U.K.’s Keir Starmer tones down the socialism in ‘changed Labour Party’

U.K.’s Keir Starmer tones down the socialism in ‘changed Labour Party’

LONDON — Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and his ruling Conservative Party warn voters that if Labour wins the coming election, Britain will become a “one-party socialist state.”

Might sound scary. But where are the socialists?

Labour leader Keir Starmer effectively announced to the country on Thursday that the old Labour Party in Britain is gone.

Out: free college tuition.


Stories to keep you informed

In: “wealth creation.”

With relentless, years-long focus, working through complex, interlocking, often secretive committees, Starmer has effectively purged his party of the hard left, denying them not only places on the ballot in Britain’s July 4 elections but also membership in the organization.

On Thursday, Starmer released his party’s manifesto — all parties in Britain call their platform a “manifesto” — and it was miles away from election pledges of just five years ago.

Welcome to a “changed Labour Party,” as Starmer referred to it a dozen times in a speech in Manchester launching the manifesto.

Some critics call Starmer “relentless” and “ruthless” when observing his attempt to reinvent Labour. Others use words like “boring” or “dull.” His own PR team pushes the line that he is “no-drama Starmer.” (Which isn’t quite as catchy as “no-drama Obama.”)

Starmer is not running a flashy campaign. No jazz hands here. And that’s deliberate. “If you’re 20 points up in the polls, no need to spook the voters,” said Luke Tryl, director of More in Common, a British think tank.

Highlighting the top promises, Starmer stressed that Labour would be a security-focused party, guarding the borders and the economy, and putting more police on the streets to crack down on petty crime and “antisocial behavior” like public drinking and drug-taking.

The manifesto describes plans to boost wealth by streamlining rules, working closely with businesses and putting taxpayer money — such as a $9 billion National Wealth Fund — into partnerships with key industries to de-risk private investment.

Starmer vowed not to raise income taxes, national insurance taxes or value-added taxes — for the regular folk. But he said closing tax-avoidance loopholes and new taxes on things like private school fees could bring in more than $10 billion.

He repeatedly used the term “working people,” not “the workers” that his predecessors referenced.

“Wealth creation is our number one priority; growth is our core business,” he pledged.

Already some of Labour’s traditional backers, such as the unions, have expressed concern that the manifesto is too much boardroom, too little factory floor.

Sunak, who has promised $22 billion in tax cuts if the Conservatives win the election, responded to the Labour manifesto by posting, “If you think they’ll win, start saving.” He claimed that Labour’s promises would “mean the highest taxes in history.”

A heckler briefly interrupted Starmer’s speech on Thursday, accusing the Labour leader of pitching the “same old Tory policies” and letting young people down.

Starmer declared, “We gave up being a party of protest five years ago. We want to be a party of power,” as the protester was removed by security.

In the last general election in 2019, then-Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn — whose deputy listed his favorite book as Karl Marx’s “Das Kapital” — promised free at-home personal care for the elderly, including shopping and tidying up. Corbyn said his party would nationalize the railways, the utilities, the mail service, water companies and broadband internet.

Corbyn lost in a landslide to the Brexiteer Boris Johnson. Starmer concluded that Labour must return to the center — and especially must purge the party of “the stain of antisemitism” created when pro-Palestinian voices crossed the line into anti-Israel, anti-Jewish hate.

Corbyn wasn’t just muffled, he was pushed out of the party by Starmer and his centrist allies. Corbyn will now run for his old seat in Parliament as an independent.

Starmer “has detoxified the Labour brand, focused on national security, where there were concerns about Corbyn, and he’s seen to be fiscally responsible,” said Tryl, of the More in Common think tank. “He’s trying to convince soft Tories, ‘Look, it’s okay if you vote for the Labour Party, we won’t do anything to upend things.’”

Starmer is following the path of Tony Blair, the last winning Labour leader, who led his party to an unprecedented three terms and served as prime minister from 1997 to 2007. Blair positioned his party as “New Labour,” a more centrist movement that felt similar to the moderate, triangulating Democrats under Blair’s ally President Bill Clinton.

Afterward, Blair became an object of derision on the Labour’s hard left, which resented him for drawing Britain into the long war in Iraq and excoriated his supporters as “Blairites” and “revanchists.”

Early in this election campaign, Starmer surprised some voters when he declared himself still a socialist. (As a young man, Starmer served as the editor of a Trotskyite magazine called Socialist Alternatives.)

“I would describe myself as a socialist. I describe myself as a progressive. I’d describe myself as somebody who always puts the country first and party second,” he said.

His deputy Rachel Reeves wasn’t so comfortable with that. Asked whether she, too, was a socialist, she called herself a social democrat instead.

Martin Baxter, chief executive of Electoral Calculus, a political consulting firm, said Starmer may have been trying to shore up his left-wing base with that line, or he might believe that he is a socialist, but that can mean different things to different people.

“Socialist” is not a word that all colleagues would use to describe Starmer these days. “Does Keir Starmer know what a socialist is?” asked the Socialist Worker newspaper in a headline.

Conservatives say Starmer is hiding his true agenda.

In his speech Thursday, Starmer didn’t stress nationalization of any industries.

Instead, he said the government would create the Great British Energy company, which would be a publicly owned utility producing cleaner, greener power, one of several competitors. He didn’t say anything about taking over the railways, but the manifesto does say, “We will put passengers at the heart of the service by reforming the railways and bringing them into public ownership. We will do this as contracts with existing operators expire or are broken through a failure to deliver, without costing taxpayers a penny in compensation.”

Both Sunak and Starmer faced interviews Wednesday night. Sky News’s Beth Rigby kicked off her grilling of Starmer this way: “You told the country Jeremy Corbyn would make a great prime minister. You then expelled him from Labour. You campaigned for a second E.U. referendum. Now you don’t talk about the E.U. And you dumped all the left-wing policies. … Your short political career is a catalogue actually of broken promises and changed positions.”

Starmer responded that he had responsibly put the party back on track after the 2019 election. “When you lose that badly, you don’t look to voters and say, ‘What on earth do you think you were doing?’ You look at your party and say, ‘We have to change.’”

Baxter noted that Starmer “looks sensible and he’s not off-putting” to many people, but his support isn’t deep. “It’s driven by an anti-Conservative feeling.”

So far, Labour’s large lead in voter intent surveys appears to be more of a case of the Conservatives on course to lose the election than Labour winning it.

Nonetheless, support for Labour is broad and consistent. Labour is polling ahead of Conservative in every age group under 70, and it has been 20 points up for some time. When Blair swept to power in 1997 with a landslide, Labour was only 13 percentage points ahead in the polls.

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