UK’s Starmer to insist Labour fit to govern as crisis hits

The leader of Britain’s main opposition Labour party will make the case Tuesday that his once-fractured party is ready to lead the UK out of economic crisis as the country grapples soaring inflation and imminent recession.

Keir Starmer will tell Labour’s annual conference, just days after the pound crashed to unprecedented lows against the dollar, that new Prime Minister Liz Truss and the ruling Conservatives have “lost control of the British economy”.

His keynote speech will also insist that Labour — out of power for 12 years and dogged in recent times by ideological infighting — is now “the party of the centre ground” and of “sound money”, according to his office.

The pound’s plunge has been blamed on a mini-budget unveiled on Friday by Britain’s new finance minister, Kwasi Kwarteng, which cut a host of taxes — including for the highest earners — and raised government borrowing.

“What we’ve seen from the government in the past few days has no precedent,” Starmer will say. “They’ve lost control of the British economy — and for what? For tax cuts for the richest one per cent in our society.”

Despite the gloomy economic outlook, Labour’s rank-and-file are gathering in an upbeat mood in England’s northwest city of Liverpool. The party appears more unified than at any point in recent years and has a comfortable lead in the polls.

“When it’s been said in the past that Labour’s back, it’s felt a little hollow sometimes, but the atmosphere here is really good,” conference attendee Ceri Powe, 31, told AFP. “It’s quite exciting.”

Starmer, 60, took over the Labour leadership in April 2020 from the radical Jeremy Corbyn.

‘Got to get back in’ –

He struggled to break through with the British public during the Covid pandemic. But the financial crisis and the Tories’ problems under their previous scandal-plagued prime minister Boris Johnson, have revived Labour. 

The latest poll by YouGov showed Labour with a 17-point lead, its biggest since the era of Tony Blair, who won an unprecedented three general elections from 1997.

The next election, however, is not due until January 2025 at the latest, when the party will try to overturn the majority of 80 that Johnson won against Corbyn in 2019.

Starmer has taken Labour back to centre ground after gaping divides between its left and right flanks under Corbyn.

In an unusual move, attendees at this year’s conference on Sunday sang the national anthem “God Save the King”, beneath images of the late queen Elizabeth II.

Fears the rendition would be marred by boos or heckles from the Corbyn-leaning left proved unfounded.

Starmer will on Tuesday hail that Labour is once again “the political wing of the British people”, in a clear nod to Blair who previously deployed the same phrase. 

“We know we can do it,” Mary Stiles, 75, a former councillor from central England, told AFP of retaking power. “We’ve got to do what Tony Blair did in 1997: we’ve got to get back in and change things.”

‘Grown-ups’ –

Starmer has vowed not to reverse the Conservatives’ “hard Brexit” deal, which took Britain out of the European Union’s single market and customs union.

He has also tried to steer clear of culture war issues, revolving around gender and racial politics, instead sticking to core themes around the economy, health care and crime.

On Tuesday, he will promise a new “green prosperity plan” that prioritises economic growth alongside tackling climate change.

But there is disquiet from the party’s traditional union backers about support for workers on strike over pay.

Starmer has barred his top team from appearing on picket lines and been less supportive of the walkouts than some on the party’s left.

The moves have prompted criticism from some unions and predictions they could now cut some of the millions of pounds they give the party annually.

But an uneasy truce appears to have prevailed during the conference and some party members argue Starmer’s position is necessary to show Labour is ready to govern again.

“The grown-ups are back in town,” declared Angela Briggs, 69, a retired head teacher.