Image Source : REUTERS Labour leader Keir Starmer, widely expected to defeat Rishi Sunak in UK’s July 4 elections.

London: The electoral race in the United Kingdom has heated up as British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak clashed with his opponent Keir Starmer from the Labour Party in a fiery debate ahead of the July 4 contest that Sunak’s Conservatives are widely expected to lose – and lose badly. Starmer, 61, who has often been described as managerial and even a bit dull, is the current favourite to become the next PM.

Starmer did not hold back as he fired on Sunak over immigration, economy and the ongoing betting scandal that has stung the Tories’ already beleaguered chances. Despite being ahead of Sunak in opinion polls, Starmer also faced criticism for appearing too ‘robotic’ and sticking to a script, while his party faced antisemitism allegations.

Starmer and Sunak launched highly personal attacks against each other and their parties in the debate, with the Labour leader arguing that the country was exhausted after 14 years of Conservative “chaos”, and that he would better understand the challenges of many families who have struggled under soaring inflation and a cost of living crisis. He also said Sunak was far too rich to understand the concerns of ordinary Britons.

Who is Keir Starmer?

Starmer has spent four years as opposition leader dragging his social democratic party from the left towards the political middle ground. He has assured the British population of change under the Labour government after 14 years, a change when people are suffering from a cost-of-living crisis and stuck with troubled access to healthcare.

“A vote for Labour is a vote for stability — economic and political,” Starmer said after Prime Minister Rishi Sunak called the election on May 22. He will become the first Labour PM of the UK if the opinion polls predicting a thumping victory for his party does come true. However, Starmer was very close to resigning as the leader of the Labour Party after a humbling loss in a local election in 2021.

Born in 1963, Starmer is the son of a toolmaker and a nurse who named him after Keir Hardie, the Labour Party’s first leader. He was one of four children and was raised in a poor household in a small town outside London. “I know what out of control inflation feels like, how the rising cost-of-living can make you scared of the postman coming down the path: Will he bring another bill we can’t afford?’,” he said during his campaign.

Furthermore, Starmer’s mother suffered from Still’s disease, a chronic illness that left her in pain. Starmer has said that visiting her in the hospital and helping to care for her helped form his strong support for the state-funded National Health Service. Despite the tough conditions, he was the first member of his family to go to college and study law at Leeds University and Oxford.

Legal career and political life

Starmer practiced human rights law before being appointed chief prosecutor for England and Wales between 2008 and 2013. He was described as a “lefty London lawyer” and was knighted for his role in leading the Crown Prosecution Service. Starmer often highlights his humble upbringing and relatable credentials in contrast to Rishi Sunak, who is an ex-Goldman Sachs banker married to the daughter of billionaire Narayan Murthy.

He entered politics in his 50s and was elected to Parliament in 2015. He agreed to serve under former party leader Jeremy Corbin, despite having frequent arguments with him. Starmer became Labour’s Brexit spokesperson under Corbyn, who led the party to election defeats in 2017 and 2019. Starmer took over from Corbyn in 2020.

Starmer has won support by presenting himself as what one senior party member said was a “decent, if a bit of a boring, bloke”. Four years later, Starmer has consolidated the support of his party by attacking Conservative infighting, restoring discipline in his own party, pushing Labour closer to the political centre and running a steady campaign for the upcoming election.

Starmer’s understated style has proved a strength for Labour as scandals, policy U-turns and plotting among the Conservatives diminished the governing party’s standing. Starmer now oversees a changed party that looks set to take power in a country facing problems ranging from a creaking public health service to a long-running cost of living crisis.

Challenges faced by Starmer

The Labour leader imposed discipline on a party with a reputation for internal division by ditching some of Corbyn’s more overtly socialist policies and apologising for antisemitism that reportedly spread under his predecessor. He was a strong opponent of Britain’s decision to leave the European Union, though now says a Labour government would not seek to reverse it.

At the party’s conference in October, he showed a flash of passion, telling cheering delegates: “I grew up working class. I’ve been fighting all my life. And I won’t stop now.” He also showed remarkable composure when a protester rushed onstage and showered Starmer with glitter and glue. Some have likened this election to 1997, when Tony Blair led Labour to a landslide victory after 18 years of Conservative rule. Even if he lacks Blair’s charismatic appeal, his approach is welcomed by the populace enduring years of turmoil under Conservative rule.

Now, Starmer will inherit a government with the worst economic situation of any incoming government since World War II. He is already banking on two terms – a period of up to 10 years – to boost economic growth and increase tax receipts so Labour can help a public sector he says has been starved by years of Conservative austerity. However, increasing taxes is a risky venture that also involves public debt.

(with inputs from agencies)

ALSO READ | ‘Will you do a deal with Taliban?’: Rishi Sunak clashes with Labour’s Keir Starmer in fiery debate | WATCH