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Keir Starmer is likely to be the U.K.'s next Prime Minister


Election season is underway in the U.K. After Prime Minister Rishi Sunak called a surprise summer election - July 4, in fact. His main rival is Keir Starmer, leader of the opposition Labour Party, and they enjoy a wide lead in the polls. With a win, Keir Starmer would become prime minister. Who is this man who might follow Churchill, Thatcher and Blair into 10 Downing Street? Tom Baldwin is a journalist and former Labour Party adviser. He's written the biography called "Keir Starmer," and he joins us from London. Thanks so much for being with us.


SIMON: Help us understand Keir Starmer. A Labour Party working-class background, isn't he?

BALDWIN: Yes, he is but also somebody filled, I think, with lots of paradoxes. You know, he's the most working-class leader of the Labour Party in a generation, but the first one to have a sir prefixed to his name before he got the job. He's a very cautious man, and yet he's taking huge risks to change his party. He's a very private person, but he's also someone who's chosen to expose himself to the white light of scrutiny by becoming a Labour Party leader. But I think the biggest paradox about him is this is a time when people tell most opinion polls they really don't like politics or politicians. And yet everyone that I know in politics wrings their hands at the mention of Keir Starmer and say, oh, God, why can't he be more like a politician?

You know, he spent most of his life as a lawyer, a very successful lawyer - a human rights lawyer, then a public prosecutor. So he learned a different way of communicating, which is about - more about facts and evidence than grandiloquent speeches and inspirational moments or backstories and visions. But after all the antics and banter and japery of Boris Johnson, I think there is now possibly an appetite for a sort of antidote to populism, a more serious, a more sober, a more methodical prime minister than the kind of people we've had running this country recently.

SIMON: He was an outspoken socialist in his youth, but that's not the man we see now, is it?

BALDWIN: No, what you see is someone who's moved the Labour Party back to the political center, who has taken a party that was not trusted with the nation's security or its finances to one that's now trusted more than the conservatives on both.

SIMON: He's cleaned house, would that be fair to say?

BALDWIN: Yeah, he puts it this way. He says he's turned his party inside out. It was facing inwards to its activists, to this party membership who elected Jeremy Corbyn before and were very infused by Jeremy Corbyn's leadership to one which now looks outwards to the electorate, so he can turn to face the voters again. And he would argue that the Conservative Party, which was traditionally the sort of party of sensible, grown-up national interest, is now itself looking inwards to a rather aging activist base, quite a right-wing activist base.

SIMON: U.S. election presidential campaigns, I think it's fair to say, run for a couple of years. This one is just a few weeks. What can change so quickly?

BALDWIN: Well, the usual conventional wisdom on this is that campaigns don't really change the underlying narratives very much. In recent years, that provincial wisdom has been challenged. Two out of the last four general elections, there's been significant movement during the campaign, and people think that this electorate is now very volatile. Back in 1997, when Tony Blair won, 70% of people always voted the same way. Now that proportion is about 30 to 40%. So just as Keir Starmer has flipped a 20-point deficit, which he had four years ago when he became Labour Party leader, into a 20-point lead in most opinion polls now, that lead can evaporate very fast because the electorate is so volatile.

SIMON: Conservatives have been in power for 14 years. Do voters just want to go in another direction, as they say?

BALDWIN: Change is always a very powerful slogan, and that's the single-word slogan Labour are using in this election. And it's easier to say after 14 years than after five or after 10. And what Keir Starmer is trying to say is, look, he has changed his party. He's changed his mind on some issues, but that means he can also change the country.

SIMON: What else might we expect from a Prime Minister Starmer, do you think?

BALDWIN: Well, it's going to be a very, very difficult economic inheritance and a very difficult international scene that he would come into Downing Street to have to cope with, whether it's Gaza, whether it's Ukraine, whether it's China, whether it's Russia, whether it's climate change or indeed, the possibility of, you know, a President Trump 2.0, which is causing a lot of concern here in the United Kingdom.

So this is not a sort of period of youthful unbound optimism. This is quite a dour Labour leader, in quite a dour time for this country, saying, we can fix some things, we can't fix everything. And I can't promise everything is going to get better immediately, but if we stick to these missions - that he talks about, these five national missions - we can maybe make a few things better.

SIMON: Tom Baldwin, who's author of the biography "Keir Starmer." Thank you so much for being with us, sir.

BALDWIN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.