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Friday, July 12, 2024

Keir Starmer: UK Elections and His Vision for Stronger UK-India Relations

Rishi Sunak’s future as Britain’s Prime Minister and leader of the Conservative Party hung in the balance as polling booths opened across the United Kingdom (UK) on Thursday, with the British-Indian leader and the man who wants his job, Keir Starmer, out early to cast their votes.

The snap parliamentary election, called by Sunak, is being held months earlier than necessary and has caught his party by surprise. Candidates are being fielded across 650 constituencies in England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, with 326 required for a majority in the first-past-the-post system.

Much of the debate ahead of the polls has revolved around the UK’s economy, the state of its public services, the cost of living, and immigration and tax. However, Britain’s relationship with the European Union (EU), which it left in 2020 after a referendum four years earlier, has been largely absent from the debate.

Forty-four year-old Sunak is facing voter angst towards the incumbent Conservative Party, which has been in power for 14 years. Throughout the six-week campaign, Sunak’s party has trailed far behind the Labour Party, led by 61-year-old Keir Starmer.

The election is widely expected to bring the Centre-Left Labour Party to power, against a gloomy backdrop of economic pain and mounting public distrust in UK’s institutions. In the run-up to the election, the Labour Party has had a steady and significant lead in opinion polls for months.

Who is Keir Starmer?

Keir Starmer, the human rights barrister turned Labour Party leader, has been credited with reversing the party’s fortunes from one of its worst poll performances in the 2019 general election to the cusp of forming the government.

Sir Keir, who was knighted by the late Queen Elizabeth II for his services to law and criminal justice, was first elected as Labour’s member of parliament (MP) from London in 2015.

The 61-year-old is the father of two teenage kids, who he and his wife Victoria, a National Health Service (NHS) employee, have chosen to keep out of the political spotlight.
Starmer was born in London to a toolmaker father and an NHS nurse mother and grew up in the town of Oxted in Surrey.

Starmer has spoken emotionally about his mother, Josephine, suffering from the debilitating condition of Still’s disease, which she succumbed to a few weeks before he first became an MP in 2015.

He believes he has inherited the grit and determination of his mother and the strong work ethic of his father, Rodney.

“I carry the disrespect my dad felt because he worked in a factory, that really impacted him, that made him recoil from company and become quite isolated,” Starmer told The Sunday Times in a recent interview, adding, “It is among the reasons that I will never treat people with disrespect.”

Compared to Sunak, Starmer is often branded as being dull. But, just like Sunak, he also has a University of Oxford background where he studied law. Subsequently, Starmer rose up the ranks to be appointed the Director of Public Prosecutions under a Labour-led government.

As a new MP in 2016, Starmer, a staunch anti-Brexiteer, assumed the key role of shadow Brexit secretary under then party leader Jeremy Corbyn.

Following the debacle of the 2019 election, Starmer stepped up as party leader. Since then, he has sought to distance himself from the past party line. He has stressed that under his leadership, Labour now has a fully costed manifesto, which focuses on key public concerns like growing the UK’s economy, fixing the troubled NHS, and building homes.

Starmer has positioned himself as a leader who will fix things that have been broken due to the chaos caused by the numerous leadership changes within a divided Conservative Party in the past few years.

Despite all opinion polls forecasting a so-called supermajority on the scale of 1997 when Tony Blair stomped to victory over John Major, Starmer’s election strategy has been characterised by caution.

“If we get the opportunity, we will govern as we have changed Labour, which is to take the country from the pretty poor place that it’s in at the moment and to seriously change it,” Starmer declared recently, adding, “…So that by the end of the first term of a Labour government, people will be able to say, do you know what, I am better off.”

What will Keir Starmer as UK PM mean for India?

Starmer has made it a manifesto pledge to pursue a “new strategic partnership” with India, including a free trade agreement (FTA), if handed a mandate to form a Labour-led government in Thursday’s election.

Starmer has worked on trying to re-build Labour’s connect with the Indian diaspora, which had been alienated to an extent under former leader Corbyn over a perceived anti-India stance on Kashmir.

Setting the tone for the party’s India-UK outlook at the India Global Forum (IGF) last year, Starmer had declared, “I have a clear message for you all today: this is a changed Labour Party.”

“What my Labour government will seek with India is a relationship based on our shared values of democracy and aspiration,” said Starmer, adding, “… That will seek an FTA, we share that ambition, but also a new strategic partnership for global security, climate security, economic security.”

This approach has also been entrenched in his party’s 2024 election manifesto, which commits to seeking a new strategic partnership with India, including an FTA, as well as deepening cooperation in areas like security, technology, climate change, and education.

During a visit to the Shree Swaminarayan Temple in north London, on the campaign trail last week, Starmer sought to reassure British Hindus that there was absolutely no place for Hinduphobia in Britain. Starmer has been reiterating this message over the past few years during celebrations of Diwali and Holi.

What will Starmer as PM mean for UK’s foreign policy?

On foreign policy, there is likely to be a large degree of continuity under a Starmer-led government as Labour chimes with the Conservative Party’s stance on the UK’s support for Ukraine in its ongoing conflict with Russia.

However, some changes are expected in the UK’s approach to the Israel-Gaza crisis, with Labour planning to stop arms sales to Israel. Starmer’s party also wants to progress towards recognising a Palestinian state.

In his firmest pledge yet that Labour would not seek much closer relations with Europe as long as he was prime minister, Starmer on Wednesday said that the UK would not rejoin either the EU, the single market or the customs union within his lifetime.

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