June 13, 2024

(Bloomberg) — Russian President Vladimir Putin looms large in Keir Starmer’s political rise.

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He once provided legal help to Alexander Litvinenko’s widow when the former KGB defector was poisoned in London. When a second Russian dissident was killed in Britain over a decade later, the lawyer-turned-lawmaker was angry that his own Labour Party equivocated over criticizing Putin. That was the moment he decided to run as the Labour Party leader, say people close to him, to “clear up the sh*t” keeping the opposition party out of power.

Starmer took over a party in disarray in April 2020. Labour had suffered its worst election performance in almost a century, having been rejected by large swaths of its traditional heartland and riven by internal divisions. Within months he had suspended his predecessor, Jeremy Corbyn, from the party. He was later expelled, a move seen as a definitive break from the recent chaotic past.

The Labour leader is now favorite to win the next UK vote, which is expected at some point in 2024.

The last Labour leader to achieve that feat was Tony Blair, a three-time election winner who had a totemic impact on his party and on the UK. His close ties with US President Bill Clinton helped secure a peace deal to end decades of violence in Northern Ireland. Blair’s decade in power from 1997 was defined by spending and growth and arguably Britain’s last feel-good era before it was pummeled by the financial crisis, Brexit and the pandemic.

That legacy is the reference point in any debate over Starmer’s chances of success. There’s a clear parallel with the 1990s, with polls showing voters desperate for change after well over a decade of Conservative Party rule. The pressure on Starmer to capitalize and win, and then win again, is huge.

“Keir Starmer, to be fair, has moved the Labour Party significantly back to the center, and therefore people feel more comfortable with him and his team,” Blair told Bloomberg.

The two men face very different situations. Blair’s “New Labour” pushed a confident “Cool Britannia” that bordered on brashness. It’s not a style or political context that would suit Starmer, 61, whose hands will be tied by an economy in disarray, crumbling public services and a country mocked abroad and deeply divided at home over Brexit. Putin has also had a hand in shaping his potential inheritance by invading Ukraine, driving up inflation and forcing an increase in borrowing costs.

Starmer is often painted by critics and political opponents as dull and lacking in charisma — Boris Johnson, the former prime minister, dubbed him “Captain Hindsight” in a heated exchange in Parliament. But friends and colleagues point to his integrity and sense of purpose, coupled with a ruthlessness and hard-nosed pragmatism that was in evidence with his treatment of Corbyn. They say that makes him tailor-made for what is effectively a rebuilding job.

Blair and Starmer shared a stage for the first time recently, linking his successor to Labour’s longest-serving premier. In power, Blair prioritized the so-called US-UK special relationship. His reputation suffered from his support for President George W. Bush’s Iraq invasion — which Starmer opposed. Still, he ensured Britain was part of the international conversation, committing troops to Kosovo and Afghanistan and boosting aid to Africa.

Starmer’s view is that Tory leaders including Johnson threw away Britain’s place in the world and vandalized its standing, people close to him said, including the ill-tempered Brexit negotiations with the European Union. Leaders he spoke to at Davos this year lamented how Britain wasn’t central to global discussions on China and trade, and how political disarray made it a difficult place to invest.

Starmer’s Labour is keen to exploit the opportunity and his team is working on raising his overseas profile. His chancellor-in-waiting Rachel Reeves was in New York in May highlighting similarities between her economics plan and “Bidenomics,” building industrial strategy around targeted tax breaks and subsidies. Starmer this month visited Europol, the EU’s law agency, and met Canadian premier Justin Trudeau at a gathering of center-left leaders in Montreal.

A NATO supporter, Starmer shares common ground with some of Britain’s traditional allies. He’s spoken to Barack Obama, who offered his support. Members of the former president’s team are friends with Starmer’s point person on foreign affairs, David Lammy, a person familiar with the matter said. The Biden White House, meanwhile, doesn’t view Labour as being far apart on key issues including Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and toughening policy on China, according to a person familiar with their internal discussions.

