UK Labor leader aims to win over voters amid Johnson woes

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The UK opposition Labor Party leader on Wednesday targeted a Tory government that has chaired empty gas pumps and one of the worst coronavirus death tolls in Europe – but still holds a lead over Labor in most opinion polls.

That sums up the dilemma of Labor leader Keir Starmer, who has struggled to break through to a largely indifferent audience despite the many problems plaguing Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s administration.

Starmer sought to change that with a speech Wednesday at the party’s annual conference, saying Labor was “back in business” after a decade of electoral disappointments. He argued that his personal history – a working-class boy who went to law school and became a prosecutor – made him a better leader than the posh, boastful Johnson, whom he dismissed as “a trickster who performed his only trick ”.

“I don’t think Boris Johnson is a bad man,” Starmer said. “I think he’s a run-of-the-mill man. I think he’s a showman who has nothing more to show.

Labor has been out of power since 2010, a decade that saw the country win three Tory prime ministers – David Cameron, Theresa May and Johnson.

Johnson’s Tories won an overwhelming 80-seat majority in Parliament in December 2019, winning voters in post-industrial towns in northern England who had voted Labor for decades but felt neglected by successive governments.

Starmer wants to win them back. In his speech, he addressed the biggest concern of many voters about work – that the Social Democrats will raise taxes and hamper the economy.

“Too often in the history of this party, our dream of a good society falls under the conviction that we will not run a strong economy,” he said. “But you don’t get one without the other.”

He pledged to improve conditions for workers and the economy with “the blessing of British business”, retreating from the class conflict rhetoric of the party’s left wing.

A former national chief prosecutor, Starmer was elected Labor leader in April 2020 to replace far-left leader Jeremy Corbyn, who led the party to two heavy electoral defeats in 2017 and 2019 – the latter being its worst result since 1935.

Still, Starmer struggled to make an impact as the country’s attention was absorbed by the coronavirus pandemic, which has left at least 135,000 dead in Britain – the highest death toll in Europe after the Russia. In recent days, a fuel supply crisis sparked by a shortage of truckers has closed thousands of gas stations and led to long lines of frustrated motorists across the country.

He also heads a party that is deeply divided after a decade of absence from power and has been tarnished by allegations of anti-Semitism under Corbyn.

Starmer is caught between the two wings of the turbulent group. Many Labor members believe the party must move to the center to win, as it did under former Prime Minister Tony Blair, who has won three successive electoral victories. Yet Corbyn’s still-strong supporters hate Blair and want Starmer to stick to his predecessor’s socialist policies of nationalization and increased spending.

The divisions were clear as Starmer was heckled sporadically during a speech that lasted over an hour. Starmer addressed the UK general public beyond the room, targeting both the Conservative government and his own party.

He described Johnson’s administration as a chumocracy who awarded contracts to their friends as inequalities in British society grew – something he linked to the high number of coronaviruses in the country.

“There were cracks in British society and COVID crept in,” Starmer said.

He confronted his rowdies by asking delegates if they preferred to “shout slogans or change lives”. Starmer presented a series of election pledges aimed at improving social care, education, working conditions and innovation.

Televised speeches by conference leaders are one of the few opportunities politicians other than the Prime Minister have to address the public directly outside of election campaigns. Britain is not expected to hold a national election until 2024, although many expect Johnson to call one at least a year earlier.

Party conferences are an annual feature of British politics, although they were curtailed in 2020 by the pandemic. This year is the resumption of business.

The Labor conference ends Wednesday in Brighton, a seaside town in southern England. The ruling Tories are hosting their own four-day shindig in Manchester starting on Sunday.


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