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12 June 2024

What a historic Labour win will mean for Britain

The bigger Keir Starmer’s majority, the faster and more dramatic the impact of his government will be.

By Andrew Marr

The political columnist is a slippery fish. Some weeks we try to surprise jaded readers with a quick, unexpected turn – to change our minds on what we said just a few days ago, but in an interestingly vigorous way. Other weeks, we push on hard through the current, same direction, doubling down on a previous thought.

This week, though generally a torpid trout, I’d like to try to do both – to turn tail, and yet keep going. I’ve said before that “what if Labour wins really big?” is the most important current question. After another pell-mell week of Tory disintegration, that seems truer than ever. But I also suggested that Labour in power would be cautious. Now, in a sudden reverse, I disagree with myself.

Today’s set text comes from Carla Denyer, co-leader of the Greens, who said during a BBC leaders’ debate: “Angela Rayner says Labour has changed. She’s right. They have changed into the Conservatives.” That was smart and funny because it plays to the fears of radical voters dithering between Labour and the Greens.

But the more the evidence piles up that Labour is going to do very well in this election, the more its leadership is quietly determined to prove her wrong. One senior figure believes that a three-figure majority would give Labour 18 to 24 months of “enormous political space”.

The background remains one of the most catastrophic election campaigns run by any British party in recent times. Previous embarrassments – whether it be the 1983 Labour manifesto under Michael Foot, dubbed “the longest suicide note in history”, or the “nothing has changed” U-turn on dementia tax by Theresa May in 2017 – have nothing on Rishi Sunak hot-footing it back from the D-Day commemorations in Normandy to record a party-political hit-job TV interview.

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Having already offered the bracing prospect of military national service to Britain’s youth, and facing a lethal challenge from Nigel Farage’s brand of war-focused patriotic nostalgia, Sunak then compounded his grievous error by making robotic and unconvincing “sorry-not-sorry” apologies. It couldn’t have gone worse if Labour’s campaign director Morgan McSweeney had found a way of stealthily implanting a malign digital device behind the Prime Minister’s forehead.

Is it too early to write Rishi Sunak’s political obituary? No. Indeed, aghast ministers are now being forced to deny that their hapless leader will quit halfway through the campaign. That’s an idea so bonkers it’s hard to resist, but I don’t think it will happen. There is no mechanism for changing a party leader while parliament is not sitting – other than to let it fall to the deputy, which means that the Conservatives would be led, however briefly, by Oliver Dowden. Even this, I’m told, would be open to legal challenge: would Dowden be the prime minister as well, by default? With the greatest respect to him, I’m not sure that’s the route to sudden recovery.

One former cabinet minister tells me that for Sunak to lead them to an honourable defeat is one thing, but to go down in political history as the coward who deserts when the battle is fiercest would be intolerable. I think Sunak, if no natural politician, is not a coward; a “fighter not a quitter”.

He is also, however, the hapless human epilogue to a sprawling coalition of Conservative philosophies, from Cameron-era austerity to reckless Johnsonian populism and Trussite madness. None of these conservatisms even tried to grapple with Britain’s underlying weaknesses. They brought an unravelling of the public realm, the self-inflicted wound of Brexit and a new level of misbehaviour in public life. They left us weaker than ever, but that feels like history now. There’s no point gnashing our teeth about it – and given the state of NHS dentistry, gnashing would currently be an unwise experiment. Let us look forward.

The bigger the majority, the more space for political courage, and the greater the chance of success. Labour is likely to be facing a rudderless Tory opposition entangled in an existential debate about its own future. Moderate Tory MPs will feel intimidated by Faragist local parties, much as moderate Labour ones were by Corbynite activists eight or nine years ago. Leadership battles will be defined by whether or not the candidate would let in Farage. Yes, says Suella Braverman. No, says Kemi Badenoch. In his first year, maybe longer, Starmer will not face much of an opposition.

So, how does he use the space? First, economics. Once more, in his manifesto launch, Starmer has promised a so-called triple lock of no income tax, VAT or National Insurance rises. But, as her Mais lecture in March made clear, Rachel Reeves has been hard at work on other ways of finding the investment Britain needs. (It’s worth rereading the lecture, an entirely coherent response to Carla Denyer’s jibe – clear-eyed about the scale of the challenge Britain faces and amounting to a quiet revolution.)

