Labour can stem rise of populist right by improving people’s lives, says Starmer

Keir Starmer has said a new Labour government would have to stave off a rise of the populist right by urgently restoring faith in British politics through “deeds, not words” and making a material difference to people’s lives.

As the election campaign enters its final days, the Labour leader said that while “hope has been kicked out” of people, his plans for economic growth across the country, the NHS and the transition to renewables could help bring it back.

He vowed to bring an end to “divisive and toxic” culture wars that have beset the country if he makes it to No 10 and hold his ministers to high standards, with even the most senior figures sacked for serious breaches.

But in an interview with the Guardian, Starmer warned that a failure to address the disillusionment with British politics could result in a rise of the hard right as witnessed in France and other European countries. “It’s no good saying: ‘Well, I don’t like the rise of populism and nationalism.’ You have to understand why that’s happening,” he said. “It’s based in this disaffection, this sense that politics cannot be a force for good and you can’t trust politicians.”

Starmer and the other party leaders will spend the last few days of the campaign traversing the country ahead of what is expected to be a once-in-a-generation result ushering in a Labour government.

The final Opinium poll for the Observer showed Labour had retained its lead over the Conservatives – unchanged on 40%, while the Tories were on 20% – enough to deliver a large majority if replicated on polling day. Reform UK was up one point on 17%, the Liberal Democrats up one point on 13% and the Greens down three points on 6%.

Yet Starmer claimed that despite his party’s significant lead, the outcome on Thursday was “not inevitable”, warning it would be a “big mistake” for people to back smaller parties if they wanted to see change. “Just think how you will feel on Friday morning if you wake up and you’ve just ushered in five more years of the Tories,” he said.

Labour aides have in recent days been holding final talks with the civil service as they prepare for government, with shadow ministers visiting the departments they could run in the event of victory so they are ready to hit the ground running with a programme for government.

However, Starmer’s broader challenge will be to restore faith in British politics after years of Tory scandals including Partygate, Covid contracts, Liz Truss’s mini-budget and the election date gambling row that has overshadowed the Tory campaign.

“The hope has been kicked out of many people. They’ve been promised lots of things that haven’t happened and that leads to disillusion,” he said. “There’s a near-universal view that almost everything is broken and we’re going backwards as a country. That’s very demoralising.

“They’ve also had to witness the politics of self-entitlement and self-enhancement from Westminster … I’m not surprised that people feel disaffected by politics. But we do have to restore it.”

Starmer disputed claims that Labour’s policy platform was unambitious, saying it represented “a downpayment” towards the party’s longer-term ambitions. Party strategists argue the public would not believe bigger promises anyway.

“It has to be that credible, realisable, not some fantastical hope that isn’t going to happen,” Starmer said, pointing to the transformational potential of economic growth. “Sitting behind the disaffection is a sense for large parts of the country that if there is any growth it passes them by.”

The Labour leader confirmed he had no plans to set up new Whitehall departments to deliver on his key missions, as many of them, such as securing the transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy, would be cross-departmental.

He admitted that policy delivery was “not the talking point down the pub” but suggested it would be crucial to the success of an incoming Labour administration. There would be delivery boards for each mission area to push for change.

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Starmer said he wanted to restore politics to public service, bringing an end to the “self-entitlement, self-enrichment” mindset that had persisted at Westminster for too long. “In the end it’s deeds, not words,” he added.

Labour would set up an ethics and integrity commission with the power to launch its own investigations, although the prime minister would still have ultimate sign-off, and tougher sanctions, including fines, for those who breach the ministerial code.

Serious breaches would result in automatic sackings, even of the most senior figures . “They’ve got to go,” he said. “The moment you’ve got an exception, you’ve lost the anchor, the standard isn’t applicable and everybody knows it.”

Labour would also support an immediate ban on MPs taking up paid advisory or consultancy roles, while former ministers would face a ban on lobbying or carrying out paid work relating to their old jobs for at least five years.

Starmer said he was concerned by the increase in support for Reform UK and the populist right. “Alongside this disaffection here, that is also a driver to populism and nationalism. Not just here, that’s happening across Europe”.

France went to the polls this weekend for the first round of its parliamentary election, with voter turnout surging to a near 40-year high and the far right closer to power than it has ever been in modern times.

Starmer argued that only progressive parties and governments could meet the challenge of restoring faith. “That goes back to credible hope, deliverable hope, making the change that will be material for people’s lives,” he said.

He denied Labour had left it too late to tackle the wider threat from Reform UK head on. “We have criticised Farage along the way but there’s only one party left on the pitch that’s making a positive case about the future of the country,” he said.


Updated: Juni 30, 2024 — 6:47 pm

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