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Britain appears poised to elect a ‘political robot’ as next PM. What to expect from Keir Starmer

Barring an unprecedented collapse in support, Labour’s Keir Starmer appears poised to take over as Britain’s next PM. While he promises a government for “working people,” many of his party’s policies could have been written by Conservatives.

Promising a government for 'working people,' Starmer has moved Labour party policy to the centre

British opposition Labour Party leader Keir Starmer arrives for the first pre-election leaders debate, leading up to the general election, in Manchester, Britain, June 4, 2024.

As he stood alone on stage in front of a live TV audience in northern England this week, the man who seems destined to become the U.K.'s next prime minister momentarily appeared at a loss for words.

"You seem more like a political robot," an audience member said to Labour Leader Keir Starmer. "How are you going to convince others like me to vote for you?"

Starmer, an experienced human rights lawyer and crown prosecutor with decades of public speaking behind him, stammered before eventually delivering what to many watching sounded like a rather robotic reply.

His experience running Britain's criminal prosecution service demonstrated his commitment to public service, he said, rather unconvincingly.

The next day as Starmer unveiled his party's platform — or manifesto as it's known in the U.K. — he again stood alone on stage but this time seemed better prepared for a similar question from a journalist.

British opposition Labour Party Leader Keir Starmer speaks at the launch of the Labour Party's manifesto, in Manchester, Britain, June 13, 2024.

As the acknowledged front runner in the election contest, was he playing "Captain Caution" and trying to avoid taking any political risks?

"It's not about pantomime, we've had that," Starmer shot back. "I'm running as a candidate to be prime minister, not a candidate to run the circus."

Since the last time people in the U.K. voted in a general election, Britons have become used to a fair amount of political theatre from their prime ministers: Boris Johnson's floppy hair and political buffoonery; his successor Liz Truss's stunningly unsuccessful 50 day reign, famously outlasted by a head of lettuce; and her successor Rishi Sunak's rain-drenched start to this campaign, after which he alienated war veterans by ditching D-Day commemorations early.

WATCH | British PM apologizes for leaving D-Day events early:

British PM says leaving D-Day events early was a 'mistake'

7 days ago

Duration 0:50

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, who recently called a general election, says he attended British D-Day events but left before an international leaders event. 'On reflection, that was a mistake and I apologize.'

Starmer, by contrast, has barely made a wrong move, playing a classic front-runner campaign by avoiding controversy and sticking to the party's talking points.

With Starmer, not only does Britain appear on the cusp of veering to the left, but also toward a distinctly duller style of leadership.

"He's come to be like the anti-Boris Johnson," said Steven Fielding, a professor at the University of Nottingham, who has written extensively on Britain's Labour Party.

Sir Keir's courtroom background

Starmer, 61, who was knighted "Sir Keir" in 2014 by the Queen for his services to "law and criminal justice," has followed a somewhat unconventional career path to reach the threshold of 10 Downing Street.

Two decades ago, he was appointed as an advisor to the newly established police board in Northern Ireland that was set up as a result of the Good Friday agreement. Starmer said his main role was to build confidence in the policing institutions of the country by emphasising fairness and impartiality.

A man in a tie takes a selfie with a supporter.

Success in that role led to his appointment as the head of the United Kingdom's Crown Prosecution Service, a significant position where he oversaw the criminal justice system for the entire country.

Tom Baldwin, a longtime political journalist and former Labour party senior adviser who's written a biography on Starmer, says Starmer's courtroom background has left him with a "wooden" political persona that he has been trying to unlearn.

"[Performance] isn't the point of politics for him. The point is to get into power and pull the levers and start changing things," Baldwin told CBC News in an interview.

But Starmer's relatively late start in politics — he was first elected an MP in 2015 at the age of 52 — could also be a challenge, says Baldwin, as he may struggle to build the coalitions and support within caucus that leaders need to push their agendas forward.

"It's about inspiring people; it's about taking people with you, and the next Labour government will face some very tough times," said Baldwin.

Labour moves to the centre

After its former leader, Jeremy Corbyn, led Labour to its worst defeat in 80 years in a 2019 election, Starmer won the race to replace him and quickly jettisoned some of Labour's more extreme positions.

Corbyn was a fixture on the left wing of Labour and while he initially brought the party many new, younger members, beyond that base he fared poorly. He was eventually forced out of the party after he publicly disagreed with an independent review concluding there had been widespread incidents of antisemitism in Labour under his watch.

Once leader, Starmer worked quickly to move Labour back to the political centre.

He scrapped policies that were internally popular such as the nationalisation of energy companies and free tuition for university and instead pivoted to policies that might just as easily have been written by Conservatives.

"This is a manifesto for wealth creation," Starmer said Thursday in Manchester as he released his party's agenda for government.

Among the key points, Starmer says Labour will hire 13,000 new police officers, create 8,000 new jobs for teachers and reduce the waiting lists for the National Health Service, the public health-care system, by spending more than £1.3 billion ($2 billion Cdn) on staff overtime and new positions. The manifesto also calls for the creation of a new, government-owned energy company to invest billions of pounds in renewable energy.

