LONDON (Reuters) - Keir Starmer, leader of Britain's main opposition Labour Party, has praised former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, a deeply unpopular figure among many Labour supporters, as he seeks to woo Conservative voters before an election expected next year.
Starmer, whose left-wing party is ahead of Prime Minister Rishi Sunak's Conservatives by some 20 points in opinion polls, is seeking to cement that advantage by broadening Labour's appeal to attract voters who have spurned the party in national elections over the past 13 years.
Thatcher, dubbed the "Iron Lady" by the UK press at the time, was Britain's Conservative leader from 1979 to 1990. She was an extremely divisive figure, hailed by some but loathed by many on the left for crushing trade unions and privatizing swathes of British industry. She died in 2013.
"Every moment of meaningful change in modern British politics begins with the realisation that politics must act in service of the British people, rather than dictating to them," Starmer wrote in an article for the Sunday Telegraph newspaper.
"Margaret Thatcher sought to drag Britain out of its stupor by setting loose our natural entrepreneurialism," he wrote, while also paying tribute to former Labour premiers Tony Blair and Clement Attlee.
While his message was designed to appeal to traditional Conservatives, it was also an attempt to distance himself from the politics of former Labour leader, veteran socialist Jeremy Corbyn, who in 2019 led the party to its worst defeat since the 1930s.
After hailing Thatcher, Starmer wrote that Labour had "changed dramatically in the last three years".
"I think the public will see this for what it is," Health minister Victoria Atkins told Sky News.
"Don't forget he wasn't appealing to Margaret Thatcher's entrepreneurial spirit when he was courting votes from the hard left," she said. "And I suspect the great lady herself would view a man who is trying to ride on the coattails of her success with the following words: 'No, no, no'."
(Reporting by Michael Holden; Editing by Bernadette Baum)