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Keir Starmer's character remains as elusive as his policies

Keir Starmer's character remains as elusive as his policies

The political character of most leaders is usually well known before they take office. Not so this man. As opposition leader, Starmer has shown he has the right stuff; but as prime minister-in-waiting, he remains an enigma.

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Last Updated : 30 June 2024, 10:04 IST
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By Martin Ivens

The camera-phone shot of Keir Starmer and his wife Victoria at a Taylor Swift concert in London has rightly been described by his allies as "the standout moment" of his election campaign. No longer the stiff lawyer in a suit, Starmer seemed to have shed years in a tender pose circulated widely on social media. F or the first and perhaps only time, Starmer looked like the winsome heir to Tony Blair, Labour's photogenic three-times winner.

Pictures of Labour's leader in a soccer kit tackling opponents have also been doing the rounds — possibly to generate a more macho vibe. Starmer has let it be known he’ll continue to play five-a-side every week if he’s elected prime minister on Thursday. The message is that, as a still-vigorous 61-year-old married to a National Health Service employee, he’s the man for the hour — football and the NHS being the UK's joint national religions.

In the course of a long campaign, Labour’s leader has sought to reassure voters that he represents an end to the “chaos” of the fractious ruling Conservative Party. His other constant refrain is that he has consigned his own party’s radical socialists to the waste bin of history.

That’s no mean achievement, yet still the voters have not, until now, warmed to him. His personal satisfaction ratings are lower than two failed opposition leaders — Jeremy Corbyn in 2017, and Neil Kinnock in 1992. As one television audience member asked despairingly of both Starmer and Rishi Sunak, are they “really the best we’ve got to be the next prime minister of this great country?” Labour’s leader remains a work in progress.

A more subtle propaganda service has been provided by a Starmer biography penned by a former Labour spokesman, Tom Baldwin. Originally conceived as a campaign autobiography in the style of Barack Obama's Dreams of My Father until Starmer abandoned the project, fearing charges of vanity, it nonetheless paints a sympathetic portrait of the Labour leader's rise to the top from distressing family circumstances through decency and hard work. Starmer's difficult relationship with his distant father and care for his ailing mother strike an authentic emotional chord. In other words, there's much more to him than a lefty London lawyer who maneuvered his way into the establishment — and the party crown.

Yet whenever Tory Cabinet ministers raise their heads above the cloud of gloom generated by their disastrous campaign, they take consolation from the fact that Starmer's own popularity ratings lag behind his party’s. "He just doesn't register on the doorstep,” Conservative strategists tell journalists, as if sharing secret wisdom that will save them from defeat.

They don’t buy it at heart — Labour's victory seems assured — but doubts about the leader's character do remain. They are likely to hang over his government, however successful he is on July 4th; and perceived character weaknesses have an awkward habit of resurfacing when tough times come for Labour, as they undoubtedly will in office after many years of lost match practice.

Starmer’s explanation of his conduct as a supporter and self-described “friend” of his unelectable far-left Labour predecessor Corbyn has, for instance, failed to convince audiences in the live television debates. His best, albeit unspoken, defense is that he was an honest opportunist who intended to pick up the pieces after that project crashed and burned.

But Starmer’s extreme caution during the campaign is bringing Labour victory only by default. Polling analysis by Electoral Calculus this week suggests that Labour may even win a million fewer votes than Corbyn did — there’s precious little to enthuse Labour’s traditional supporters in this campaign — but still achieve the largest political landslide in modern history. Voters just hate the Tories; the resurgent right-wing Reform party, led by Nigel Farage, is doing far more damage to the Conservatives.

Nor is Starmer’s backstory always a vote winner. He cites his father's humble background as a tool maker as part of an edifying rags-to-ruling-class story. Yet the audience groans when Starmer, who was knighted for his work as director of public prosecutions, raises his working class credentials in television debates. To voters raised on Monty Python's Three Yorkshire Businessmen sketch — "you were lucky, we used to live in a pigsty" — the tale has already palled.

Starmer’s tendency to righteous indignation can also grate. British voters didn't like moralizing from Church of England vicar's daughter Theresa May any more than many Americans warmed to Hillary Clinton's thin-lipped disapproval of "deplorables.”

Admittedly, it was hard not to point the finger of scorn when the Tories were led by the rule-breaking Boris Johnson. Conservative politicians have also brought shame on their party through financial scandals so pathetic that you almost wish they’d absconded abroad with a cool billion in their suitcases. The long drawn-out betting scandal about the date of the election by members of Sunak’s entourage made the miscreants a few miserable hundred quid each.

However, there are dangers in being too holier than thou. In the first flush of victory, Blair's halo of innocence saved him when it emerged he’d changed the rules on tobacco advertising to suit a plutocratic donor. Starmer, however, will come to office in a more unforgiving, anti-political age. Scandals in the Labour party could be damaging; one of Starmer’s election candidates has already been caught betting on his own defeat.

As a lawyer who likes to deliberate carefully over each brief, Starmer has also found swift political decision making unnerving. During the campaign, Labour’s leader backtracked on his over-enthusiastic support for Israel by declaring that his government would give official recognition to a Palestinian state. This was meant to shore up support from angry Muslim voters. But Starmer then found himself embarrassingly out of step with key allies in Washington and Berlin - he has now downgraded his policy to a vague ambition. Does he know his own mind?

To be fair, Starmer has made enormous strides since becoming party leader four years ago. As prime minister, cushioned by a large majority, he will doubtless grow in stature — in contrast to fellow center-leftists President Joe Biden and Chancellor Olaf Scholz of Germany, who’ve become diminished figures.

The political character of most leaders is usually well known before they take office. Not so this man. As opposition leader, Starmer has shown he has the right stuff; but as prime minister-in-waiting, he remains an enigma.

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