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Why size matters for Starmer

A Tory defeat looks certain – but how big Labour’s majority is will shape their ambitions and define politics for the next five years

Image: The New European/Getty

Is there anyone who expects Rishi Sunak to be prime minister after July 4? I doubt if even the Sunaks are working on the assumption that they will be in Downing Street at the end of the election campaign. 

Yet elections are more layered than sporting contests, where one team wins and another loses. Almost certainly Labour will be in power this summer, but the size of its majority, if it secures one, will determine quite a lot of what follows. 

No one knows what is going to happen. I have heard the ever-insightful Neil Kinnock predict a smallish majority “on a good day”, implying there are other days when he anticipates a hung parliament. The perceptive Ed Balls reflects on the size of the swing required for Labour to win and is cautious of predicting a big victory.

At the other end of the scale two New European legends, Matt d’Ancona and James Ball, predicted on their podcast that Starmer would win a landslide. There is also a third possibility – a decent-sized majority but not an overwhelming victory – an outcome forecast by the New European’s founder, Matt Kelly, on the same podcast. 

The next five years will be significantly different depending on which of these contrasting scenarios is played out, even though the cast would be the same. Starmer would be prime minister in a hung parliament and in a landslide. The cabinet would be identical in both contexts. Labour’s early incremental programme would also be passed in any of these differing parliamentary situations.

Yet the political mood, the space available to Starmer as he faces the mountainous challenges and the unexpected eruptions, will be shaped by the precise result on July 5.

Given the current high expectations, a hung parliament or a small majority would be a disappointment for Starmer and might well become a form of hell. Two years ago he would have happily taken such a result, but with Labour’s current stratospheric poll leads he would be perceived widely to have blown it, like Theresa May in 2017 when she lost her party’s small majority. 

If Starmer squeaked it or fell just short, he would begin his rule being viewed internally and beyond with a degree of critical ambiguity. 

May’s subsequent experience is a vivid reminder as to why hung parliaments or tiny majorities are a nightmare for most prime ministers: the sleepless negotiations with other parties, the constant inability to plan beyond the next Commons vote, a background of instability.

Starmer’s big apolitical pitch is “Labour stability versus Tory chaos”. There is no stability in a hung parliament.

At least that is usually the case. May endured a nightmare, negotiating with smaller parties and factions of her own, usually failing to find a resolution. After 2017 her right wing hardline Brexiteers had the numbers to flex their muscles, relishing their newly acquired power. 

If May had won big in 2017, the likes of Steve Baker, then chair of the misnamed European Research Group, would have been powerless. Instead, Baker was able to engineer the fall of a prime minister.

Harold Wilson and James Callaghan would recognise May’s nightmares from the 1970s when they struggled to rule. In his final Commons vote as prime minister in 1976, Wilson was defeated over proposed spending cuts. Callaghan had to twist and turn to survive until 1979. 

Only David Cameron has flourished in a hung parliament, forming a coalition with the Liberal Democrats in 2010 and implementing a programme from the radical right. The programme had catastrophic consequences, including Brexit, but Cameron was a masterful manager of a Commons where he had no majority.

In the unlikely event that Starmer has no overall majority, he does not intend to share power formally with the Liberal Democrats, although I understand one of the reasons he appointed Hilary Benn as shadow Northern Ireland secretary was that Benn has good relations with all the parties in Northern Ireland, and such mutual trust might be extremely useful in a hung parliament or one where Labour has a small majority.

I gather that in the improbable circumstance of securing no overall majority, Starmer plans to form a minority government as Wilson did in 1974, and then call another election when polls suggest he would win, again following Wilson, who called a second election in October 1974 and won a majority. 

Starmer would be in for a stormy ride with a small or no majority. In essence he is adopting Tony Blair’s “big tent” approach to politics. This is more than doable with a big majority when a prime minister can appear masterful and bold while navigating a cautious third way between left and right. He would be able to largely ignore the Commons and woo his big tent of support from a fiefdom in Downing Street.

In contrast, in a hung parliament, each policy initiative becomes a stressful negotiation, although it is possible more radical change might arise. The suddenly powerful smaller parties might press for closer ties with Europe and a change in the voting system as part of the mix if Labour is not omnipotent.

