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5 July 2024

Labour has been sent a warning

If Keir Starmer doesn’t deliver the improvements that voters expect, the backlash could be ferocious.

By Andrew Marr

These things don’t happen often: when the country decides to turn its back on a political epoch and go in a different direction, it’s a moment of history. “Were you up for Truss?” And July 2024 will be remembered for a century. It allows Keir Starmer’s Labour to begin an audacious and incredibly difficult project of national rebuilding – in terms of public services, the economy and morale.

With our weak economy, anaemic growth and huge overseas challenges, this is a project that will require making enemies of many groups, taking hard decisions and enduring intense short-term unpopularity. On the shoulders of the largely untried, optimistic men and women who will take it on there is an enormous burden.

For the defeated Conservatives, it could have been worse: they merely suffered a shellacking, not a fatal wipeout. They, not the Liberal Democrats, are the official opposition. It was only a disaster, not a catastrophe. But as they try to rebuild they have an almost impossible, and perhaps existential, dilemma: do they fight Nigel Farage or embrace him? The thundering collapse of the previous Tory hegemony, with all its entitled, sloppy, heedless misbehaviour, and the return to power of a grimly determined Labour Party is our headline story.

But as the night wore on, it became increasingly clear there was another story, and an unsettling one. The surge of Reform wasn’t just limited to a few coastal seats or a few high-profile candidates, but gave the insurgent party second place in huge swathes of Labour England. Independents fighting on Gaza had some sensational results, whether defeating a shadow cabinet minister such as Jonathan Ashworth or coming within 528 votes of ousting Wes Streeting. Jeremy Corbyn shrugged off a resource-heavy challenge from Labour HQ with almost insolent ease. The Liberal Democrats have been reborn with 71 seats. The Greens had a pretty fine night with four. How do we make sense of all of that?

Here’s how. If the British electorate had an identity and personality, which of course it doesn’t, it would be saying to Labour: this is your huge builders’ mandate; here is your five years to prove yourselves. But take nothing for granted. Don’t swagger, stop listening or go back to top-down Westminster politics as usual. We have had enough. And if you don’t notice that message, you will come to regret it.

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I was reminded, in the small hours of the night, of Sir Hartley Shawcross and his terrible mistake. In politics, just sometimes, a single comment is so devastatingly self-revealing that it’s never forgotten. 

In April 1946, Shawcross, a Labour minister, who had been a prosecutor of the Nazis at Nuremberg, told Tory critics of his trade union bill, “We are the masters at the moment, and not only at the moment but for a very long time to come.”

Shortened by the press into “we are the masters now” it became a symbol of Labour arrogance after Clement Attlee had won his great victory over Winston Churchill. It feels freshly relevant today. Shawcross regretted it for the rest of his life.

Keir Starmer has won a huge and astonishing electoral victory. Following the Labour defeat of 2019 he was told he had to be, in effect, Neil Kinnock, John Smith and Tony Blair, covering their stretches of reform and rebuilding inside the party but in only two or three years; and that this was an impossible task.

His accomplishment of it was one of the most astonishing turnaround stories there has been in our political history. It will still be talked about in a century’s time. To achieve it, Starmer had to be ruthless, focused and impossible to deflect. 

It means that he now has much more freedom in office to fight the fights he needs in order to rebuild a broken and demoralised country in which “nothing works”. If he decides he needs more money by taxing capital gains, or inheritances, or reforming council tax, he can do that.

If he decides that to grow the economy more effectively he needs to accept European Court of Justice oversight, he can do that too. It would break a promise, but Labour politicians now mutter that perhaps it is possible to re-enter the customs union within one term.

This doesn’t mean that Starmer will do these things; only that he probably could, if he chose. A parliament with such a large block of Liberal Democrat MPs, making common cause with Labour ones, pushes all his options to the left. But, going back to that poisonous phrase, “we are the masters now”, Starmer would be wise to tread carefully. 

A lot of his job in this general election had, after all, already been done for him by the Conservatives – “austerity”, then the Brexit referendum and the Brexit wars, then the pandemic, and the corruption, and the trauma of the lockdowns, and then, following the spike in inflation caused by the Ukraine war, the disaster of the brief Liz Truss premiership, and after all that, Rishi Sunak’s failure to evolve and sell a new story about what the Tories were for. Put it together and season with the worst electoral campaign in modern political history and the size of the Labour majority almost explains itself.

As the night wore on, it became clearer this was not just a simple Tories-out, Labour-in story. The more we look in detail, the more this seems like the night of the great insurgency – a multi-sided protest and revolt against politics as usual. The British public was sending the political class, Labour included, a message which could be summed up as: we, not you, are the masters now, and for a very long time to come. 

Yes, they have given Labour the blank cheque Mr Sunak so vainly urged them not to. But it has a date by which it must be cashed, and if it doesn’t buy the improvements in ordinary life that working people expect, then in five years’ time the backlash will be ferocious.

[See also: The Conservatives invited this disaster]

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