Britain's Starmer has a large in-tray of problems

Starmer says he leads a changed Labour Party, having instilled a sense of discipline after it all but tore itself apart during the Brexit years under his predecessor, veteran left-winger Jeremy Corbyn.
Last Updated : 05 July 2024, 06:54 IST

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London: Keir Starmer enters power with one of the longest lists of problems ever to face an incoming prime minister and few resources to deal with them - a situation that could curtail any "honeymoon period" offered by the British people.

It is a situation not lost on the 61-year-old Labour leader and former lawyer, who spent much of the election campaign listening to voters' concerns about healthcare, education, and the cost of living, but promising only to try to make the lives of British voters a little better - over time.

"I'm not going to stand here and say there's some magic wand that I can wave the day after the election and find money that isn't there," he said in a head-to-head debate with his predecessor Rishi Sunak before the election. "Huge damage has been done to our economy. It is going to take time."

It is not an easy sell. Despite being on course for a massive majority in the parliamentary election, many voters are disenchanted with politicians after years of what became an increasingly chaotic and scandal-ridden Conservative government and what was an often divided Labour opposition, dogged antisemitism accusations.

Hailing his party's victory at a speech to supporters, Starmer said on Friday: "We did it. Change begins now, and it feels good. I have to be honest."

"Today, we start the next chapter, begin the work of change, the mission of national renewal and start to rebuild our country."

Starmer says he leads a changed Labour Party, having instilled a sense of discipline after it all but tore itself apart during the Brexit years under his predecessor, veteran left-winger Jeremy Corbyn. That message dominated the six-week campaign, with no really new policy offerings beyond those which had been, according to Labour, fully funded and costed. He has tried not to raise hopes for swift change too high, putting wealth creation and political and economic stability at the heart of his pitch to voters.

Cautious and methodical

The strategy is very much a product of Starmer, who turned to politics in his 50s in a career that has been marked by a cautious and methodical approach, relying on competence and pragmatism rather than being driven by an overriding ideology.

Named after the founder of the Labour Party, Keir Hardie, Starmer was brought up in a left-wing household. As a barrister, he often defended underdogs and worked to get people off death row around the world.

He became a Labour lawmaker in 2015, a year after he received a knighthood for his services to law and criminal justice and was appointed Labour leader in 2020 following the party's worst election showing since 1935.

He implemented a plan to turn the party around and guide its priorities, with one person who worked with Starmer saying: "He thinks about the best way to take people with him."

This approach has led to the charge that he is dull. He has drawn negative comparisons with Tony Blair, who led the party to victory with a landslide majority in 1997.

"I think he's got a good heart but he's got no charisma. And people do buy charisma. That's how Tony Blair got in," said Valerie Palmer, 80, a voter in the seaside town of Clacton-on-Sea.

Not in love with labour

Unwilling to make promises that could not be costed, his approach has also prompted critics to say the party's manifesto offered only a partial view of what Labour would do in government - something the Conservatives tried to capitalise on by saying Starmer would raise taxes.

Starmer denied this, saying he would not raise income tax rates, employees' national insurance contributions, value-added tax or corporation tax. Some businesses say they look forward to a period of calm after 14 years of turbulent Conservative government, marked by Britain's vote to leave the European Union in 2016 and the cost of living crisis that followed the Covid-19 pandemic and Russia's invasion of Ukraine. One FTSE-100 CEO told Reuters they had met Labour's top team several times and the party had made a strong "pitch" to business.

Laura Foll, portfolio manager at Janus Henderson Investors, said it looked like Britain was returning to an era when "boring is good".

But for voters, real-life difficulties are more of a pressing concern, with people crying out for Labour to tackle the ailing health service, widen educational opportunities and improve living standards.

For some, although they wanted the Conservatives out of power, they had not fallen in love with Labour, or with Starmer.

"I'm excited about change, but I don't really love the Labour Party," said Ellie O'Connell, 28, at the Glastonbury music festival. Sitting in the courtyard of a doctors' surgery, Starmer sipped tea with patients before the election, listening to them complain about how difficult it was to get an appointment.

His offer of helping train more doctors, reducing bureaucracy and getting better control over budgets missed out one thing that might help - more money, something his new government will not have much of.

Asked by Reuters how he would better retain doctors who say their salaries are uncompetitive internationally, he said: "I don't have a wand that I can wave to fix all the problems when it comes to salaries overnight if we win the election."

With only 9 billion pounds ($11 billion) of so-called fiscal headroom - barely a third of the average for governments since 2010 - Starmer might have to keep pressing the message that change will take time.

That may cut short any political honeymoon - the respite voters and newspapers offer incoming administrations from criticism.

This cautious approach has also alienated some on the left of the party. Asked how he thought Starmer would be as prime minister, James Schneider, former director of communications for Corbyn, said: "When push comes to shove, he will be on the side of bosses over workers."

Published 05 July 2024, 06:54 IST

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