He won the votes, now Starmer just needs to win over the people | Jonathan Freedland

The hand of history rested only lightly on their shoulders, but they could not shake it off completely.

The 200 or so volunteers, activists and campaign aides – with one Sue Gray tucked in among them – who lined Downing Street to see in a new, Labour prime minister knew they were there, in part, as extras in a historical re-enactment.

With their union flags and hoarse cheers, they were replaying a scene etched in Labour folk memory: that glad, confident morning in May 1997 when Tony Blair made his way to No 10 through a throng of supporters having won a landslide victory.

The memory was inevitable, and not only because the overall majority won by Keir Starmer is uncannily close to the 179-seat number that put Blair in the record books.

The echo of 1997 struck because everyone present – starting with Starmer himself – understood that what the country had just witnessed was an event of vanishing rarity.

Until the early hours of Friday morning, Labour had only twice before ousted an incumbent government by winning a clear, viable majority of its own: 1997 and 1945. That is it. (Harold Wilson ejected the Tories in 1964 and 1974, but he did it with majorities you could count on one hand.)

When it comes to general elections, Labour’s default setting is to lose, lose and lose again. Not for nothing were Labour families urging their teenagers to stay up late on Thursday night, explaining that what was about to unfold in July 2024 was a once- or twice-in-a-lifetime occurrence.

Supporters cheering the new prime minister in Downing Street. Photograph: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

No wonder so many Labour staffers wanted their babies or children with them as they waited for Starmer in Downing Street: they assume the photos of that event will become historical artefacts.

Nor was it a surprise that there was such a release of emotion in the crowd once Starmer had finished speaking and walked through that polished black door.

Part of it was sleep deprivation, but the hugs and tears also spoke to a deep relief. Labour’s campaign coordinator – and now chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster – Pat McFadden stood on Whitehall, greeted by one activist after another who wanted to shake his hand or pull him in for an embrace.

“Scotland! We’ve got it back, we’ve got it back,” said one. Alex Just, one of the few Labour candidates who did not win, said he was off to eat something, have a drink – “and then tell my children I’ve shaken the prime minister’s hand”.

And yet the scene that played out in Westminster was rare in another, more fragile way too. Less than two hours before Starmer approached the lectern outside No 10, Rishi Sunak stood there to announce he would be stepping down as Conservative leader as well as prime minister.

Seemingly shell-shocked, he apologised to the country and his party and then, in words that would have once sounded like boilerplate, he wished Starmer well: “His successes will be all of our successes … Whatever our disagreements in this campaign, he is a decent public-spirited man who I respect.”

Tony Blair and Cherie Blair shaking hands with supporters after Labour’s 1997 landslide election win. Photograph: Sean Smith/The Guardian

In a year when Donald Trump seems well placed to return to the White House – despite having never conceded defeat in the 2020 election and having sought to overturn that free and fair vote – a simple, generous concession speech like Sunak’s sounded like a precious thing indeed.

It is easily taken for granted, but in the space of a few short minutes – one man comes out of the Palace, another man goes in – we had witnessed the peaceful, uncontested transfer of power. There will be many watching from afar who could only dream of such a thing.

Still, there will be plenty urging that we do not get too misty-eyed about this election, and for good reason.

Starmer may have got close to Blair’s 418 seats, and 2024 outstripped 1997 when it came to “Portillo” moments – the defeat of Liz Truss in the previously deep blue stronghold of South West Norfolk will be worth watching on a YouTube loop whenever you feel your spirits sag – but there are some troubling numbers too: chief among them, an overall vote share for Labour of just 35%.

Now, it is easy to say that that number merely points to a more fragmented political landscape than the one that existed a quarter century ago. Back in 1997, it still made sense to talk of a two- or three-party system.

This time, and even excluding Northern Ireland, there were six parties who won Commons seats as well as a cluster of successful independents. But the stubborn fact remains: Labour has nearly two-thirds of the seats, having won not much more than a third of the votes. Its share in England represents an advance since 2019 of just half a percentage point.

