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What if the polls are right?

A Labour landslide could change the politics of a future Keir Starmer government.

By Andrew Marr

This is all so odd; what if the psephology is right? If the polling companies are remotely accurate about this election, then it is less a routine electoral event than a gentle revolution – a great rejection of conservative English politics whose consequences will last long into the future. Where would this giant “if” take us?

Naturally cautious, we have been waiting, chewing our nails, for that poll lead to suddenly narrow. Early days, but so far it only wobbles, then, if anything, widens. Then – bang! Flash! – Nigel Farage enters, stage right. But  the pollsters’ job is only to take the current temperature, not predict the coming storm. With so many undecideds or hate-them-all-ers, in a weeks-long campaign, are these 20-point-plus leads just a blurred snapshot before the nation finally decides?

Certainly, I have talked to good people on both the Tory and Labour sides who tell me that “it doesn’t feel like a landslide out here”. Some Labour candidates report a wariness in doorstep conversations; a lack of eye contact; too few smiles. Some experienced Tory candidates don’t believe predicted Labour surges in areas where it has no councillors or activists, and report conversations along the lines of: “You don’t bloody deserve it, but I guess I’ll hold my nose and vote for you again.”

We must, I guess, beware anecdotage and stick to the facts. The Labour leads early in the campaign have been quite extraordinary and consistent; this really is a campaign like none I have covered in more than 40 years. They point to a majority in the hundreds. So that first question, too little asked so far, remains relevant: if we are on course for a seismic demolition of the Tories, what does that mean for the Britain of the next decade?

Does it imply that Brexit will be revisited after all? If the country had decisively turned its back on discredited, post-austerity Tory arguments over tax and spend, would Labour really stick to the old thinking for another four or five years? Spoiler: the answers are respectively no and yes. A shadow cabinet member told me recently that a larger than expected majority would “open up political space and allow the government to be a bit more radical”.

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These tantalising thoughts are hard for most Labour MPs even to consider yet. It’s too soon. And things can change: with little evidence that their attempts to win over pensioners who might otherwise go to Reform UK are working, the Tories may still change tack more dramatically.

There is a dim Aussie spectre hanging over the Labour lead, one that briefly spooked Tony Blair’s team back in 2001 as well. It is the spectre of a man called Wayne Goss, the former Labor premier of Queensland. Despite being well ahead in the polls, Goss came close to losing the 1995 Queensland state election after his conservative opponents warned voters of the danger of giving him a landslide: don’t give him too much power, don’t feed his arrogance. This worked so well his majority crumbled and he had to resign the year after.

If the huge poll leads don’t shift, can it be long before Rishi Sunak talks of the risk of giving Keir Starmer and Angela Rayner too much power? “Going Queensland” would be highly unorthodox, as it comes close to admitting defeat well ahead of polling day (and, as I write, Sunak isn’t there yet), but in this deeply unusual election, it is too late for orthodoxy. This is at least something to watch out for.

Let’s return to the bigger idea: that we are at a Zeitenwende that may give the next Labour government a huge majority and unexpected longevity – the ten years Starmer says he needs. How might that change the way he behaves in power?

The paradox is that, so far, Starmer acts with nervy caution when it comes to the public mood, but with something close to recklessness inside his party. After running into a wall of hostility over the Diane Abbott candidacy, he has pulled back a little bit on trying to cull the left, but his instincts remain very focused on middle Britain. The phrase “soft authoritarian” has been used to describe Starmer’s political instincts.

He seems to have concluded that the “hard left” doesn’t have the national support that would make him respect it. The numbers appear to back him up. Earlier this year, polling by Millbank/Opinium found only 6 per cent of UK voters identified themselves as “socialists”, 5 per cent “social democrats” and 8 per cent left-wing. But 25 per cent described themselves either as right-wing or as conservatives.

This might suggest that the team around Starmer are right to dismiss the anger on the left of the party about the treatment of MPs such as Lloyd Russell-Moyle and former candidates such as Faiza Shaheen. For most voters, membership of a “hard left” grouping might seem an abstruse internal question that doesn’t challenge their own identities.

But there is also evidence of strong support for socialist ideas bubbling under the surface among younger Britons. A poll commissioned two years ago by the Canadian Fraser Institute and the Institute of Economic Affairs found that the UK had higher support for socialism as “an ideal economic system” than the US, Canada or Australia.

