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5 July 2024

Labour’s landslide will transform British politics

After a decade dominated by the right, influence will move towards the centre left.

By George Eaton

The Labour Party is returning to government. After the party’s epic defeat in 2019 – its worst result since 1935 – some believed it was destined for eternal opposition. In a less tribal era of multi-party politics, Labour’s very existence was questioned. But not for the first time, rumours of its death proved much exaggerated. 

What accounts for this transformation in a single parliamentary term? A popular theory is that Keir Starmer has been a “lucky general”: Boris Johnson and Liz Truss destroyed their own premierships; the inept Rishi Sunak was tortured by his. Yet Tory failure – as much of the preceding 14 years demonstrates – has never been a guarantee of Labour success. Starmer may have been gifted political opportunities but not all leaders would have exploited them. 

For much of the last four years, he has been deluged with advice: oppose lockdown, reject Brexit, form a progressive alliance, veer left, veer right. Having rejected all of the above, Starmer can own this victory. 

There was nothing inevitable about the stampede of voters away from the Conservatives. When Sunak called a general election it was in the hope, and even the expectation, that the more voters saw of Starmer, the less they would like him. In the event, his ratings improved. Though Starmer has never come close to matching those of that other landslider, Tony Blair, he is now as popular as Boris Johnson was in 2019. The common assumption that voters disdain Starmer and Sunak in equal measure is unsupported by the data.

Though alternative Labour leaders could have defeated the Conservatives, not all would have made the British electorate feel so intensely relaxed about their demise. Starmer’s Labour didn’t just lead in the headline opinion polls, it led on the fundamentals: leadership, economic management, national security. Ask yourself whether the Labour leader’s rivals could have achieved the same and his success becomes clearer. 

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Despite the Tories’ best efforts, voters never feared a Starmer government. In 2015, dreading a “coalition of chaos” between Labour and the SNP, Liberal Democrat and Labour voters defected to the Conservatives. In 2017 and 2019, Jeremy Corbyn gave them ample reason to remain. This time around, presented with the reassuring Starmer, the rationale for sticking with the Tories disintegrated. 

“Change” was the leitmotif of Labour’s campaign, but how much of it will voters see? Cynics from left and right are primed to declare that the new boss is the same as the old boss. Having argued that “stability is change”, Labour has no interest in casting itself as a revolutionary army. 

But change will come – and in some areas swiftly. A Labour government will overhaul antiquated planning laws, tax private schools, introduce the biggest programme of workers’ rights for decades, establish the publicly-owned GB Energy, renationalise the railways, ban new North Sea oil and gas licences, reduce the voting age to 16 and seek to sign a UK-EU defence and security pact. The manifesto was a work of quiet radicalism, concealed by a cautious campaign.

Rather than the totemic Attlee and Thatcher administrations, a more illuminating comparison may be with the Conservative-Liberal Democrat government of 2010-15. Such was its legislative hyperactivity that it was nicknamed the “breakneck coalition”: George Osborne’s austerity programme, Michael Gove’s education reforms, Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit and the expansion of renewable energy. Indeed, Labour’s incoming cabinet has been studying Gove’s strategy as a model of how to deliver transformative change. 

Beyond policy, the UK’s wider political ecosystem will be reshaped. For 14 years, intellectual debate has been defined by the reality of a Conservative government. Think tanks such as Policy Exchange, the Institute of Economic Affairs and the Centre for Policy Studies have long enjoyed the ears of ministers. Austerity, Brexit, “Trussonomics” – all of these projects have been shaped by the ideological right.

Under Labour, alternative institutions – IPPR, the Resolution Foundation, the Tony Blair Institute, Common Wealth, UCL Policy Lab – will come to the fore. Trade unions, marginalised by successive Conservative administrations, will be embraced as social partners alongside business. 

The scale of Labour’s victory means that opposition within the party will be more significant than that from the rump Conservatives. Rather than the defeated radical left, watch the influence of the party’s more pragmatic soft left. Divisions over the two-child benefit limit, spending cuts, public sector pay and arms sales to Israel will be early tests of Starmer’s administration.

All politicians are the same – this is the lazy consensus that has taken hold in recent years. But Starmer will lead a cabinet that is the most state-educated in history (only 10 per cent of the shadow cabinet attended private school and 84 per cent attended comprehensives) and one of the most working class in history: Angela Rayner, Rachel Reeves, David Lammy, Wes Streeting, Bridget Phillipson, Jonathan Reynolds and Starmer himself. 

While New Labour heralded a post-class era – “I want to make you all middle class,” declared Tony Blair in 1999 – Starmer speaks of working-class pride, and shame. He has put the dignity of labour back at the centre of political debate. As Clement Attlee remarked of his foreign secretary Ernest Bevin: “There was class consciousness in his nature: no class hatred. People are inclined to get the two confused.” One could say the same of much of Starmer’s cabinet. 

A Labour government will face immense challenges: an insurgent populist right; a volatile electorate; a crumbling public realm; a darkening geopolitical climate. But does it represent change? Even before it has passed a single bill, the answer is yes.

[See also: The Conservatives invited this disaster]

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