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Britain’s gentle revolution

Labour has benefited from years of Tory misrule, but does it have the capacity to deliver national renewal?

By New Statesman

Rishi Sunak called a general election in the belief that this would improve his party’s dismal fortunes. As the choice between the Conservatives and Labour became clear, the logic ran, voters would return home.

Yet a fortnight later, the reverse has happened. Rather than shrinking, Labour’s average poll lead has grown (to around 22 points). This is not for want of the Tories trying. They have announced policies including national service for 18-year-olds, tax cuts for pensioners and 100,000 new apprenticeships. But this scattergun approach has failed to win over an electorate that is fundamentally weary of Conservative rule.

The Tories are now facing one of the worst defeats in their history. A seat-by-seat YouGov poll published on 3 June found that they would be left with just 140 MPs, their lowest total for more than a century. Labour, by contrast, would win 422 MPs, its highest number in history.

Should such polls be accurate, as Andrew Marr writes on page 20, “the summer of 2024 will be remembered less as a routine electoral event than as a gentle revolution”. British history is replete with such moments: the Liberal landslide of 1906, Clement Attlee’s victory in 1945, Tony Blair’s triumph in 1997. Yet on each occasion, the defeated party has defied reports of its death.

Could this time be different? Nigel Farage’s decision to become leader of Reform UK and to stand for election in Clacton – where polls suggest he could win – has heightened the threat to the Tories. Rather than merely ensuring the Conservatives are defeated, Mr Farage’s ambition is to effect a post-election takeover (as the former Tory cabinet minister David Gauke writes on page 24).

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Fewer than five years have passed since the Conservatives won their highest share of the vote since 1979. But in an era of electoral volatility, parties are inherently vulnerable. Over the past decade, the collapse of the Liberal Democrats and Scottish Labour – both now recovering – has demonstrated as much.

A Labour landslide would prompt renewed discussion of British democracy. The first-past-the-post system, which allows parties to win vast majorities on a minority of the vote, would be subject to renewed scrutiny. Lord Hailsham’s warning of an elective dictatorship – enabled by the Westminster model – is already being invoked.

For Labour, a victory of this magnitude would impose a special responsibility. In this week’s issue, we publish our annual Left Power List: a guide to the 50 most influential people in progressive politics. Keir Starmer and his team have benefited from Tory misrule, but do they have the capacity to deliver national renewal?

Shadow cabinet ministers already fear a swift backlash if their party fails to meet expectations in office. Rather than an emblem of change, Mr Starmer will be cast as part of a failed establishment. Beyond this election, Mr Farage’s return to the political front line is a threat to Labour as well as the Conservative Party. In Europe, through politicians such as Italy’s Giorgia Meloni and France’s Marine Le Pen, this brand of hard-right nationalism is thriving.

For Labour, the Tories’ fate is both an opportunity and a warning. In an era of political upheaval, the price of power is eternal vigilance.

Rob Burrow, 1982-2024

Rob Burrow, who has died aged 41 from motor neurone disease (MND), was an inspirational rugby league scrum-half for Leeds Rhinos and Great Britain. He was physically small – only 5ft 5in – but thrived in a brutal and physically demanding sport because of his speed, strength and indomitable spirit. Throughout his illness – he was diagnosed in 2019, two years after retirement – the married father of three young children showed remarkable courage as he set about raising millions of pounds for MND research. Supported by his great friend and former teammate Kevin Sinfield, who ran a series of gruelling ultramarathons to raise funds for MND charities, Burrow inspired many, including Prince William, who paid tribute to him this week for his example and charitable efforts. To see Sinfield carrying his stricken friend in his arms, as if he were an infant, was to be profoundly moved by their collective work and friendship. “Supporting Rob Burrow is the reason why I’m on this Earth,” Sinfield said. We salute them both.  

[See also: Britain’s long search for growth]

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This article appears in the 05 Jun 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Left Power List 2024