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Keir Starmer seeks election tips from Obama, Trudeau and Blair

Keir Starmer seeks election tips from Obama, Trudeau and Blair

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LONDON — Keir Starmer dreams of being the next U.K. prime minister. Can rubbing shoulders with proven winners really help him pull it off?

In the past week the U.K. Labour leader has visited The Hague, Montreal and Paris for a series of public engagements with senior political figures as he seeks to project a statesmanlike image on the world stage.

Behind closed doors, Starmer has been picking the brains of some of the 21st century’s highest-profile progressive leaders on how to govern — and how to win. “He is always asking ‘What are they doing? What can we learn from that? And what do we disregard?’” a senior Labour Party official said.

Given Labour’s 18-point poll lead over the ruling Conservatives — and with an election looming in 2024 — more and more progressives want to talk to Starmer. A member of Starmer’s shadow Cabinet said that while it had once been an “uphill struggle” to convince foreign leaders to make time to see the Labour leader, it was “becoming much easier” as Starmer moves within touching distance of power.

Within the past few days, Starmer has met Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Norwegian Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre and French President Emmanuel Macron. Most eye-catchingly of all, he revealed a series of private conversations with former U.S. President Barack Obama.

Speaking from Montreal — where he was attending the Global Progress Action Summit with fellow center-left leaders — Starmer told POLITICO’s Power Play podcast that he has spoken “a number of times” to Obama about the challenges he faced as president and how the U.K. might learn from them.

Starmer said of Obama: “He’s an acute observer of politics in the U.K., is completely across what’s happening and I think it is always useful to test my ideas on people who’ve won elections, people who’ve taken difficult decisions in power — because that helps me think about how we might approach some of the decisions we might have to take if we do win that election.”

Progressives vs. populists

At the summit in Canada last weekend, Starmer rubbed shoulders with center-left politicians and talked about taking the fight to the right.

John McTernan, a former political secretary to Tony Blair who attended the conference, said that Starmer was among “his peer group.” “You could see him and the whole Labour team were liked and well-networked.”

Central to leaders’ discussions was an acknowledgement that populists were, by and large, better at communicating with voters than progressives.

At the event the Labour leader was seen having a long chat with Canadian PM Trudeau at a closed-door reception on Friday evening. Speaking on a panel on the Saturday, Starmer said Trudeau had warned him of the dangers of progressives “moralizing” and “looking down at the rest of the world.” 

Norwegian Prime Minister Støre is also seen by Starmer’s office as a key ally, multiple senior Labour officials said. Starmer and Støre appeared on a panel together in Montreal — two left-leaning leaders in European countries that sit outside the EU.

McTernan said Starmer revealed to the room that he had visited Støre in Norway for several days after the Brexit referendum in 2016. “He spent three or four days talking to people in Norway about what it’s like being outside Europe,” McTernan said. “He instantly and instinctively knew that Britain outside the European Union had to learn from Norway.”

Another figure with whom Starmer is friendly is Frans Timmermans, the former European Commission vice president who is running to become prime minister of the Netherlands with the Dutch Labor Party.

“Keir and Frans stood out as the two party leaders who are on the up and expected to have a very good year,” the senior Labour official quoted above said. 

Back at home, the two politicians Starmer consults the most are the two last Labour prime ministers — Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. He speaks to both regularly, aides say, and made headlines with his decision to share a stage with Blair this summer.

From red to green

As the U.K. electoral battle lines are drawn, the most important example for Starmer to learn from may be that of Australia.

Anthony Albanese of the Australian Labor Party swept to victory in 2022 after a campaign in which the Liberals under PM Scott Morrison made climate policies one of their key dividing lines. Isaac Levido, the Australian political guru who is the Tories’ electoral strategist, was a consultant to Morrison in that election.

“What’s really clear to me is that Isaac Levido has successfully persuaded Rishi Sunak to adopt the 2022 Liberal government strategy running up to the election,” McTernan said. “And what Isaac Levido has forgotten to tell Sunak and his government is that the Liberals got the worst beating for a generation.”

Attendees at the Montreal conference were presented with polling suggesting that voters in 10 countries, including the U.K., Australia, France, Germany and the U.S., supported climate policies by a wide margin when they were presented through the prism of energy security and high-quality jobs in industries such as electric cars, batteries, wind and solar power.

One of the former leaders that Starmer is closest to is Ed Miliband, Labour’s most high-profile spokesperson on environmental policies.

He has reinvented himself as a podcaster and climate champion since losing a close-run election to David Cameron’s Conservatives in 2015, and now sits in Starmer’s top team as shadow climate secretary.

Asked about his advice to Starmer following his own difficult experience as Labour leader, Miliband told at a POLITICO energy and climate event this week: “My only advice to Keir has always been: Be yourself.”

Esther Webber and Annabelle Dickson contributed reporting.

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