Ironically, Starmer might have to be bolder when he is more constrained. The smaller parties would not block any of his incremental programme, but they might demand more. However, I suspect that taking a more realistic approach to the EU will come about because there is no alternative route to sustained economic growth.

Unsurprisingly, Starmer would more than take a landslide victory, making him the inexperienced politician who achieved the greatest political victory in his party’s history, from colossal defeat in 2019 to government without any parliamentary constraints.

The Tories would be facing an epic crisis that could well guarantee Starmer power for 10 years. The UK’s political landscape, so often ruled over by Tory governments, would be transformed.

Starmer would see such a triumph as a vindication of his approach to leadership since he lost the Hartlepool by-election to the Conservatives in 2021, when he moved more overtly to the cautious, pragmatic, vaguely defined centre, the incremental policies, the even more determined silence on Brexit, the wariness of radical policies that might frighten some previous Tory voters.

Yet this is when landslides are not necessarily as healthy for leaders as they assume them to be. They give them the power to move in the wrong direction, to follow misguided advice, to become too self-confident.

At the start of the 1983 election Margaret Thatcher’s foreign secretary, Francis Pym, warned about the dangers of landslides. Thatcher was furious.

She was looking forward to a mighty Commons majority where she could rule unconstrained. Pym was sacked once the election was over and she had won a landslide.

But in some respects, Pym was perceptive in his counterintuitive observation. Thatcher was slightly more expedient and wiser in her first term when the Tories’ majority was not as gargantuan.

The constraints of a more relevant parliamentary party reined in her wilder instincts. When Thatcher won a landslide in 1987 she went crazy in her unchecked power. 

Her rule from 1987 to her fall in 1990 was as reckless as the years since 2010. She introduced the poll tax, a disastrous flat-rate local tax, rushed privatisations of water and energy in which inefficient state monopolies were sold off cheaply for much more unproductive and greedy private monopolies, while displaying indiscriminate anger over Europe, noise that achieved nothing. She was brought down by becoming too powerful. No one could stop her, so they removed her.

Like any leader, Starmer yearns for a landslide, but there is a danger untrammelled power would bring out his weaker side, a tendency to rely on a cocooned team, an over-dependence on focus groups to determine what he says and thinks, a fear of tackling thorny policy issues such as Brexit. Those Labour MPs who would like him to be bolder would be powerless.

MPs only acquire a potent voice when their votes matter in the Commons. A landslide would be 10,000 times better for Starmer than a hung parliament and would throw the Conservatives into long overdue chaotic opposition.

But such an outcome may lead to Starmer being more cautious in policy terms. He will have plenty of advisers telling him to win a second term as he did his first, by taking no risks. 

Perhaps he will be emboldened to not rule out membership of the single currency and customs union if a second term seems near certain, but I would not bank on it. Remember Pym’s wise warnings about a landslide. There are downsides.

In 1979, Thatcher won a majority of 44. She was still able to embark on the most radical programme of change since 1945, but she had to look beyond her coterie of ideological advisers to make sure she was secure. 

A smallish majority of a similar size would still be a triumph for Starmer, but perhaps would play to one of his strengths, a capacity to listen when he does meet those outside his office. He would have no choice but to engage beyond his immediate advisers and the mighty Treasury. Leaders sometimes flourish when they cannot always take the Commons for granted. 

The challenge in all these circumstances will be mid-term, and will come when the honeymoon is over, the Tory papers are raging and the BBC is following, when the “first steps” have been implemented and when economic growth is not the highest in the G7, as seems likely. 

The key then is for Starmer and his government to convey an unyielding sense of purpose and mission much deeper than is being articulated in the election campaign, when they fear that one word or misjudged policy will bring the whole pack of cards crashing down. In such circumstances, will the Commons be centre stage or a marginal irrelevance? 

The campaign seems like the most one-sided contest since 1997, but there is still much at stake. Assuming the polls are right, Keir Starmer will be prime minister shortly. 

How he sees himself and how he is perceived by the media, his party and voters will be decided by the scale of the win as much as by the victory itself. 

Steve Richards presents the podcast Rock’n’Roll Politics. His Rock’n’Roll Politics show – The Election Special – is live at Kings Place, London on June 24

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