The Guardian view on Labour’s landslide: becoming the change the country needs | Editorial

“We ran as a changed Labour party,” declared Sir Keir Starmer on Friday morning, shortly after Rishi Sunak publicly conceded defeat, “and we will govern as a changed Labour party.” He has yet to elucidate what this change might be. But Labour’s leader presented himself as a prime minister ready and able to alter the current alarming state of affairs. Sir Keir did not sweep his party – or the nation – off its feet. But voters handed him a resounding electoral victory. By presenting itself as an improvement without upheaval, Labour was preferred to the alternative of a chaotic and ruinous Conservative administration.

Sir Keir now towers over the British parliament like no politician since Tony Blair. Labour governments only come once in a generation. The party won a landslide, with a 170-plus majority. The victory was built on a collapse in Conservative support. Gone from parliament are some of the biggest Tory names, including 12 cabinet-attending ministers and the former prime minister Liz Truss. Labour deserves the nation’s gratitude for ending a dalliance with corruption, cronyism and charlatanry.

The mood of the moment is one of optimism for a better Britain. It would be churlish to disturb it. Sir Keir’s victory is, in his words, the “sunlight of hope” in a darkened sky. It ought to be met with congratulations and a surge of enthusiasm for what his government could achieve and represent. With the far right advancing across Europe and Donald Trump rising in the polls, Labour has a chance to construct a modern liberal social democratic project that offers a light in the global gloom.

The party had campaigned on a minimalist platform, carefully designed to keep expectations low. Its campaign rhetoric of “change” was vague about Labour’s proposed means and ends, and lacked many policy specifıcs. Setting the bar low, to be easily cleared, might be smart politics. There are, however, many messages in Labour’s landslide. The country has clearly told Sir Keir that he has the parliamentary strength to be daring. That means fulfilling hopes he did little to excite, and keeping promises he did not make. The risk is that Labour attempts to govern as it campaigned, and is too timid in office to produce meaningful change.

Reshaping British politics

In the short term, Labour’s opponents will have to accommodate their reservations to the new reality. This is a legacy of Brexit Britain, where parliamentary sovereignty dominates subordinate institutions and officials. Sir Keir is also no Gulliver, a giant figure who foolishly gives up his “liberty” to rival pygmy politicians. He is not realigning British politics. But that does not mean it is not being reshaped.

The fragmentation on the left of politics is a warning for Labour. Sir Keir lost two of his putative cabinet ministers on election night. Both were sitting on five-figure majorities. Both were felled by emerging blocs of progressive voters who have rejected Labour’s caution. In areas with a high proportion of Muslim voters, anger around Labour’s apparent ambivalence over Gaza saw the party lose ground – with one of the party’s most effective media performers, Jon Ashworth, losing his seat and the now health secretary, Wes Streeting, coming within a whisker of defeat. Labour must be hoping that the fighting in the Middle East dies down, and this political rebellion with it.

The rise of the Greens, who toppled a key Starmerite, Thangam Debbonaire, presents perhaps a longer-term threat. The party gained four seats, attracting progressive voters both in urban and rural settings, and is now the main challenger in 40 constituencies. This is no bad thing. Parliament will not be able to duck an existential crisis. The Greens will hold Labour’s feet to the fire over achieving its much-needed and ambitious climate targets.

The scale of Sir Keir’s victory disguises a crisis of electoral legitimacy. Labour has won nearly two-thirds of the seats in the Commons with only a little more than a third of the vote. Compared with 2019, the party’s vote share in England remained static, while in Wales it actually dropped. Even with Labour’s success in Scotland against a failing Scottish National party, Sir Keir Starmer enters Downing Street with a record number of seats and an immense majority on a lower turnout – and fewer votes – than that achieved in defeat in 2019 under Jeremy Corbyn (who was re-elected on Thursday as an independent MP).

Such a lopsided result illustrates how undemocratic Britain has become and shows that proportional representation could become an issue around which dissent coalesces. The irony is that, after an energetic campaign highlighting important issues, the Liberal Democrats – the most consistent proponents of electoral reform – now have the number of parliamentary seats that reflects roughly the share of the vote that the party received: a record 71 in the Commons.

Fighting Reform

Without an effective answer from Sir Keir, such a democratic deficit could intensify the grievances stoked by Nigel Farage’s Reform party. It took 800,000 votes to elect each Reform MP. Mr Farage’s defence of Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and blatant racism at the start of the campaign – claiming that Muslims lack British values – rang alarm bells. So should Reform coming second in more than 100 constituencies. Mr Farage will be gunning for Sir Keir and is ready to cannibalise his majorities in “red wall” seats with longstanding Labour councils.

The stakes could not be higher. How Sir Keir chooses to govern will determine whether Labour rather than Reform appeals to voters in the future. If Labour looks increasingly authoritarian and acquires a rightward tilt, it would only legitimise what the rightwing populists have been saying all along. That would embolden not only Mr Farage but his admirers in the Conservative party.

Labour must seek to fight Reform on territory that it chooses, not that chosen by Mr Farage. That means Sir Keir should return his party to familiar aims of focusing on equality, promoting rational political discourse, redistributing power and wealth, and effecting a social and economic modernisation. Only sweeping changes can remake societies so that they are fairer, more secure and more prosperous. That means an end to shrinking public services and a tightfisted welfare state. Sir Keir’s government should banish the aura of deference and tradition that protects elite privilege.

Labour won because it is not the Tories and because it appeared not very different from them. While that might be good for winning this election, it is bad for winning the next. Labour’s proposals recognise that our present way of life is unsustainable environmentally, emotionally and morally. Gradualism in such circumstances would be not just misguided but risky. Merely chipping away at injustice risks lulling the party into a false sense of advancement. Sir Keir must not let himself be prevented from making substantive change, especially change that is so desperately needed.

The Guardian