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6 July 2024updated 08 Jul 2024 9:46am

Labour’s house of cards

The party’s support is broad but shallow. It shouldn’t rest easy.

By Ben Walker

Remarkable: one third of the vote, two thirds of the seats. This is the most effective distribution of the Labour vote in the party’s history. The chief campaign strategist, Morgan McSweeney, should take a bow.

Let’s get back to reality, though. There are few safe seats now for the party – the machinery has inherited several marginals. The best way of interpreting this is that Labour in 2024 has great spread, but no deep roots. There has been a rude awakening in areas with a large Muslim vote. And Reform is breathing down its necks, namely in less-affluent constituencies in the urban north. The Labour landslide of 2024 is a magnificent house of cards. How easily might it be felled?

The party’s advances in Conservative battlegrounds came in almost exactly the way we forecasted. Take, for example, the likes of Aldershot, the Ribble Valley, and Bracknell. All were identified as potential Labour targets after recent local elections. They swung just as expected – Labour rosettes all round. Meanwhile, the party benefited from well-wrought tactical voting in Scotland. The Scottish National Party was tipped to win around 20 seats. Instead it came away with nine. In Wales, Labour advanced, but saw little improvement in overall support. Their gains were thanks to Tory collapse rather than Labour surge. In fact, with the exception of East Clwyd, Labour’s vote retreated across the constituent nation.

So, as Labour “turns the page” on 14 years of Conservative government, we have to wonder how sustainable this really is. The scale of the win suggests it can surpass just one term. The Conservatives are too incapacitated to appear threatening for now. But the dramatic swing from the Tories’ Thatcher-esque win in 2019 to the Blairite surge in 2024 should be evidence enough alone that it can always go the other way. Too many seats were won on middling support for the party to rest easy on the next election: the proportion of those won with a margin of five points or less has doubled since 2019; the number of seats won with a majority of fewer than a few hundred votes has tripled; a litany of newly minted Labour MPs will go to parliament with the support of just three in ten of their constituency electorate. There will be many sweaty brows in Labour HQ tonight.

The threat is multifaceted but Reform will be the cause of much handwringing. The party’s voters are not coherent – their manifesto views are like pinball. But the cohort behind Reform’s insurgency are looking to rally against the system and shake things up. Following the rise of Ukip (but its failure to return seats) and Brexit (mainly the glut of the electorate that still feels betrayed by its delivery) it is not hard to understand why there is antipathy to the establishment, represented by the Cameroons and now Keir Starmer’s Labour.

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Reform can be an everything-on-the-right party. There are 155 Labour seats that were won thanks to the Tory vote being gutted by more than 60 per cent by an ascendant Reform. How much would it take for the party to wrap up what remains of the Tories to organise and push out a Labour incumbent at the next election? Perhaps not that much. Reform received about as many votes in the so-called Red Wall as the Conservatives did in 2019. If one becomes (or continues to become) an imitation of the other then it is clear that the right-wing vote will not be split forever.

The Tories could tack rightwards in the months to come. With a unity ticket this could be formidable. But if Labour is smart – and it very well might be – it could beat this pair at their own game. Labour could rally enough votes from the so-called progressives to totally snuff the right wing. That is, of course, assuming the party’s appeal will sustain in government.

These are future anxieties. Labour is strong for now, on a tall and impressive base. But the party faces fresh threats. How it approaches them – most concerning is Farage’s impertinent and looming presence – will define the currents of British politics for the foreseeable.

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