Keir Starmer​ is now the central fact of British politics. He has achieved an extraordinary majority. His preferences and commitments will shape the country. He has ridden a wave of revulsion at Conservatism into Number Ten. Desire for change wore social democratic dress, but disgust is also anti-systemic: the depressed turnout and the success of pro-Gaza independents, Greens and Reform augur a far stormier first term than once expected.

It would be risible for Starmer to stand in Downing Street and invoke buoyant optimism. If this is a new dawn, it is an uncertain one. Starmer has been keen to remind voters of his ordinary upbringing and Everyman qualities, but he is evasive and mutable in his beliefs. His manifesto promised ‘change’, but its real commitments were sparse. Unlike Tony Blair, Starmer inherits a broken and dysfunctional country. Where Blair surfed a burgeoning economic boom and aspired to a frictionless world united under Visa, Starmer’s Britain is stuck in protracted accidie, economically DOA and beset by a deep – if justified – cynicism about politicians and the ability of the state to improve people’s lives.

Long delayed schadenfreude found its targets last night: Truss’s annihilation, Rees-Mogg’s obliteration, Shapps’s ejection. But too few of the real architects of broken Britain were still around for outright rejoicing. Labour’s victory has appeared inevitable for so long that it’s easy to understate how rapid and total the change has been, and how emboldened the party ought to be. Boris Johnson won the 2019 election with a majority of 80 and 44 per cent of the popular vote. Just five years later, with one constituency in the Highlands still to declare, Starmer’s Labour has won 412 seats – a majority of 175 – while the Tories clung on to just 121. Yet it is a loveless landslide and a weird result. First past the post distorts votes like a funhouse mirror: Labour gained 65 per cent of the seats on 34 per cent of the national vote, a vote share reminiscent of the embattled later Blair. The SNP were routed. Jeremy Corbyn, forced to run as an independent, was rightly returned in the face of party chicanery, a focus for a rudderless left. Socially conservative independents standing in support of Gaza claimed safe seats from Labour. The Greens claimed four seats, benefiting from left-wing disaffection. Millions of people voted for a party replete with racist candidates, putting Reform into second place across a swathe of strongly pro-Brexit Labour seats. The electoral system will grant them few seats but a powerful grievance. Yet Labour won. Tory rule is over.

The campaign was trivial. Neither party addressed the £20 billion of cuts to unprotected public services baked into current spending. The primary mode was assertion: Labour claimed it would solve social care, reanimate the economy, stay all strikes, revive the NHS, defang the housing crisis and rescue collapsing public services through sheer force of will, magical economic growth or the mysterious power of change. But certainly not by spending any money. An air of unreality descended, with most of the press dutiful collaborators. Unable to discuss the elephants crowding the electoral room, coverage devolved into a sputter of stories about Tory squalor and avarice, inconsequential gaffes and tired vox pops. Attention dwindled. The brightest and most improbable hope when trudging to the ballot box was that Labour had been pretending not to grasp the scale of the problem, and had a secret plan to solve it.

Rishi Sunak went downhill from his sodden announcement of the election date, reduced in his final days to begging the electorate not to give Labour a ‘supermajority’. Half of all voters, and a quarter of those who voted Tory in 2019, thought the party deserved to lose every seat it held. Given a commanding majority in the last election and the opportunity to remake the country, the Conservatives squandered their final term in office, piling failure upon failure. Any twinge of pity is easily assuaged by recalling the vast waste and gratuitous cruelty of Sunak’s Rwanda scheme. His humiliation is deserved.

Starmer has been fortunate in his enemies. His proscription of the Labour left was aided by its predictable descent into mutual recrimination after the 2019 catastrophe; he had an unusually free hand in remaking the party to his taste. His imposition of factional allies in prize seats, often to the chagrin of local activists, was intended to forestall any future rebellion. A succession of Tory prime ministers handed Starmer gifts: Johnson’s inclination for cronyism and scandal; Liz Truss’s kamikaze libertarianism; Sunak’s wealth and Silicon Valley cipher personality. All proved to be modes of flagrant misgovernment. Starmer’s victory has looked certain for months, but his personal approval ratings have never risen above lukewarm; they are unlikely to improve in office. In this election, it was enough to be the other guy.

The holding pattern is over: Starmer now has the opportunity to ‘roll up his sleeves’, as he has so often said he wants to do, and get to work. The manifesto lists five central missions – including delivering the highest sustained growth in the G7 and making Britain a ‘clean energy superpower’ – and six first steps, among them the imposition of tighter fiscal rules, the recruitment of a raft of new teachers and border guards, and the launch of Great British Energy. The imperatives are already pulling in different directions and the method remains mysterious. The Institute for Fiscal Studies scorned Labour’s spending plans as ‘tiny, going on trivial’; Andy Haldane, former chief economist at the Bank of England, ridiculed the notion that any of this could be achieved with an increase in spending amounting to less than a weekend’s GDP. Neither could be accused of being a sneering pinko.

