Labour's win gives Britain a chance
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Labour's win gives Britain a chance

Labour Party leader Keir Starmer delivers a victory speech yesterday during an election night results watch event in London. (Photo: Bloomberg)
Labour Party leader Keir Starmer delivers a victory speech yesterday during an election night results watch event in London. (Photo: Bloomberg)

Ever since Rishi Sunak's rain-sodden announcement to call a general election on July 4, one question has hung over British politics: Will Labour win by a landslide or just a regular majority?

The BBC exit polls published at 10pm Thursday suggested it would indeed be a landslide, predicting Labour to win 410 seats in the 650-seat parliament, the Conservatives 131, the Liberal Democrats 61, Reform 13, the Scottish National Party 10, Plaid Cymru 4 and Green 2.

Early yesterday morning, Labour passed the 326 seats needed for a House of Commons majority. Votes were still being counted, but the overall outline is clear. Keir Starmer wins a historic victory, perhaps the second-biggest for the party after Tony Blair's 179-seat majority in 1997. The Conservative Party may have secured both the lowest share of the vote and the lowest seat tally in the party's history, bringing a humiliating end to 14 years of Conservative rule.

This election was much more an anti-Conservative election than a pro-Labour one. There was none of the excitement that surrounded Mr Blair and New Labour or even Jeremy Corbyn in 2015-2019. Rather, it's been more a sullen determination to get rid of the Tories by whatever means necessary, including a large amount of tactical voting, which is a relative rarity in the British system.

It is also likely that Labour's huge majority will rest on a narrow share of the electorate. The right-of-centre vote split between the Conservatives and Reform. The Liberal Democrats have done well. This contains a warning: The electorate might quickly turn against Mr Starmer if he fails to deliver the improvements he has promised. In broken Britain, anti-incumbency is king.

Yet, whatever qualifications you offer, a landslide is still a landslide.

When the Labour grandee Hartley Shawcross declared in 1946 that "we are the masters now", Labour had a majority of 145; after yesterday, Labour's Westminster dominance will most likely be significantly bigger than that. The shattered Conservative Party will be consumed by faction fighting between the ultras, who argue that they lost because they were not pure enough and moderates who want to move back to the centre -- a fight that will be all the more toxic with Nigel Farage, the leader of the Reform Party, just elected as MP in Clacton. The Liberal Democrats are broadly supportive of Labour's plans. But more important is that the Whitehall machine, which leans left and is fed up with Conservative chaos, will be delighted by a Labour victory.

What can we expect from Britain's new masters? Labour has been careful to preserve the maximum degree of freedom of manoeuvre by giving vague answers to important questions. Mr Starmer remains something of an enigma even after six weeks in the limelight of an election campaign. But three things are clear.

The first is that New Labour will be a force for stability. Mr Starmer exercises ruthless control over the party machinery. His first priority after winning the leadership was to root out the hard left, which he did with admirable ruthlessness, including expelling Corbyn himself (who stood as an independent candidate for his old seat of Islington North). But in de-Corbynising the party, he also Starmerised it, putting his own people in positions of power and establishing complete control of the selection process for parliamentary candidates. The one thing that the vast crowd of incoming MPs has in common is that they are loyal to the party leader.

This stability is a sharp contrast to the chaos of the Conservative years, which have been more like a merry-go-round than a serious exercise in government: five prime ministers, one of whom lasted just 49 days, seven chancellors, eight foreign secretaries and 16 housing ministers. Theresa May was crippled in her attempt to craft a Brexit deal by her lack of a majority. Boris Johnson had a majority but had no aptitude for government.

This new stability is also in contrast to the chaos in much of the democratic world. In America, the chances of a second Donald Trump administration are increasing. In France, the political system faces paralysis. In Germany, the government is weak. Britain's relative newfound stability could make it an attractive refuge for capital and turn Mr Starmer into a leader among the dwindling band of defenders of the liberal order.

The second clarity is a more conciliatory attitude to Europe and global institutions. Mr Starmer has ruled out any attempt to rejoin the Single Market or the Customs Union any time soon, let alone the European Union. Brexit will not be undone, not least because the electorate will not endure a repeat of the political nightmare that the referendum entailed, even in reverse. But Mr Starmer is by training a human rights lawyer who believes in the international liberal order, and by instinct an institutionalist who believes in solving problems through collaboration and due process. His biggest problem may well be that he is too rules-focused in a Europe increasingly dominated by national populists and dealmakers.

The third is that Labour will take a pragmatic approach to government. Mr Starmer is not interested in grand visions or ideological templates. He's taken lots of advice about how government works from Mr Blair, for example, and may well recruit staff from the Tony Blair Institute, but he's refused to mimic his predecessor's enthusiasm for pro-market reforms.

The Labour leader has made it clear that he will focus on one problem above all others -- improving Britain's dismal growth rate. But he will approach that from different directions and different intellectual traditions -- building houses as well as creating a national energy company, and improving training as well as reforming planning. Tom Baldwin, his biographer, likens his leadership style to a ratchet: He focuses on solving particular problems and then works outward from there, iteratively but relentlessly. The vagueness of his aims may well be coupled with the precise logic of his chosen cogwheels.

There is much to worry about in all this, as I have argued before. Mr Starmer's party is rooted firmly in the public sector. His powerful chief of staff, Sue Gray, for example, is a former civil servant whose only private-sector experience comes from running a pub in Northern Ireland. Mr Starmer's education policy is redolent of the old Labour of class resentment and levelling down.

But perhaps before worrying, we should allow ourselves time for celebration. Mr Starmer is well-positioned to restore some energy to a British government machine that has been plagued by division and chaos in the centre. He is focused on the issue that matters above all others -- improving growth rates and, therefore, providing the wherewithal to fund public services and improve living standards. And he stands a good chance of restoring global respect for a country that has too often in recent years become a laughingstock.

With a towering majority, a well-disciplined team and a ruthless instinct for power, Mr Starmer is in a good position to restore some of the respect the Tories have gone out of their way to destroy. ©2024 Bloomberg

Adrian Wooldridge is the global business columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. A former writer at the 'Economist', he is author of 'The Aristocracy of Talent: How Meritocracy Made the Modern World'.

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