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5 July 2024updated 07 Jul 2024 7:44pm

Labour’s precarious triumph

The party’s landslide is astonishing – but it is replete with warnings.

By George Eaton

After one of the worst defeats in its history, Labour has achieved one of its biggest victories. By any measure, this is a remarkable feat. Upon becoming leader in 2020, Keir Starmer observed that he had to do the work of Neil Kinnock, John Smith and Tony Blair in a single term. Against the odds, he delivered. 

A popular theory holds that Starmer has merely been a “lucky general” – the beneficiary of the Conservatives’ self-destruction. But his success reflects skill as well as fortune. Starmer recognised that his party would not win again until it was trusted on the economy and national security – and focused relentlessly on these aims. The British electorate is far from infatuated with Labour but, crucially, it isn’t scared of it either. As a consequence, the Tories’ traditional fear tactics proved futile. 

And yet, though Labour has won over 400 seats (coming close to Blair’s 418 in 1997), this triumph feels unusually precarious. In part this is because of the disparity between Labour’s vote share – just 34 per cent – and its seat share (around two-thirds). This reflects a conscious strategic choice: to focus on vote efficiency rather than scale. Under first past the post, as campaign director Morgan McSweeney understands, ruthless targeting is the key to victory. Jeremy Corbyn may have won 40 per cent of the vote in 2017 but he garnered just 262 seats (only four more than in 2010) as Labour piled up “wasted votes” in urban centres. Yet while Starmer’s party will be hegemonic in parliament, it may struggle to claim that it truly speaks for the country. The average seat majority is now around 6.700, down from 11,200 in 2019.

It isn’t only this rather muted endorsement that has marred Labour’s landslide. In a cluster of seats, the party was outright rejected. Labour was beaten by independent candidates in Blackburn, Dewsbury and Batley and Leicester South (lost by the shadow cabinet member Jon Ashworth) as voters protested over the war in Gaza. Starmer’s LBC interview shortly after the 7 October Hamas attacks – in which he suggested that Israel had the right to withhold water and power from the Strip – has proved one of the most politically damaging in history. Wes Streeting, soon to become health secretary, held on by just 528 votes in Ilford North; Jess Phillips survived by only 693 in Birmingham Yardley. 

In Islington North, where Labour grandees including Peter Mandelson, Neil Kinnock and Tom Watson joined the fight, Jeremy Corbyn secured a comfortable victory with a majority of 7,247. The Greens’ Carla Denyer, as long anticipated, ousted shadow culture secretary Thangam Debbonaire in Bristol Central. These victories mean that the radical left, however marginal, will remain a presence in the next parliament. (George Galloway’s defeat in Rochdale by the former lobby journalist Paul Waugh offered Labour some consolation.) 

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But of far greater concern to Starmer’s team will be the presence of Nigel Farage – who won an emphatic majority of 8,405 in Clacton. Having inflicted grievous harm on the Conservatives, he will now turn his attention to Labour. In seats such as Barnsley North, Barnsley South and Hartlepool, Reform has established itself as the challenger to Starmer’s party. New MPs already speak of their fear that Farage will be the beneficiary of midterm blues.

As a consequence, though the seat numbers mirror 1997, the atmosphere is entirely different. One is even reminded of 2005 when Labour was similarly punished over Middle East policy (the Iraq War). At the time of Blair’s first victory, just one lone independent (Martin Bell) was elected on an anti-sleaze platform. But in this new era of multi-party volatility, Labour sees threats at every turn: the Greens on the left, Reform on the right, even an unexpected Conservative recovery (a party beaten but not wiped out). 

Though Starmer aspires to a “decade of national renewal”, he and his strategists know that his victory could be swept away in a single term. The pressure to deliver fast results on the economy, public services, immigration, housing and crime will be immense. Labour’s landslide is astonishing – but it is replete with warnings.

[See also: The Conservatives invited this disaster]

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