Labour’s programme is curiously bifurcated: its diagnoses are trenchant, its remedies anaemic. The doubleness has a double cause: showy divestment from the party’s recent left-wing past (including Starmer’s own adherence to it) and an attempt to appeal to undecided voters. Many of the voters it targeted were to the right of British politics. Starmer’s weird jibe at Bangladeshi migrants, and his genuflection to transphobic panic – both late in the campaign, with victory already assured – were directed at this constituency. Clips of the former circulated widely on WhatsApp; combined with contempt for Labour’s moral cowardice and vacillation on Palestine, it helped lose the party seats in Leicester, Birmingham, Blackburn and Dewsbury, and smashed the majorities of Wes Streeting, Jess Phillips and Rushanara Ali, whose seat had been Labour’s second safest in 2019. Mutterings about sectarian or communal politics fail to see that Palestine is a catalyst for longstanding dissatisfaction with Labour, not least for its failure to oppose the two-child benefit cap.

Studied vacuity will be unsustainable. Labour will not retain all the historically Conservative seats it has won, many of them on narrow margins and aided by a split right-wing vote and widespread abstention. Jon Cruddas, one of few recent Labour MPs capable of independent thought, has described Starmer’s programme for Labour as an attempt to reforge the party’s traditional working-class regional base. Such an approach, as Cruddas acknowledges, jeopardises the strand of Labourism concerned with civil liberties and social liberalism, a trade-off he finds sad but ultimately acceptable. It is a generous reading of Starmerism, which has rarely seemed cogent either as philosophy or electoral strategy.

Labour’s vote has improved in efficiency rather than raw numbers, magnified by an unfair electoral system. The chief lesson of recent elections is widespread volatility and transactionalism: few seats are really safe anymore. As Cruddas would acknowledge, the shared values and consociational bodies – from churches to trade unions – that historically anchored the Labour vote have suffered secular decline. What if the Tories in 2019 had taken ‘levelling-up’ seriously, followed through on reforms to renting and housebuilding and actually built some hospitals? There are many reasons this was never likely to happen: Johnson’s laziness, his preference for rhetoric over delivery, the powerful rentier and client interests that comprise the Tories’ donor base, electoral core and political apparatus. Some 2019 seats weren’t retainable, but a more nakedly transactional approach to its voters – an attempt to get anyone under fifty to vote for them – would have seen them running Labour much closer in this election.

Unlike his predecessors in outright Labour victory – Attlee, Wilson, Blair – Starmer enters Downing Street without a firm electoral coalition. Labour’s share of the vote in England was virtually static, masked by a stunning increase in Scotland and much more efficient distribution. The internal politics of the new government will involve tense stand-offs between Labour MPs with Reform at their heels and those threatened by the Greens. Solidifying conditional Labour support usually means adopting regressive social stances, but work by YouGov suggests that 12 per cent of Labour’s vote is ‘naturally’ – that is, under a system without tactical voting – Green. A party tempted to give up on its climate commitments ought to keep that number pinned to its desk, next to a picture of Thangam Debbonaire. Starmer has said he wants a decade to transform Britain, but his electoral base is broad, not deep, and far from stable. Voters rank the NHS, cost of living, migration and housing as their most pressing issues. Putting down roots will involve spending money.

Labour benefited from a pliable media, which spent the final week of the campaign running adulatory guff on Starmer’s ‘no drama’ style or ‘quiet radicalism’. His political mutations and embrace of plutocrats went unmentioned. Diminished in influence, the Murdoch papers half-heartedly half-endorsed Labour, partly hoping to forestall any resumption of the aborted second part of the Leveson Inquiry, but mostly just accepting the inevitable. The backgrounds of Labour candidates were hardly probed, yet alongside the strong representation of charities and NGOs, the lobbying industry practically has its own party grouping; it would be canny to bet on lobbying as the focus of the first scandal of the Starmer years. Westminster correspondents were disinclined to press too hard on the gaps in the manifesto or investigate discontent over Gaza. If the outcome is a foregone conclusion, why make yourself unpopular?

Victory arrives as a shock because Labour is habituated to losing. It has spent two-thirds of the past century out of office and many of its incoming MPs lack parliamentary experience, let alone experience of government. Sue Gray’s appointment as chief of staff signals Starmer’s intent to make the government machine function, but it isn’t clear that he realises how dysfunctional, demoralised and hollowed-out its institutions have become. Gray has a formidable Westminster reputation, not least for her hostility to external scrutiny: the treatment of Freedom of Information will be an early indicator as to how far the Starmer government shares the authoritarian streak of its antecedents.

Nye Bevan once warned fresh Labour MPs that if ‘the past lies like an Alp on the human mind,’ then ‘the House of Commons is a whole range of mountains.’ He derided Westminster as a temple of conservative ancestor worship, a powerful social shock absorber designed to muffle and constrain its inhabitants. Governments often believe they can refashion the whole administrative body. But the demands that greet new ministers can force them into established patterns, no matter how dysfunctional or superficial. The five new boards intended to ensure the fulfilment of Labour’s missions will achieve little if they merely supervise a broken system. And diligence tips easily into the other Labour vice, conformism. As Sidney Webb, by then an ex-minister, reportedly wailed after Britain departed the gold standard in 1931: ‘They never told us we could do that!’

