High above the streets of downtown Montreal, Sir Keir Starmer insisted he was not complacent about a Labour election victory in Britain. But with some polls showing his party 20 points or more ahead of the Conservatives, he is starting to look over the political horizon.
“I think there’s an opportunity for a progressive moment,” he said, speaking from the eighth floor of the 4-star Westin Hotel in Canada’s second-biggest city. Voters in Britain and the US could in 2024 deliver decisive votes for centre-left governments, he added. “Obviously [US president] Joe Biden is an important part of that.”
A quarter of a century after then Labour prime minister Tony Blair and US Democratic president Bill Clinton proclaimed their “Third Way”, Starmer was attending a summit of centre-left politicians described in the UK media as a “lefty conclave”.
For Starmer, the Global Progress Action conference was a rite of passage: stepping on to the world stage alongside the likes of Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau, Sanna Marin, the former prime minister of Finland, Frans Timmermans, who is hoping to become Dutch premier, and Blair himself.
The key for the protagonists was how to turn “progressive” policies on issues such as climate change, immigration and an active industrial policy into votes, after years in which the centre-left has been pushed on to the back foot, often by populist parties.
The fact that Trudeau is in trouble at home was a reminder of the problems for the centre-left. Olaf Scholz in Germany and Anthony Albanese in Australia are also running into difficulties. And as for Biden, Donald Trump was a spectral figure hanging over the Montreal event.
But Starmer is attracting a lot of interest. Labour’s strong poll lead undoubtedly helped to win him an audience at the Élysée with French president Emmanuel Macron this Tuesday. And the Labour leader, in an interview with the Financial Times, is quietly confident.
Describing his plan to revive Britain’s economy and standing in the world, he is already looking beyond a UK election which he expects in the autumn of 2024. “This could take five or 10 years,” he said. “I have to accept that this might be more than one term of a Labour government.”
Starmer’s theme in Montreal was how to deal with an “axis of insecurity”, covering issues such as the cost of living crisis, the war in Ukraine and climate change. He insisted Labour had the best answers for all three.
On the economy, he wants to work with business on an industrial strategy to develop a greener economy and spread wealth across the UK, and with Brussels to rebuild ties by seeking to renegotiate the post-Brexit trade deal when it comes up for review in 2025.
“Many, many global investors have said to me ‘the UK isn’t at the table any more, it’s not part of the discussion’. Those global investors looking at the UK are saying ‘not quite yet, it’s not stable enough’,” he explained.
He said Labour was already working with business on an industrial strategy. “They aren’t just coffee mornings,” he said. “They are discussions at a high level about the partnership we are going to put in place.”
On renewing Britain’s relations with the EU, he will have to overcome not just criticism from the ruling Conservatives that he is seeking to unwind Brexit, but scepticism in Brussels about the desirability of any kind of revamped trade deal.
However a new European Commission will be elected in 2024 and the UK general election must be held by January 2025, potentially producing a new cast of politicians to re-examine the post-Brexit settlement.
Rishi Sunak, UK prime minister, argues he has already substantially improved Britain’s relations with other countries — including the US, France and the EU itself — after the convulsions of Boris Johnson’s premiership.
Starmer acknowledged that Sunak had already done part of the work, delivering improved deals with the EU over Northern Ireland and science co-operation; on Ukraine, Starmer said he endorsed Sunak’s vigorous support for President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
Starmer also indicated that a Labour government would not depart from Sunak’s policy of engaging with China while seeking to limit security risks. “When the government says that China is a global strategic challenge, I agree with that,” he said.
The Labour leader acknowledged that he needed to be more explicit about exactly what his party would do in government.
That task will take on a new urgency at the party’s annual conference in Liverpool next month. “The question we need to answer is: “If not them, then why Labour?” Starmer said. “That’s the central question as we go into conference we intend to answer.”
“What I want to do at conference is reject the notion that reassurance and hope are distinct and mutually exclusive ideas and to weld them together.”
Starmer said it was “not entirely accurate to say we’ve not set anything out”, but swaths of Labour policy remain obscure. The potential risks of fleshing out plans for government were illustrated last week, when he announced his policy on cross-channel migration
The Labour leader said he would “crush” people-smuggling gangs through greater pan-European police co-operation — he is convinced that they can be stopped, their boats confiscated — but more media attention was paid to a potential Labour returns agreement with the EU.
Starmer said he definitely was not proposing some kind of burden-sharing agreement of the kind planned by EU member states — the Conservatives said he would turn Britain into a “dumping ground” for other countries’ asylum seekers.
“There is a barely functioning EU quota scheme in operation,” he said. “That’s for EU members and we don’t want to be part of it.” He said Tory claims to the contrary were “garbage” and that any returns agreement would be bespoke and on a much smaller scale.
Meanwhile, Starmer agreed with Trudeau that “progressive” politicians had to prove that their concerns and policy prescriptions were not irrelevant to the lives of working people.
“Yes, it’s a danger — he’s right about that,” Starmer said. “I’ve already alluded to it. In the UK, I have long thought we drifted too far from working people.”
Starmer’s challenge is to persuade Britain’s voters that the “progressive moment” being contemplated over canapés in a luxury hotel in Montreal means something to them.