Among Britons aged 18-34, support for socialism was at a remarkable 53 per cent. Mind you, let’s be cautious: in this group, support for communism was running at 29 per cent and fascism at 19 per cent. For many these are nebulous ideas, but asked what “socialism” meant, British people polled were particularly likely to use the sensible definition of the government owning the means of production.

Add to this the divisive community impact of the Gaza conflict and the growing potency of environmental ideas – in the Millbank poll, 8 per cent of people identified mainly as “environmentalists”. Together, they suggest that while banishing the hard left from the parliamentary party may have little impact on its performance in 2024, there is space to the left of a Starmer Labour Party to be utilised.

There are profound and justified economic grievances to be exploited. Whether that would lead to the left, with its enthusiastic traditions of splitting and traitor-hunting, to come together in a way that would have any impact on the British electoral system is a very different question. Can we imagine a fusion of George Galloway’s Workers Party with, say, Owen Jones and his campaign group, We Deserve Better? Given what Galloway has said about gay people and Jones’s livid response to his “toxic views”, this seems unlikely. There may be other, more plausible combinations.

What happens to the left of Labour also depends upon what Labour does in power. The bigger the majority, the greater the excitement among Europhile Rejoiners about a possible re-entry into the EU; and from socialists about the taxation of wealth to rebuild a more generous welfare state and NHS. Such enthusiasm might push the Tories towards the Queensland strategy.

All the premature optimists will need to calm down. The Starmer analysis remains all about rebuilding a broken, disillusioned and highly sceptical nation. Changing his position for a party audience is one thing, but making promises in this election to the voters and then breaking them in office would fuel public fury about the dishonesty of politics. In a world in which Farage may be the most powerful opposition voice, I really wouldn’t risk that.

So, I think, no going back into the single market or the customs union, never mind the whole shebang, before a second general election. This will be painful because it will put a lid on Rachel Reeves’ ambitions for growth – it has been one of the more disgraceful aspects of the contest so far that nobody wants to talk about the impact of Brexit. Labour will be as ambitious as it can be on sectoral deals, but has already overrated the warmth of the reception it will get in Brussels.

With no ideological hostility to closer relations, it is inevitable a future Labour government will use defence and security agreements as a back door for closer industrial relations. But that, plus some help for younger people wanting to move to and from the continent, is as far as change on the EU will go.

Economic policy is a bigger challenge. Growth remains the absolute touchstone of Reeves’ thinking, and she may well be right that simply having a consistent, calmly led government in power for a decade will make Britain a safe haven for investment and bring the private sector boost we need. But these things happen slowly. Ditto, any jobs boost from the Green Prosperity Plan.

The earlier years, therefore, look like the hardest ones. How do you convince voters that they have indeed made the “change” if waiting lists don’t shift because there is no money to resolve the junior doctors dispute? If local authorities don’t have the budget to pay more for social care workers while Yvette Cooper stops migrants from coming to take those jobs, what are the prospects for frail voters who have voted for “change”?

These and many other examples, no doubt, may test the mettle of the Starmer cabinet, and the patience of Labour voters, to breaking point next year. Something will give; let’s hope it comes with an extension of the fiscal rules to allow more borrowing, since all the taxes that would make a proper difference have already been ruled out.

Indeed, I cannot understand how either of the main parties can make such hard-edged promises about taxation and borrowing with a straight face. Stuff happens. Governments have to respond. If we face another pandemic, would a Labour government simply let businesses go under and refuse to support workers forced to stay at home under lockdown? If Russia breaks through in Ukraine and then turns against Lithuania, and energy prices spike again, would a Labour government allow people to shiver in fuel poverty through a bad winter? We elect a government to take decisions in the future, not a collection of bondage freaks who can’t move an inch in any direction.

These are things we cannot, it seems, talk about in a somewhat trivial electoral debate. There is almost a month left, but so far it’s hard to conclude that the campaign has measured up in any serious way to the challenges the country faces.

Where is the proper debate about the future of Britain’s armed forces, or how we would respond to a now quite likely second Trump presidency? But if the arguments have been comparatively trivial, the election will be consequential. For all the reasons I have given already, the polling may be quite far out. It does, however, feel as if we are coming to the end of a long period of Tory hegemony and that the world ahead, however dimly apprehended, will feel very different.

Different voices, different instincts and perhaps, in due course, a different media environment, too. For those of us who have found the past decade a depressing and wearisome slog, for all its disappointments, this summer already feels like one to treasure.

[See also: The left power list 2024]


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