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‘Keir Starmer’s General Election Reality and Why Comparisons with Tony Blair’s Victory Are Problematic’

Professor Chris Painter explores the likely determinants of the next general election outcome – which polls consistently predict Labour will win

Labour leader Keir Starmer speaks to the media after a visit to a pensioners drop-in session in Wakefield, West Yorkshire in May 2022: Photo: PA Images / Alamy
Labour Leader Keir Starmer has played down Blair-like hype around his expected general election victory. Photo: PA/Alamy

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The result of the next general election appears to be all too predictable.

The Conservative Party has been struggling in the polls since the Partygate revelations during Boris Johnson’s premiership. Its travails were then accentuated by Liz Truss’ whirlwind in Downing Street. Under Rishi Sunak, selected to supposedly steady the ship, any initial progress evaporated.

So much so that Sunak appeased vociferous right-wing factions in his party in a desperate attempt to stem the threat of his time at the helm not even lasting the aftermath of the May 2024 local, mayoral and parliamentary by-elections until a preferred autumn general election date. 

Expectations are therefore high for change, especially with the added dimension of fluidity in Scottish politics, despite the mountain Labour will have to climb after the drubbing it received from Johnson in the 2019 General Election.


Regime Transitions

Excluding the exceptional circumstance of 1945 when the country, emerging from a wartime coalition, had experienced the levelling effects of a global apocalypse, radicalised by truly being ‘all in it together’, there have only been three successful transitions to a Labour Government in nearly 80 years: 1964, 1974 and 1997.

In 1964, Harold Wilson achieved a minuscule overall majority, despite facing an opponent, in Sir Alec Douglas-Home, widely perceived as belonging to a bygone age, leading a party still suffering reputational damage from the earlier Profumo scandal – a majority albeit that became a much more substantial one in the subsequent 1966 election.

Much to his surprise, Wilson returned to office in February 1974, this time even more precariously as a minority Government in a hung Parliament. That had been in the context of the Heath Government’s industrial relations chaos and an energy crisis crippling the UK economy. In the ensuing October election, Wilson returned to where he had started in 1964, governing with a tantalisingly small majority. 

Tony Blair, pictured above in March 2023, won a landslide victory in 1997. Photo: PA Images/ Alamy

Tony Blair’s landslide victory in 1997 was much more emphatic, repeated in 2001, then much less convincingly in 2005 following the Iraq invasion debacle. He faced an opponent, in John Major, humiliated by the UK’s ejection from the European exchange rate mechanism, deflated by a series of scandals making a mockery of his ‘back to basics’ catchline, and undermined by a party already suffering schisms over membership of the European Union.  

Given this post-war history a cautious mentality from Labour leaders, and reluctance to take anything for granted, is perfectly explicable, especially given a predominantly hostile media environment. But are these precedents helpful in evaluating the circumstances of the coming general election?

Are parallels being drawn with Blair’s stunning victory in 1997 valid? Does the current Conservative regime, long in power, face an existential crisis unlike anything with modern equivalents? 


Election Determinants 

Electoral experts have long identified a trend towards partisan dealignment as party identifications loosen and voting patterns become more volatile. However, in the 2019 election, political allegiances were more dramatically ruptured, as ‘Red Wall’ seats fell into the waiting hands of Johnson’s Conservatives (though working-class Conservatives had always been a well-known phenomenon).

Hopes were dramatically raised, only to then be dashed. That election will be remembered as a salutary tale where the earth was promised and next to none of it delivered (most aspects of life have gotten worse since). Clever politically in the short term, it was disastrous in terms of ramping up public disillusionment another notch. 

This is where comparisons with 1997 become problematic.

Labour faces a more sceptical electorate whose enthusiasm for new brooms cannot be readily aroused. Keir Starmer in playing down Blair-like hyperbolic rhetoric is therefore in tune with the current zeitgeist. It may, however, have implications for turnout in the coming general election, especially when combined with voter suppression measures enacted in the 2019-24 Parliament.

But the Thatcherite inheritance, too, has direct bearing on just how deep a crisis is facing the contemporary Conservative Party.

