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Starmer Echoes Blair in 1997 as Labour Kicks Off Bid for Power

Starmer Echoes Blair in 1997 as Labour Kicks Off Bid for Power
Keir Starmer on May 10.

Keir Starmer will fire the starting gun on his bid to be Labour’s first leader since Tony Blair to win a UK general election by borrowing from the totemic premier’s campaign play book: Printing the promises he wants to be judged by on cards to give voters at events, starting in Essex on Thursday.

The “first steps for change” will mark the priorities Labour will emphasize as it tries to oust the Conservative Party from power after 14 years. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is widely expected to call a nationwide election in the autumn.

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 will add a new border security unit focused on people-smuggling, as part of a broader crackdown on migration.

Labour’s election defeat in 2019 under former leader Jeremy Corbyn left Starmer needing the biggest turnaround in the postwar era to get the opposition back into power. But a 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.

Both leaders have argued that Starmer’s inheritance, especially Britain’s moribund economy, make comparisons 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 former Tory premier Liz Truss. Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer Rachel Reeves describes Labour’s plan as “securonomics.”

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

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 Labour’s promise to build more cooperative ties with Europe.

As well as putting the economic, migration and other pledges on cards, Labour will also begin a billboard and regional newspaper advertising campaign – the most the party will have spent on advertising since the 2019 general election.

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.

With Labour needing to pick up seats across the country — a legacy of 2019 — Starmer has faced criticism that his plans are not radical enough to convince voters to switch allegiance. His choice of wording on the campaign cards risks exacerbating that unease, especially as they don’t include key Labour policy commitments including to overhaul workers’ rights and boost housebuilding.

A Labour spokesperson defended the streamlined offering, pointing out that Blair’s team also did not include its major plans, like introducing a national minimum wage, on the 1997 cards. Labour’s manifesto will contain the full package, the spokesperson said. The shorter form is for campaigning.

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