UK election: Starmer could yet prove that hard work trumps charisma

A sense of national stagnation, since Brexit is widely seen to have hurt the UK’s economic prospects. (AFP)
A sense of national stagnation, since Brexit is widely seen to have hurt the UK’s economic prospects. (AFP)


  • His big challenge is an erosion of public trust in politics, a problem compounded by a decade of bungling and scandals under the Conservative Party’s rule. Rescuing the British economy from a long Brexit worsened slump isn’t easy, so Britons shouldn’t rush to judge his government.

Consider a country whose economy has suffered due to years of lower productivity growth than its peers, high inequality and low private investment. To compound its problems, it is not part of dynamic free-trade zones, which would lower its tariffs, push its industry to be more competitive and reduce friction for goods crossing borders. 

This is the huge to-do-list that Keir Starmer faces as the new Prime Minister of UK, but it is also more or less the challenge that New Delhi confronts.

Starmer’s is harder, though. Unlike in India, expectations of public services are high, especially of its National Health Service, whose backlog of appointments is a staggering 7.6 million. In addition, years of misguided austerity when interest rates were low mean that the UK’s public investment since 2000 lags its OECD peers by a cumulative £500 billion of what it should have been to keep pace, according to Resolution Foundation, a think tank. 

Also read: Crushing debts await Europe's new leaders

“Labour productivity grew by just 0.4% a year in the UK in the 12 years following the global financial crisis, half the rate of the 25 richest OECD countries. The UK’s productivity gap with France, Germany and the US has doubled since 2008 to an estimated 18%. Weak productivity growth has fed directly into flatlining wages and sluggish income growth. Fifteen years of lost wage growth have cost the average worker £10,700 a year," the Foundation notes in a report.

As in India, an urgent need to create remunerative jobs for young people is an uppermost concern. Young folks entering the British workforce have not seen wages move up (unlike in the US, for instance) and have the added problem of facing even higher costs if they want to buy new homes. 

As Bill Emmott, a former editor of The Economist, noted in a Financial Times article this weekend, average wages for the entire workforce adjusted for inflation in 2023 were below what they were in 2008. Starmer’s new Labour government promises to enable the country to build 1.5 million new homes, but this requires both a private sector willing to invest to that extent and major changes in British planning permissions. 

Of course, raising both the ambition and ability of the private sector is a task beyond the direct reach of most governments. And relative to the US or even France, it is hard to think of UK companies that have a global footprint. British Airways’ high flight cancellations this year because of multiple infotech issues is emblematic of the problem.

But the greatest challenge that Starmer faces is an erosion of public trust in government and politicians. This problem is compounded by a decade of bungling and scandals during the Conservative Party’s rule, especially by the Boris Johnson and Liz Truss governments, and media scrutiny so intense that it resembles governing live on a reality TV show. 

A sense of national stagnation, since Brexit is widely seen to have hurt the UK’s economic prospects, is felt both by Britons who wanted to remain part of the EU and those who voted to leave. For all the talk of a Global Britain to replace it, London’s inability to sign free trade agreements (FTAs) with the US and India (less consequentially) underlines the UK’s diminished place in the world.

It is significant that as Starmer assumes office, 45% of the population says they would “almost never" trust leaders to put the country ahead of political calculations and as many as 71% believe the country is worse-off after Brexit, according to a report quoted by the Financial Times on Monday.

Also read: How the Tories lost Britain

Facing this wall of cynicism as he campaigned, Starmer emphasized his working-class family background and bared his soul on occasion. Remarkably, in a long FT interview, he admitted to regrets about what he didn’t say to his father as he was dying and spoke movingly of his mother’s health challenges. 

But, on policy, Labour and Starmer tried to remain as bland as possible—and succeeded almost too well. In the days leading up to the 4 July election, I was surprised to learn that four of my close friends in London, who I would have thought were natural Starmer supporters, were voting instead for the Liberal Democrats or the Greens. 

They found Starmer’s inability to take a clear stand on issues in the campaign disquieting; one had changed her mind after Starmer took a strong stand last week to rule out rejoining the EU. This may be practical as well as tactical. It is not clear if the EU would let the UK rejoin. The best that can be hoped for are new agreements with the EU that would allow freer exports of certain goods from the UK. 

On immigration, while the new government moved quickly to abandon the hare-brained idea to fly illegal immigrants to Rwanda, it is not clear that it will succeed in significantly slowing the number of immigrants coming to the UK even with better border controls.

Yet, the new Labour government has much going for it, starting with Starmer’s seriousness of purpose. Having assumed office on Friday, he was already travelling to improve relations with regional governments in Wales and Scotland on the weekend. Unlike during the past 11 years of Tory rule, his cabinet is filled with capable people who went to government schools rather than posh private boarding schools, and also many women. 

Also read: The Labour Party's win: Britain must not squander a chance to arrest its decline

As in France, the hypernationalism of the right has been stopped in its tracks. The new government’s apparent discipline is a welcome change from the last one’s infighting. If Britons suspend their cynicism for a while, Starmer could yet prove that hard work trumps charisma.

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