There will be limited tax rises, around council tax bands, which desperately need reform, and would amount to a transfer of wealth from the English south to the rest of Britain; and on capital gains tax. This is important but will not amount to the big U-turn on tax for “working people” that Starmer and Reeves have ruled out.

In cash terms, organisational changes will be much bigger: the economist Will Hutton, whose recent book This Time, No Mistakes Starmer admires, has explained how the UK Infrastructure Bank’s £10bn sovereign guarantee to private companies investing in infrastructure can be extended without adding to public borrowing, in order to fund major Labour investment projects.

Then there’s changing the Bank of England’s rules to cut the interest it pays on the vast amount of money it created for quantitative easing over the past 15 years, down from the current 5.25 per cent.

This need not mean a loss of direction over interest rates; a similar shift is being used by other central banks. The change is opposed, apparently, by the current governor of the Bank, Andrew Bailey, so might require a change at the top. But Chris Giles of the Financial Times argues Reeves could free up around £23bn a year from this single change. Reeves as a campaigner has been caution personified, but she would be, I’m sure, a different kind of minister.

An even bigger question is over Europe. If – and I say, always, if – today’s polls are remotely like what happens in early July, there will be a period when a Labour government could reshape that debate. Given the turmoil across the Channel, particularly in France, we could be in a situation where both parties to the post-Brexit deal look and sound entirely different to how they did in 2016.

It would be extremely dangerous to break promises about returning to the EU. By the end of the first Labour government, it is perfectly possible that the opposition will be led by Nigel Farage, conservative England’s id in tweeded human form.

But does this rule out every possible form of new trading arrangement, or any acceptance of the European Court of Justice, however limited? Breaking promises is dangerous, but so is being over-timid and inattentive towards the anger and disappointment about Brexit, and missing a historic opportunity. I am picking up a lively conversation about a much more ambitious, generous and bolder approach to the EU than we have heard about so far.

This will be a process, not a moment. It will be important to a future government to be pushed by business into going further than the defence and security plans already made public. First, for “security” to embrace industrial defence resilience across Europe, and next, for it to spread to climate and environmental agreements.

And what then? I keep thinking about a conversation I had with Guy Verhofstadt, then the European parliamentary lead on Brexit, in February 2018. “What we want,” he told me, “is an association agreement. And in this association agreement there will be a free trade deal inside. Because we think that the future relationship with Britain needs to be broader than only trade and economics.”

Now, the European Court is already part of the Windsor framework. Labour people wonder whether, following a landslide victory, the country would be outraged by a further tack towards the EU? Boris Johnson has already sniffed the change in the air and, giving a good impersonation of an infuriated hedge, is warning of a sellout to come.

But the country has already changed its mind about his rotten Brexit deal, and there would be no opportunity like Labour’s first 18 months to improve relations with the giant market on our doorstep. As the EU grapples with the problem of enlargement to its east and populism at home, the notion of a more flexible, less monolithic EU of concentric or interlocking circles is growing in potency.

The challenge of a closer relationship between a Labour UK and the EU, freshly influenced by nationalist parties, remains enormous. But so is the opportunity for Britain to be part of a trading bloc, with the desperately needed growth that implies, but without having to engage in some of the increasingly toxic politics of Brussels.

I don’t know whether the language used will be similar to Verhofstadt’s “association agreement”, but I do know that a younger generation of European politicians sees things differently. They know that if relations with Britain are to improve, it has to happen quickly. They feel that the old federalist determination that Brexit must be shown to be difficult has already been accomplished. Both sides want to talk. Indeed, tentative conversations have already started.

So, when people say this campaign is changing nothing, it isn’t true. The deeper the collapse of the right and the bigger the Labour majority, the faster and more dramatic will be the impact of the coming government. There will be a change in culture and atmosphere that none of us can, yet, quite imagine.

This campaign is turning the fast-flowing river of British political life into full spate – an acceleration so fast and frothing it can be hard to follow. Keir Starmer has come a long way with a politics of cautious underpromising. But, as will soon become clear, that’s by no means the end of this story.

[See also: What if the polls are right?]

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This article appears in the 12 Jun 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The hard-right insurgency