WATCH | Opposition leader calls U.K. election a chance for change:

U.K. general election a chance for change, Labour leader says

23 days ago

Duration 1:04

Labour Leader Keir Starmer says the U.K. general election is a moment the country 'needs and has been waiting for.'

Labour has also promised to fix one million potholes on British roads every year.

To pay for it all, Starmer says he will increase specific taxes, such as VAT on private schools and apply a new tax to British citizens who shelter their earnings abroad.

"The changes he's made to the Labour party in two or three years — because he only started in 2021 — are extraordinary," said Baldwin, the Starmer biographer.

"He's gone from 20 points behind [in the polls] to 20 points ahead. He's completely turned around the party."

Starmer has repeatedly justified his policy U-turns to those on Labour's left by saying he intends to put the needs of the country before those of the party.

"The important thing in life is to hold your ideas up to the light and see if they withstand scrutiny, but that takes time," he told a BBC interviewer during an episode of the popular radio programme Desert Island Discs, recorded in 2020 six months after he became party leader.

"I started off as the radical who knew everything," he said. "Now I am much more open to ideas, more questioning of ideas."

Conservatives openly talking of a Labour win

Comparisons between Starmer and Tony Blair, the last Labour leader to inflict a humiliating defeat on the Conservatives in 1997, may be inevitable, but the two men are quite different, says Fielding, the University of Nottingham politics professor.

"Tony Blair was an accomplished communicator, who was apt to be quite glib whereas Keir Starmer is much more overtly serious," he told CBC News.

"He comes across as a bit more dour — which might actually suit the [current] times a bit more."

Protesters hold signs in London.

Policy-wise, Fielding says Starmer is also more of a traditional Labour politician than Blair was.

"He's more in favour of using the government to supercharge a very ailing British economy."

The Conservative party, which has been in power since 2010 under five different prime ministers, has seen its support bleed out to Labour on the left and to a resurgent Reform UK party on the right.

Rishi Sunak, who took over as PM in October 2022, has struggled to craft a convincing message about why the Conservatives deserve yet another mandate, with economic growth stalled and the party struggling to present a unified front on issues such as immigration.

Britain's Prime Minister and Conservative Party leader Rishi Sunak speaks with students during a visit of University Technical College (UTC) in Silverstone, central England, on June 11, 2024.

The Conservatives took Britain out of the European Union after a surprising win by the "leave" side in the 2016 Brexit referendum, shaving more than £140 billion off the economy and costing hundreds of thousands of jobs.

Subsequently, during Liz Truss's short term as prime minister, interest rates spiked after she released her budget and put the party on the defensive for most of Sunak's time in office.

Sunak took a chance by calling an early election after economic data this spring showed an unexpected uptick in growth, but the burst of activity was short lived as the next data report showed a return to stagnation.

In the last general election in 2019, Boris Johnson led British Conservatives to victory promising to "get Brexit done." His time in power was characterized by multiple allegations of lying and untruthful accounts of parties held in his offices during what was supposed to be a lockdown for COVID.

For more than a year, various opinion polls have shown the Tories trailing by at least 20 points — more than enough for a sizable Labour win — and possibly even enough for what's been dubbed a Labour "supermajority" which would be larger than the 418 seats Blair won in 1997.

With the campaign about to enter its fourth week without a discernible change in the polling, some Conservatives are now openly acknowledging Labour will win and have shifted their messaging to try to prevent a blowout.

"Very, very large majorities are not necessarily good for democracies," Tory candidate and former MP Miriam Cates told The Sun.

"If we have an enormous Labour majority they would embed all sorts of things in our political system, in our constitution like [Tony] Blair did," she said. "Which is why the judges have had so much power, and we haven't been able to sort out illegal immigration."

Britain's Reform UK Party Leader Nigel Farage speaks during a Reform UK general election campaign event, in London, Britain, June 10, 2024.

Some polls suggest Reform UK — which espouses a populist agenda, including opposition to immigration, opposition to net-zero policies, and the expansion of coal and oil production — is now running neck-and-neck with the Conservatives.

Vote splitting between the parties could spell electoral oblivion for Sunak's party, said Fielding.

"Everyone in Britain is getting familiar with what happened in Canada in 1993," he said. That was the year Canadian Progressive Conservatives led by Kim Campbell were reduced to just two seats in the House of Commons, with the Reform party replacing them as the opposition in Western Canada.

Baldwin, the Starmer biographer, says the Labour leader has wisely avoided making grand promises for the country and instead has set the bar at making incremental gains in areas that directly impact people's lives.

"He's very determined not to get caught in the usual trap for Labour leaders of over-promising stuff," said Balwin.

"But he does think … step by step … he can get Britain to a better place."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Chris Brown

Foreign Correspondent

Chris Brown is a foreign correspondent based in the CBC’s London bureau. Previously in Moscow, Chris has a passion for great stories and has travelled all over Canada and the world to find them.

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