Europe would see a marked shift in tone. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, a Brexit supporter, has repaired some of the mood music, but Starmer wants a closer relationship than the Brexit deal Johnson negotiated. “It was said to be oven-ready – it wasn’t even half-baked,” he said in May. In Montreal, he told delegates “we don’t want to diverge” from EU standards in areas such as food and the environment.

It’s a dangerous place for Labour. The Conservative Party won a majority of 80 seats at the 2019 election on a slogan of getting Brexit done. And despite the failings of the split, it remains a divisive issue among Labour supporters. Starmer, who was a staunch Remainer, has ruled out a return to freedom of movement with the EU as he tries to avoid alienating Leave voters. But that complicates any future negotiation with the bloc.

In their 45-minute meeting at the Elysee Palace this month, Starmer and French President Emmanuel Macron didn’t discuss EU-UK relations, instead focusing on the risks of a return to a Trump-like US presidency, the state of the economy and China, people familiar with the matter said. French officials privately commented on Starmer’s stature. He gave Macron, who like Starmer is an avid soccer fan, an Arsenal shirt from the Premier League team he supports.

Labour has held a lead of about 20 points in national polling for most of the year, aided by Johnson’s chaotic demise and the disastrous 49-day premiership of Liz Truss. Sunak, the choice of Conservative Members of Parliament but not fee-paying party members, has had little impact on reversing his party’s numbers.

Tory turbulence is a key theme in Starmer’s domestic strategy. On the anniversary of Truss’s budget, which roiled financial markets, Labour pledged to bolster the powers of the Office for Budget Responsibility, which was left out of her economic plans. “We’re still paying the price,” Starmer told reporters last week, standing alongside Reeves at the London Stock Exchange.

Read More: UK’s Labour Party Swaps Mao Jokes for Business Charm Offensive

In a reprise of what the media dubbed Blair’s “prawn cocktail offensive,” Starmer’s team has been working to persuade businesses they can thrive under Labour, so long as they invest in staff and jobs. Reeves, a former Bank of England economist, is central to a pitch to business built around stability and predictability.

“It’s a very forward-looking team. Their questioning is all around what do we have to do to help you in the long-term create jobs and create prosperity?” said Justin King, who used to run supermarket chain Sainsbury’s and is now non-executive director at retailer Marks & Spencer. Though not a member or donor to either party, Labour is hitting the right business notes, he said. “I’ve been impressed by that, and that’s why I’ve been part of the conversation.”

It’s a balancing act. Starmer has dragged Labour away from Corbyn’s push to re-nationalize large parts of the economy, but he still has trade union donors to keep onside. He pushes back at criticism he is too cozy to the City, and regularly criticizes Tory preferred trickle-down economics. According to a person familiar with the matter, he once told a hedge fund manager who was getting carried away: “We’re Labour.” It was meant as a warning that while Labour would support the City, working people come first, the person said.

It appears to be working. A Bloomberg survey of financial professionals – a constituency the Tories typically lay claim to – found two thirds think a Labour government would be the most “market-friendly” election outcome.

Yet ahead of his speech to Labour’s annual conference next month in Liverpool — effectively the opening salvo in the election campaign — there is more skittishness in the party than might be expected given the state of the polls. Part of that is down to Britain’s first-past-the-post electoral system, which complicates the link between overall support and Parliament. Labour needs an additional 123 seats to win a majority, which would be its biggest turnaround since 1945.

It’s also down to economic challenges. The outlook is bleaker than in 1997 on key metrics including inflation, productivity and growth. Government debt relative to the economy stands close to 100%, compared with 37% when Blair took power.

While that provides a useful weapon to attack the Tory record, it also puts Starmer in a bind on spending plans, especially knowing the Tories and right-wing media will take any opening to portray the party as spendthrift and reckless. It has already slowed down its ambition to spend £28 billion a year to transition the economy to green energy, blaming the deteriorating economic environment.

What worries Labour’s top team is how voters respond to any scaling back of ambition. One shadow cabinet member said there are signs that people are starting to see the state of the economy and public services as beyond any party to fix.

Labour is “being politically cautious and risk-averse,” said Andrew Cooper, a classmate of Starmer who worked as ex-Tory premier David Cameron’s director of strategy. Electoral calculus is trumping the broader question of “what does the country really need?” he said.

