The Insider

Labour has won. Now comes the hard part

With the opposition in crisis, and British politics at a pivotal moment, Starmer now has much to prove

July 10, 2024
Keir Starmer's first speech outside Number 10. Image: ZUMA Press, Inc / Alamy
Keir Starmer's first speech outside Number 10. Image: ZUMA Press, Inc / Alamy

The overwhelming triumph of Keir Starmer isn’t much affected—in terms of its significance or durability—by the relatively low turnout, or the historically low vote of just 33.7% for a majority-winning party.

For neither of these facts weakens or invalidates the size of his majority in the House of Commons, which is nearly as large as Tony Blair’s in 1997. And neither gives much succour to the opposition Conservative party, which last week clung on to enough seats to become the main opposition party. But it is weaker in both votes and seats than at any time in its history and could still be wiped out by a combination of Nigel Farage and the Lib Dems, irrespective of the unpopularity of the Labour government.

Obviously, the main determinant of politics in the next few years lies in Labour’s success or failure as a government. If Labour creates a narrative of competence and success, as in Blair’s early years, then it is probably invulnerable to any combination of its opponents. But if Labour becomes seriously unpopular, the existence of an alternative government becomes of paramount importance. It looks 50:50, at best, that the Conservatives will provide one at the next election.

The key point is that it perfectly possible for Labour to become unpopular while at the same time the Tories implode further. This would be the mirror image of the early years of the Thatcher government when Thatcher was besieged by economic woes, yet the Labour Party moved to the hard-left and split. In the early 80s, it looked as though Labour might be heading for extinction in the face of the centre-party alliance of the Liberals and Roy Jenkins’s new SDP, which attracted significant Labour defections. 

The post-election problems for today’s Tories are legion. They are not only weakened but deeply embittered and factionalised by the in-fighting of the last eight years since Brexit. They have no prospective leader of obvious talent, let alone one able to compete with Farage in the media. Many of their MPs, and maybe most of their activists, want to let Farage join the Tory party and become leader, an issue which could yet split the party entirely and cause MP defections to the Lib Dems and/or Labour. 

However, if the Tories don’t admit Farage, they face electoral guerrilla warfare with his Reform Party—as well as with the Lib Dems across provincial southern England.

Whatever happens to the Tories, Labour faces the same territorial battle with the Greens in the cities, Reform in its new heartlands in dispossessed areas, and possibly also with Muslim independents. The seeds of all these conflicts were sown in dozens of constituency battles last Thursday. Labour may face a far broader battle with the Lib Dems too, if they start becoming unpopular and Ed Davey’s army move into a sharply anti-Labour position. But I suspect all this only becomes existential for Labour if the Tories look like a viable government in 2028/9. 

If they fail to defeat or absorb Farage, and are further ravaged by the Lib Dems and Labour in the south, could the Tories become extinct? 

The historical parallel is with the Liberals, who nearly became extinct in the 1930s and 1940s, and had in effect to be re-founded as a party thereafter. In the case of the Liberals—like the Tories today—they were squeezed from both right and left and ultimately had too little space to operate within a first-past-the-post system. The other two parties became far larger, both making strong appeals to the liberal centre. 

The Tories last week avoided their equivalent of the 1924 wipe-out election for the Liberals. But it could yet come unless they can regain momentum with, or against, Farage.