The situation may be so dire that conformism of any kind is implausible. Whitehall has drawn up a list of potential ‘black swan’ events that could upend the new government in its first year; many of them seem unsurprising, even likely: the collapse of the prison estate; the total failure of a hospital system during the now annual winter crisis; the financial collapse of one or more universities; a renewed spike in energy prices and interrupted food supplies. Wes Streeting faces serious strikes in the NHS (although he has said negotiations with junior doctors will begin immediately), themselves a prelude to industrial strife over public sector pay. A sane government would take this as a mandate for drastic intervention.

Britain is stuck​ in a doom loop. The economy isn’t growing, so the country is starved of the cash it needs to rebuild. Its institutions degrade. Money earmarked for investment gets swiped for day-to-day costs (schools and hospitals both have repair backlogs amounting to £12 billion). Failure to invest means failure to grow, again, and the cycle worsens and repeats. External shocks expose our weakness: Britain’s recovery from the financial crisis, the pandemic and the energy spike has been more protracted and less complete than in other advanced economies. The productivity problem that afflicts post-industrial economies in general is sharpened by rentier parasitism. Starmer has argued throughout the campaign that a return to growth is the only way to end the cycle. But growth cannot be achieved through finger-wagging, nor will it feed through to the Exchequer before the cuts bear down.

The doom loop isn’t the only problem facing the new government, but it renders all else intractable. Starmer has committed to hard borders and a revitalised Border Command. He has been reticent about immigration targets, which helped undo David Cameron. For liberal politicians, migration is a zugzwang: a state in which action is unavoidable, but any action makes the situation worse. Aggressive migration policies imperil the cheap labour on which Britain depends (especially in its health and care services), alienate the liberal left, risk scandalous miscarriages of justice and are usually ineffective. Explicitly pro-migration positions bring down the wrath of the press. Farage, ascendant, will scent blood either way.

One of Starmer’s first duties on entering Downing Street will be to write and sign the letters of last resort to the nuclear commanders. He soon heads to a fractious, uncertain Nato summit. He has professed his Atlanticist faith many times over, but it cannot be lost on him that by the end of this year he may be one of the most left-wing leaders remaining on the global stage. Reflexive support for Washington has torpedoed Labour prime ministers in the past; Biden’s support for Israeli atrocities in Gaza is a reminder that even apparently congenial presidencies can cause domestic headaches. Trump would be a greater headache still.

Labour is relying on two major green policies – Great British Energy and the National Wealth Fund – to bring about the social renewal needed to stem the rise of the populist right in Britain. Yet each is a shadow of the original proposal and woefully undercapitalised for the number of problems they are supposed to solve. GB Energy, in particular, is a chimera, with the extent of public ownership still unclear. Its exact design will be a cause of early internal strife for the government. Labour can’t afford to get this wrong: the far right have identified net zero, especially socially unjust transition, as a chief rallying point.

In her Mais Lecture earlier this year, Rachel Reeves deplored the Conservative failure to take advantage of the economic environment after 2008 as ‘an act of historic negligence’. She is right. The party should have borrowed to invest and introduced taxes on wealth. Her own reluctance to tax wealth irks the left, but in other respects the post-2008 window has closed. Many of the win-win options advocated by the left in those years depended on a monetary environment, including reliably low interest rates, that no longer exists. The areas of economic policy that most require reform are also the kill zones of British politics: inflated housing assets and the raft of monetary indulgences for pensioners. But what’s a majority for?

Reeves’s current plan is to ‘get BlackRock to rebuild Britain’, using public money to ‘derisk’ investment in infrastructure and energy generation: effectively using the state to guarantee private profits. We have been here before. Labour’s last love affair with private finance gave us crumbling schools and contractual extortion; tying a new infrastructural revolution to private capital risks beggaring future generations too. Starmer occasionally cites Wilson’s attempt to draw private capital into long-term national strategy as an inspiration. But if this was briefly plausible with industrial capital, which had an obvious interest in the nation’s basic functioning, there is no reason to believe it will work with finance capital. BlackRock does what’s best for BlackRock, not for Britain.

Conservative warnings about a Labour ‘supermajority’ were constitutionally meaningless: the UK’s overpowered executive can enforce great change with tiny majorities. Select committees will be overwhelmingly Labour. The size of the parliamentary party, longstanding disquiet from Black MPs and contradictory threats from a progressive left and a nativist right will make political management a problem. Meanwhile, the Tory rump will enter its wilderness years riven with arguments about Faragism. Public office will not fetter Farage; he will use his time in Westminster to exploit his press collaborators, witting and otherwise, into dragging British politics further to the right. The real threat in 2029 will be if Reform can endure long enough to find a less divisive successor.

Thatcher said that she felt a deep loneliness on entering Number Ten. Blair said the first emotion he felt after the black door closed was fear. Both grasped the magnitude of the office. Keir Starmer has the most daunting task of any postwar Labour prime minister: the recovery of a comatose economy, a collapsing state, a cynical and exhausted electorate. The stakes could not be higher.

5 July

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