Read More: A Lost Decade Worse Than Japan’s Threatens to Change UK Forever

Critics accuse the Labour leader of abandoning the “moral socialism” he promised when he took over. But there are still signs of his activist past.

Born in south London in 1962 to a skilled manufacturing toolmaker and a nurse, Starmer was named after the Labour Party’s first leader, Keir Hardie. Among his pledges, if elected, is to seek to end the “class ceiling” stifling opportunities for working-class children.

“We will change Britain, break the link between where you start in life and where you end up,” Starmer said in a July speech on education.

His mother, Josephine, was diagnosed with Still’s disease, a rare form of inflammatory arthritis, when he was a child. The illness was so debilitating that Starmer, at a young age, had to take on responsibility for his siblings. She died just before he became an MP in 2015. The experience is reflected in his serious political demeanor, according to Helena Kennedy, a barrister and lawmaker who has been close to Starmer for more than 30 years. “I don’t think Keir is someone who lets his emotions show very easily,” she told Bloomberg.

The first in his family to go to university, Starmer studied law at Leeds, meaning he would break a chain of prime ministers who did their undergraduate degrees at Oxford. He worked hard before exams but also had fun, sporting his “bouffant” haircut to parties “on Thursdays and Fridays and Saturdays and sometimes Mondays,” said lifelong friend John Murray.

As a lawyer in north London in the 1980s and 1990s, Starmer’s clients included the organizers of drug-fueled “acid house” raves facing closure by Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government, two campaigners who were sued for libel by McDonald’s Corp., Irish republican prisoners and terror suspects.

It’s an area Sunak’s party wants to target, to portray Starmer as a “lefty lawyer” in a culture war some Tory MPs think is their best chance of winning. The problem, a Conservative official conceded, is there is no clear ‘smoking gun’ revelation.

Starmer’s legal background has shaped his political career, especially the period after Blair’s government appointed him to be the top prosecutor for England and Wales in 2008. He references it in his plan to modernize the National Health Service around prevention.

Read More: Britain’s Cherished NHS Wrestles With Its ‘Reform or Die’ Moment

His probing rhetorical style gets under opponents’ skin and has been used to good effect at the weekly ritual of Prime Minister’s Questions.

When the Partygate scandal — which saw Johnson and Sunak fined by police — threatened to engulf Starmer, he offered to resign if he was found to have broken coronavirus rules. He didn’t. So when Sunak later accused Labour of being soft on crime, Starmer hit back: “The only criminal investigation he’s ever been involved in is the one that found him guilty of breaking the law.”

“Sir Keir” — he was knighted for public service in 2014 — polls above Sunak with voters, though not by as much as Labour’s lead over the Conservatives.

Although Labour won a landslide victory in 1997, it remains haunted by what happened in the 1992 poll when then Labour leader Neil Kinnock suffered a shock defeat to John Major’s Conservatives, despite leading in the polls and the UK reeling from a deep recession. Then, Labour blamed the right-wing press for swaying the vote.

Starmer has “got 1992 in his consciousness,” Kinnock told Bloomberg, before explaining why he doesn’t expect a repeat of that defeat. “There is a very strong sense of self-discipline which he extends to the Labour party and will apply in government.”

Read More: Sunak Says UK Crime Is Falling. But Britons Aren’t Feeling It

The UK’s economic and political fault lines mean Starmer would inevitably fall short of being able to deliver everything his supporters want. But Labour’s hopes in the election are likely to hinge on a different question, about whether voters angry at the cost of living crisis, failings in public services and Brexit, will trust Labour to improve their lives.

On that basis, Starmer’s pitch may be perfect, according to Kinnock.

“A leader can raise spirits, make people laugh and cry and walk out of the hall with a spring in their step, but that doesn’t buy a hospital bed or put a brick on a school. Selling hope on its own is vacuous,” Kinnock said. “He is steadiness on legs.”

–With assistance from Eamon Akil Farhat, Ania Nussbaum, Justin Sink, Ellen Milligan, Sabah Meddings, Joe Mayes, Yuan Potts and Stephen Carroll.

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