Starmer Echoes 1997 Blair as Labour Kicks Off Bid for Power

(Bloomberg) -- Keir Starmer fired the starting gun on his bid to be Labour’s first leader since Tony Blair to win a UK general election with a string of a endorsements from across society and an unmistakable throwback to the totemic former premier’s campaign play book: a promise to change Britain.

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“I’m not prepared to see a Labour government that doesn’t materially improve our country,” Starmer told an audience in Essex on Thursday. At what was effectively Labour’s first campaign rally ahead of a general election expected in the autumn, the poll-leading opposition leader set out what he called his “first steps for change,” a list of priorities the party will emphasize as it tries to oust the Conservative Party from power after 14 years.

Along with boosting the economy, reducing NHS waiting lists, recruiting more teachers, tackling crime and investing in green technology — all “missions” Starmer has mentioned before — Labour added a new border security unit focused on people-smuggling, as part of a broader crackdown on migration. It’s a policy he outlined in detail last week.

Labour’s election defeat in 2019 under former leader Jeremy Corbyn has left Starmer needing the biggest turnaround in the postwar era to get the opposition back into power. Who the party chose to introduce each “step” appeared designed to reinforce the idea of voters switching allegiance.

In a coup for the Labour leader, they included Rob Boughton, the chief executive of Thakeham Housing, which has donated almost £1 million ($1.3 million) to the Conservative Party since 2019, according to Electoral Commission Data — though nothing since October 2022. Starmer was personally introduced by an ex-Tory voter from the local area.

“If you take these 14 years — to leave your country in a worse state after 14 years than you found it — it is unforgivable in politics, whichever party you support,” Starmer, in rolled up shirt sleeves against a backdrop of his suited shadow cabinet, told an event broadcast for over an hour on news channels.

A national poll lead of as much as 30 points, as well as a slew of wins in local, mayoral and parliamentary elections, means the party is increasingly viewed as almost a shoo-in to form the next UK government.

That has heaped intense pressure on Starmer to emulate Blair not only by becoming prime minister, but also to start building a Labour legacy in government to match the three-time general election winner. Yet there is still nervousness within Labour, in part driven by the party’s unexpected defeat in 1992, five years before Blair came to power.

Starmer has faced criticism that his plans are not ambitious enough to inspire voters, while one of the Tories’ favored lines of attack is that he doesn’t even have a plan. Thursday’s event appears directed at addressing those concerns.

Blair himself has argued that Starmer’s inheritance, especially Britain’s moribund economy, make comparisons with him unfair. When Blair and his team were handing out pledge cards ahead of his landslide election victory in 1997, the UK was entering what would become arguably its last major economic boom era — creating an optimism for the incoming Labour government to harness.

By contrast, the first promise on Starmer’s list is to “deliver economic stability,” a nod to the cost-of-living crisis and headwinds that have dogged the UK since Labour last year promised to deliver the highest growth in the G-7. The new language is consistent with the contrast Starmer likes to draw with the turmoil under Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s predecessor, Liz Truss.

Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves, who calls Labour’s plan “securonomics,” said Thursday the UK needs “a decade of national renewal.”

Yet Starmer acknowledged the comparisons with Blair will persist, not least because Labour has spent the majority of its existence in opposition. Just as Labour did in 1997, the party is putting Starmer’s pledges on cards to hand out at campaign events, only this time with a modern twist: Digital versions to store in Apple or Google wallets. A billboard and regional newspaper campaign – the most the party will have spent on advertising since the 2019 general election — is also underway.

Along with its traditional focus on public services and the economy, Labour’s promise on tackling migration, meanwhile, builds on Starmer’s efforts to take the fight to the Conservatives on one of Sunak’s own promises: to stop asylum-seekers arriving in small boats across the English Channel. The Tories will campaign on his policy to deport such migrants to Rwanda, with the right-wing Reform UK party breathing down its neck.

Starmer’s focus is on tackling the criminal gangs behind the migrant crossings, trying to leverage both his background as a former director of public prosecutions and a promise to build more cooperative ties with Europe. Labour used Neil Basu, former head of counter-terrorism at London’s Metropolitan Police, to reinforce the idea that Starmer’s strategy would be more effective.

“They’re going for a gimmick, not a serious plan,” Starmer said of the Tories.

Labour said Essex was chosen to launch the campaign because the party is targeting seats in a county that has become a Conservative stronghold. During a visit to Harlow before local elections this month, Starmer described it as the kind of place Labour needs to win to oust the Tories in the national vote. In the event, Labour fell narrowly short of taking control of the council.

While Labour sees Thursday’s event as a way to fend off frequent Tory attacks on Starmer as lacking a plan, he is still likely to face questions, including from within his party, about whether he is relying too heavily on voters’ dissatisfaction with the Conservatives to get over the line.

Labour’s choice of wording on the campaign cards risks exacerbating that unease, especially as they don’t include key policy commitments including to overhaul workers’ rights and boost housebuilding.

But Starmer denied scaling back Labour’s ambitions, and said the pledges represent a “down-payment” on the change he envisages.

“If we can’t deliver it, I won’t say it,” he said.

(Updates with Starmer comments throughout.)

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