The privatisation and deregulatory zeal cemented an economy more pre-occupied with sweating existing national assets than with new productive investment, as such a classic case of induced rent-seeking behaviour. Those chickens have progressively come home to roost in the form of a stagnating economy.

The Conservative Party since 2010 nonetheless managed to provide an exhibition of poor governance with few parallels: austerity; self-harming Brexit; descent into bitter in-fighting between multiple factions; the questionable awarding of contracts to cronies, and disbursement of public funds on the basis of political connections; insouciance about letting bodies pile high during the pandemic; Johnson’s lies in denying breaches of COVID rules in Downing Street; soaring interest rates during Truss’ 40 days of madness; Rwanda; divisive ‘culture wars’; and a succession of ministerial resignations/dismissals for behaviour unbecoming of public office. 

Boris Johnson, Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak have all helped ruin the Conservative’s electoral chances. Photo: Gavin Rodgers / Gavin Rodgers/Alamy

Added to which Johnsonian populism turned the composition and disposition of civic bodies of any significance into tests of partisan loyalty. Recognising that citizens recoil from every aspect of their lives being politicised in this tendentious manner, Starmer again displays astute judgement about the mood of the electorate. 

Clearly, many factors will affect the outcome of the next election. That includes the extent of tactical voting. It also applies to how right-leaning votes split between the Conservative and Reform Parties. As it does to how efficient is distribution of the Labour vote, whether urban support forfeited from those wanting a more radical policy offer, or disenchanted by the Party’s stance on Gaza, is more than compensated for by revival in seats they need to change hands.

The respective efficacy of the political parties ground operations can make a difference too. Recent heavy loss of councillors further hinders Conservative effectiveness in this respect. 

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But especially crucial in determining whether Labour wins an improbable relative, or much more likely small, large or landslide absolute majority, so determining the strength of its mandate, will be the above interplay between voter turnout, motivation and intensity of feeling towards a languishing Conservative regime.

Conservative losses at the higher end of expectations in the May 2024 elections, indeed, largely corroborated the story opinion polls have been conveying for some time. Even a chink of light from re-election of the incumbent Mayor of Tees Valley, reliant as much on personal as Conservative Party branding, produced swings that would put Tory Westminster seats in that area at grave risk.   


Stakes Involved

More signs then that the 2019 electoral coalition continued to fracture under Sunak’s leadership. As a Thatcherite ideologue, instinctively recoiling from economic intervention other than in the most extreme of circumstances, his appeal is limited in former ‘Red Wall’ constituencies.

Neither, however, is he averse to right-wing populism, notably on net zero, migration, welfare or valuing the creative arts. These culture wars, at the defining heart of identity politics, conveniently distract attention from growing economic inequality, of which Sunak himself is an exemplar, but discomfort more liberal Conservatives in ‘Blue Wall’ seats.

If he is a political master of anything, it is therefore in an ability to incur almost everyone’s displeasure.    

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All of which highlights the high stakes involved in the general election: economic resilience (including imperative acceleration rather than decelerating progress towards decarbonisation); social cohesion; and even trust in democratic institutions themselves. A tall order.

The subject of dismay in many quarters, Starmer’s caution does have a compelling logic.

Apart from unforeseen events (the pandemic and the invasion of Ukraine during the current Parliament) regime characteristics do, in any case, only take shape over time. That was true of both the Thatcher and Blair Governments.

The lesson of transformational premierships is that they begin with diffidence, achieving momentum as they gain in confidence and authority, affording much more scope for shaping the political narrative. It is the very antithesis of Truss’ devil-may-care policy style.

None of this detracts from the fact that, come the other side of the general election, there is not only much at stake for the country, but also for what is likely to be only the fourth electorally successful Labour leader since 1945.

Someone who doesn’t easily fit into the factional politics of Labour’s past, yet unlike Blair uninhibited in using the discourse of class, a theme in Tom Baldwin’s recent biography is Starmer’s determined drive to transform prospects for his party. What began as an iterative process morphed into a much more overt strategy. 

This is a clue, perhaps, to the template for how his performance will evolve in government. As someone better prepared than most Opposition Leaders, it would certainly be surprising if Starmer under-estimated the scale of the task before him, given the grim legacy he inherits.



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