Can Keir Starmer give Britain the change it desperately wants?

By Luke McGee, CNN

CNN  — 

As Britain edges closer toward its general election on July 4, the polls tell the same story they have for most of the past three years: This is a country screaming out for change.

The situation has been dire for Prime Minister Rishi Sunak since he took office in late 2022. His governing Conservative Party – whose 14 years in power have been defined by the political gambles of austerity, Brexit and radical economics – fell behind the opposition Labour Party in the polls around November 2021, and the gap has only widened since.

Barring a major shock, Labour leader Keir Starmer will be the person walking through the famous black door of 10 Downing Street in less than three weeks’ time.

Starmer has promised to be the agent of change that Britain needs. He has pledged to grow the country’s economy by reforming planning laws and investing in a new industrial strategy. He has said he will set up a national wealth fund with £7.3 billion ($9.3bn) of public money that will help pay for the transition to net zero emissions.

An £8.3bn publicly-owned energy company, Great British Energy, will see the United Kingdom’s energy grid decarbonized by 2030. Starmer says all this can be achieved without raising income taxes, though there are no commitments on other levies, such as capital gains tax, which is paid on money made from selling assets, including property and shares.

The rest of the Labour manifesto combines a mix of modest centrism mixed with soft socialism. It includes imposing taxes on private schools to help pay for state education and windfall levies on energy companies to fund the transition to clean energy. There are also commitments on workers’ rights, cutting waiting lists for health care and also controlling immigration.

Critics on the right say that Starmer will need to raise taxes to fund his plans, while skeptics on the left say his manifesto is not bold or ambitious enough to change Britain for the better.

This is a Britain, of course, that has had record-high inflation over the past two years, watched interest rates skyrocket, seen the pound sink to a record low against the dollar, is still in a cost-of-living crisis, has had the longest waiting times for medical operations in recent history and has spent the past eight years in political turmoil following the 2016 vote to leave the European Union.

In short, this is a long list of things to sort out in a five-year term when public finances are in disarray. The question for Starmer, should he win, is whether the mess is too big for him to fix and whether he has the political skill to bring about the change he has promised.

Who is Keir Starmer?

On paper, the 61-year-old Starmer looks like a classic establishment figure.

Once a leading human rights lawyer, he became Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) in 2008, running the Crown Prosecution Service of England and Wales – a high-profile job for which he was knighted, making him the first ever Labour leader to enter the job with the prefix Sir to their name.

Starmer, however, is – by the standards of modern political leaders – from relatively humble beginnings.

Starmer speaks while Director of Public Prosecutions, in 2010.

Born in 1962, Starmer grew up in a small town to the south of London. His father was a toolmaker who worked in a factory, his mother was a nurse who suffered with severe physical disabilities, which ultimately led to one of her legs being amputated.

While Starmer has never claimed to have suffered poverty, he has talked of financial struggles that affected his family, as well as the learning difficulties that held back his younger brother.

Clearly, these early experiences shaped Starmer’s politics. He has talked about noticing people looking down on his father for working in a factory or bullying his brother. His parents were political, naming their eldest after the first Labour leader in parliament, Keir Hardie.

“He’s the first Labour leader in a generation to talk about class and snobbery,” Tom Baldwin, author of “Keir Starmer: The Biography,” told CNN. “This doesn’t make him a class warrior but someone who understands the different layers of pride, aspiration and guilt… He feels the sting of the disrespect his dad experienced… He talks a lot about his sister who has led a precarious life as a carer, having not gone to university,” Baldwin added.

Starmer chose to study law at the University of Leeds, before completing a postgraduate degree at the University of Oxford. He initially thought he would have a legal career working for trade unions, but as his politics evolved in line with his studies, he became increasingly interested in human rights.

What does he believe?

Starmer has been on something of a journey since entering politics. He was elected to Parliament in 2015 at the age of 52 and entered the shadow cabinet a little over a year later.

Jeremy Corbyn, then the Labour leader, made Starmer his Brexit chief following the 2016 referendum.

Corbyn is a controversial figure in British politics and serving in his top team is still something that haunts Starmer. Corbyn had historically been on the far left of the Labour Party. Prior to becoming leader in 2015, Corbyn had at various points in his long career supported nuclear disarmament, and withdrawal from NATO, and said it was a “tragedy” that Osama bin Laden was killed rather than put on trial.

Starmer was in Corbyn’s shadow cabinet for the 2017 and 2019 general elections – something the Conservatives bring up regularly as evidence that he is a threat to national security, having tried twice to make Corbyn prime minister.

Starmer, left, and then-Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn talk to the media at the EU Commission headquarters on March 21, 2019 in Brussels, Belgium.

However, Starmer has since kicked Corbyn out of the Labour Party following an investigation into antisemitism during Corbyn’s time as leader. Starmer has also said that he supported Corbyn knowing he would lose. Pressed on that point in a BBC “Question Time” program, he said Corbyn “would be a better prime minister” than “what we got” in Boris Johnson. Starmer also argues that he has brought Labour back to a position of electability.

The polls suggest that is true, but critics of Starmer on the left say that he used Corbyn and his wing of the Labour Party to win the party leadership in 2020 – committing to several left-wing positions such as nationalizing public services, scrapping university tuition fees and reversing Conservative welfare reforms – only to abandon those pledges once he got closer to power.

James Schneider, Corbyn’s former communications chief, told CNN: “Starmer is not a principled man. His campaign to become Labour leader was systemically dishonest. His cynicism and lack of policies to improve people’s lives will lead to a deep disillusionment that could either feed the hard right or a future people’s movement for change.”

Starmer has at various times responded to accusations that he has drifted politically by saying that he puts his country before his political party, and that it’s only possible to change things if you are in power.

Can Starmer change Britain?

Whether you think Starmer’s current plan is unambitious, dishonest, or exactly what Britain needs, it’s impossible to push through policy without political and personal capital.

Dominic Grieve, a Conservative politician who served as attorney general while Starmer was DPP, speaks glowingly of this period.

“He ran his department very efficiently and effectively at a really difficult time because his budget had been cut. It was genuinely very impressive,” Grieve told CNN.

Grieve added that Starmer was able to be an effective manager because “he is not bogged down with years of political ideology or baggage. He can see what is wrong and can address it.”

Starmer gives a keynote speech during a visit to Lancing in West Sussex on May 27, 2024, while on the general election campaign trail.

Much as Starmer’s allies might see this as a strength, his opponents, from both sides of politics, see it as a weakness.

To those on the right, Starmer is a man who will say anything to get in power. He is someone who in their eyes will support Corbyn, who is anti-NATO and has repeatedly been accused of being a terrorist sympathizer, to get what he wants and is a danger to Britain.

To the left, he is someone who doesn’t have the conviction to make radical changes and, once in office, will not be materially that different to a Conservative leader.

If current polling is accurate, Starmer will win a historic and enormous majority in the House of Commons. But the future may not be so simple. Given the current state of Britain’s finances, the circumstances of Labour’s probable victory and, even Starmer’s own personality traits, it might mean he doesn’t have quite the blank check that a leader with virtually no opposition in parliament would typically enjoy.

An inability to turn that parliamentary power into tangible results at a time when voters are crying out for something different could mean that five years from now, his moderate, safety-first center-left program may ultimately be seen as just as big a political gamble as any of those the Conservatives took in the past 14 years.

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