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2024 Election Watch: Rishi Sunak v Sir Keir Starmer

18 Jun 2024
By Colin Chapman FAIIA
Keir Starmer, leader of the Labour Party, and Connor Naismith, Labour’s candidate for Crewe and Nantwich, speak to Labour Party members at Crewe Alexandra Football Club, Source: Kier Starmer Flickr /

In Britain, two men are vying for the votes of the British people at the general election on 4 July. For many, it is a peculiar choice.

The best of the recent crop of British prime ministers was David Cameron whose flawed decision to call a referendum on European Union membership led to his demise. The referendum was bodged, and Cameron was quickly followed by Theresa May, Boris Johnson (the worst prime minister in living memory), and Liz Truss whose few weeks in office was the shortest on record.

In 2020, the Tories shoe-horned in Rishi Sunak after his brief spell as chancellor of the exchequer during the Covid-19 pandemic to clear up the wreckage created since the Conservative party won office in 2010. He is arguably as far removed from the typical British voter as one could imagine. Britain’s first prime minister of South Asian heritage, Sunak was educated at Winchester School, Oxford and Stanford University, and is married to the daughter of one of India’s richest men. Nonetheless, in this election campaign Rishi Sunak positions himself as an ordinary bloke whose immigrant parents worked hard to educate him and his siblings.

The other realistic pick for prime minister is the leader of the Labour party, Sir Keir Starmer, a self-effacing, clever lawyer who earned his knighthood as a senior public servant. Born the son of a toolmaker, with a mother who was seriously ill for much of his childhood, the family lived in straitened circumstances in the small town of Oxted, south of London. After winning a place at the local grammar school, he studied law at Leeds University; the first member of his family to go to university. After an early career in human rights law, he rose to head the Crown Prosecution Service. In this, he is certainly not typical of the average Labour voter.

Thus, the British are faced with a peculiar choice: leaders who they feel are not at all like them; in other words, men who lack understanding of the way of life of ordinary Brits.

As an Australian citizen who was born and bred in Britain, I have the right to vote and have spent recent days scrutinising the manifestos of the Conservative and Labour parties. These worthy and wordy documents, setting out policies for government, have added little to my decision-making process. What is missing from both is not so much a statement of objectives, such as—in the Tories’ case—reintroducing national service, but a coherent explanation as to what the manifestos mean for the average voter.

Compelling evidence to support this comes from a report from the Nuffield Trust, a respected healthcare think-tank, which finds that both Conservative and Labour policies towards Britain’s biggest crisis area, the National Health Service (NHS), would leave the mammoth organisation with lower spending increases than during the years of austerity between 2010 and 2015. The report says that the level of funding increases would leave them struggling to pay existing staff costs, let alone the bill for the planned massive increases in doctors, nurses, and other staff in the long-term workforce plan agreed last year. In other words, the sums of neither party add up, and the same goes for other areas of government.

So, what are we to make of this contest? First and foremost, we must look at the characters and reputations of the two men. In each case, they pass the good character test. Both are known for diligent application and attention to detail and appear to be truthful in thought and deed, acting in what they believe to be the best interests of the country they serve. Both men have created their own fortunes by hard work, Sunak as an American-based hedge fund manager, enabling him to amass his wealth, adding to that of his even richer wife, Akshata Murty, and Starmer who practised as a human rights lawyer before moving to head the Crown Prosecution Service. When the Sunak family is not in Downing Street, it lives in a comfortable manor house in their north Yorkshire constituency of Richmond, a seat previously held by former Tory leader William Hague, now Baron Hague of Richmond. Sir Keir and his wife Victoria live in a fashionable north London community not far from the Arsenal football club, of which Starmer is a season ticket holder and ardent supporter.

Both men have just two weeks to prove to an uncertain electorate that they are the right choice as prime minister.

Although Starmer remains well ahead in the polls, he is less well known to the public, particularly to youthful voters who many pundits say will determine the election result. A one-time “lefty lawyer,” opponents have painted Starmer as the epitome of a self-satisfied liberal metropolitan elite, remote from the concerns of ordinary voters. However, he has assiduously and relentlessly rebuilt the Labour party since 2020. Barely a year into the job, even friends and allies questioned whether he had what it took to return the party to power after the Tories took a massive majority in the Hartlepool by-election, a formerly safe Labour stronghold. The latest surprising—and perhaps last-ditch—tactic in this election campaign is to push reluctant Tory supporters to get out and vote to avoid a Labour super-majority.

For Sunak, the final days of the campaign look very different from those of pandemic-struck Britain when as chancellor he delivered a package of support for working people and businesses amounting to between £4,600 and £6,100 for every UK citizen. Since those heady days, his popularity has shrunk as he has grappled with a multitude of complex issues including the war on Ukraine, over-stretched public services, high immigration, rising consumer prices, and a party still at war with itself in the aftermath of Brexit. He developed a strategy to deal with these issues but the report card to date demonstrates he has fallen short, and time is running out for him.

Colin Chapman FAIIA is a writer, broadcaster, public speaker, who specialises in geopolitics, international economics, and global media issues. He is a former president of AIIA NSW and was appointed a fellow of the AIIA in 2017. Colin is editor at large with Australian Outlook.

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.