probably means that she did commercial leases, supply contracts, and outsourcing agreements; exciting stuff. The press have made much of it, and the fact that she is very likely to also have worked on NHS private finance initiatives (PFIs) of which she has since become a fierce critic.

Starmer on the other hand, went for the glamour. Rumoured to be the real life inspiration for Mark Darcy of Bridget Jones’ Diary fame, Starmer’s legal background is in human rights, the defence of the oppressed against the state (such as the McLibel case). His career is overloaded with accolade, achievement and even a few authored textbooks on subjects as intense as liberty and criminal justice. He switched sides to take the top job of Director of Public Prosecutions without much ado.

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Will their decision to take a particular path through law be pivotal in their success or failure at the ballot box? Starmer’s think-on-your-feet skills will surely stand him in good stead. Or, perhaps Long-Bailey’s negotiating experience, pitilessly arguing over indemnities, will win the day.

The barrister has the edge according to the bookies (Starmer has odds of 1/4, Long-Bailey of 5/1) and the polls (a YouGov poll at the beginning of the year put Starmer at 67% and Long-Bailey at 37%).

But the Labour Party’s internal election rules are, of course, not straightforward. Candidates must reach certain thresholds: they need the backing of MPs and then also the wider party, the local constituency parties, trade unions, and other affiliate organisations. Long-Bailey, for instance, has the support of Momentum — though it was with a touch of farce the way that it endorsed her: she was the only name on their ballot paper. Plus the successful candidate must go on to get 50% of the total member vote.

Once the voting begins on 21st February, who will be victorious, the solicitor or the barrister? Or will the only non-lawyer left, Lisa Nandy, floor them both in the final weeks? All be revealed on 4th April 2020.

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