Labour convinced voters it was the safest choice – but now it has to govern with competence

There was a fortuitous break in the rain for Keir Starmer’s first speech outside Downing Street, which contained a familiar message: that as prime minister he would govern for all.

Inside their new offices behind the black door, his small team of political advisers who delivered the thumping victory are already turning their attentions to the party’s considerable frailties.

The months and years ahead will be a relentless campaign to confront rightwing populism and the appeal of independent candidates, to demonstrate in primary colours how the government is materially changing the country.

“If you voted Labour yesterday we will carry the responsibility of your trust as we rebuild our country,” Starmer told the flag-waving crowd in the sunshine. “But, whether you voted Labour or not, in fact, especially if you did not, I say to you directly, my government will serve you”.

That is easier said than done, and it is an assurance that will not necessarily fall on willing ears. But Starmer and many of his team know from experience that trust is only won through competent delivery, whether it is his Holborn and St Pancras predecessor Frank Dobson’s story about cleaning urine from social housing lifts or the Labour election guru Morgan McSweeney’s part in the campaign against the British National party in Barking by tackling fly-tipping.

In many ways the result was an extraordinary vindication of Labour’s strategy to draw in voters from all parts of Britain, to make Labour the safe choice and make it the obvious refuge for rampant dissatisfaction with the Conservatives.

The strategy necessarily means the support is broad but shallow – that is a feature, not a bug. It is how Starmer and his team believed they could deliver the largest majority within the electoral system that they operate in. But that also means the next five years are fraught with danger.

Red wall graphic

The party’s support is just two points higher than in 2019 – but the difference is the efficiency of the vote. Rather than previously piling up votes in safe city seats, the number of seats has doubled because of huge drops in Conservative support.

Labour’s vote stagnated and in the West Midlands and the south-west of England, and even dropped in London. It was Scotland, the mother of the landslide, where Labour’s vote soared at the expense of the Scottish National party.

The landslide is built on rapidly shifting sands, and has been underpinned by Conservatives shedding votes to Reform – with Nigel Farage’s party winning five seats and coming second in 103. In 12 of the latter, it was within 5,000 votes of winning.

For a good portion of the night Labour campaigners feared it might have lost some of its own seats to the march of Reform. Campaigners in the Midlands pulled Tory attacks for fear it would persuade more voters to choose Reform. Next time, those seats will be vulnerable to a Farage-led advance.

In the unlikely scenario that all of Reform’s votes would otherwise have ended up with the Tories, 25 more seats in the east of England alone would have gone to the Conservatives. The same applies to a third of the seats in Wales, both the East and West Midlands and across the south of England.

Another key factor was an incredibly efficient but unofficial voting cooperation between Labour and the Liberal Democrats, with voters unusually switched on to tactical voting and appearing willing to back either party in order to force the Tories from power.

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It was another part of the building blocks for Labour’s success which are not necessarily within the party’s control, and could make it vulnerable – especially if support for either party is hit by an unexpected major controversy.

But the biggest shock of the night was how the party was squeezed on its left flank and how its defeat in four constituencies by pro-Gaza independents seemed to almost take party chiefs by surprise.

Efforts had been concentrated on the Birmingham Ladywood seat of the shadow justice secretary, Shabana Mahmood, and Rushanara Ali’s seat of Bethnal Green and Bow – as well as on its successful attempt to defeat George Galloway in Rochdale.

But the upsets came elsewhere, in Leicester’s two seats, where a three-way split saw one delivered to the Conservatives, their only gain of the night, and the other saw Jonathan Ashworth ejected by a pro-Palestine independent candidate. Blackburn’s Kate Hollern also lost and the party’s hoped-for gain of Dewsbury and Batley also went.

High-profile Labour politicians such as Wes Streeting and Jess Phillips only managed to secure slim majorities.

The party cannot afford complacency among these key voters, many from Muslim communities, who felt deep dissatisfaction with the party’s stance on Gaza.

The tactic to win them back is likely to be a slow grind over the next five years, the same small steps of delivering improvements for communities often left behind. But it remains to be seen whether that trust is broken for ever.

The Guardian