Rishi Sunak, appearing shell-shocked, gave a simple, generous concession speech. Photograph: Kin Cheung/AP

Starmer reflected that in what was an outstanding speech on the steps of No 10, comfortably the best he has ever delivered. Generous to Sunak, and especially to “his achievement as the first British Asian prime minister of our country”, he went out of his way to address those who had not voted Labour: “I say to you directly, my government will serve you.”

skip past newsletter promotion

Running through the address was an understanding of the modesty of this moment. Starmer tacitly conceded that he had not been carried into office on a wave of euphoria or even enthusiasm, that instead this was a repudiation election – that voters had turned to whatever broom was within reach to sweep the Tories out.

In some places that was the Liberal Democrats; elsewhere it was Reform or the Greens. But thanks to the vagaries of the first-past-the-post system, ruthlessly and brilliantly exploited by a Labour campaign that focused on winning seats – and which was richly helped by the Conservative-Reform split on the right – it mainly meant Labour.

Starmer’s message was that he knew the country had put Labour in chiefly to get the Tories out – but that he hoped that he might, through a spell of solid governance, secure the public’s trust.

It is an unusual kind of political logic – having won an election, he now hopes to win over the people – but it fits the times.

Britons are exhausted, wary and sceptical. They have seen the big promises, charismatic performers and grand schemes – Brexit, levelling up – all come to nothing.

They may have lent their votes to Labour, but they are not ready to commit: they want to try before they buy.

And so Starmer promised nothing more flashy than “stability and moderation”. The words he chose told the story: “calm”, “patient”, “quietly”.

His aim is to surprise people by governing competently and with propriety, steadily wearing down the suspicions of the electorate all too visible in these results.

Labour’s aim is not that the nation falls in love with Starmer, but that in five years’ time, voters say: “You know what, he’s been better than I thought. Give him another go.”

Rachel Reeves’s announcement as chancellor was among a series of sensible, predictable cabinet appointments. Photograph: Lucy North/PA

His speech worked so well because it fitted with the image he already has: unexciting perhaps, but capable and decent. The same goes for his first cabinet appointments, each person continuing to carry the portfolio they held in opposition. Not flashy or headline-grabbing, but sensible.

None of that changes the obvious challenges that confront this new government. The public realm is in a parlous state and there is little money to spend, which is one reason why Starmer and Rachel Reeves will have to be as laser-focused on fostering growth as David Cameron and George Osborne were on imposing austerity. But the political task is no less daunting.

Labour’s support, which now stretches from Scotland’s central belt to the English home counties, is a mile wide and an inch deep. There is a risk that it has built what the pollster James Kanagasooriam calls a “sandcastle” victory – one that looks stunning, but which could easily be swept away. The new political volatility, which gave Boris Johnson a broad coalition in 2019 only to destroy it four and a half years later, could mete out the same fate to Labour in 2029.

But how to keep together the improbable coalition it has assembled? It would have to face in at least two directions at once, simultaneously tackling migration, say, to prevent defections to Reform – now in second place in scores of Labour seats – and appealing to left voters tempted by the Greens or independents, especially on foreign policy issues. Some Labour MPs will be pushing for action on small boats; others will be demanding warmer relations with Europe or a new stance on Gaza. Reconciling those will be a herculean task.

And yet, these are the problems Starmer yearned to have – the problems of power. He can draw comfort too from the fact that he now governs a country that wanted not simply to defeat the Conservatives, but to expel and punish them – and where a majority of voters did not back parties of the right. The moment is full of possibility.

It rained heavily in the hour before Starmer and his wife, Victoria, arrived in Downing Street. Labour advance teams had glanced anxiously at the skies, wondering whether his first speech would get the Sunak treatment and see him drenched. The clouds remained while the new prime minister spoke, but the heavens did not open. And, once he had gone inside, and Labour folk hugged, a few of them wiping the tears from their eyes, for a few moments at least, the sun chose to shine.

The Guardian

Leave a Reply