Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer delivers a speech to supporters on the final day of election campaigning (Photo: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer delivers a speech to supporters on the final day of election campaigning (Photo: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

OPINIONPoliticsJuly 5, 2024

Are there lessons for Hipkins in the UK Labour landslide?

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer delivers a speech to supporters on the final day of election campaigning (Photo: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer delivers a speech to supporters on the final day of election campaigning (Photo: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

Keir Starmer successfully bet on the British public wanting low-key, unfussy competence after the chaotic Tory years. But his New Zealand counterpart won’t be able to rely on a British-style wave of despair to carry him to victory in 2026 – something more inspiring is likely to be needed, writes Max Rashbrooke.

Today a no-frills Labour Party leader has won a stunning victory after a cautious, small-target campaign.  

That leader is Keir Starmer, and the Labour Party is that belonging to the UK. Comparisons with New Zealand’s situation are of course hard to avoid, and Chris Hipkins will be tempted to see this as validation of a steady-as-she-goes approach. But that is not necessarily the case.

The scale of UK Labour’s victory is unquestionably startling. At the last election, in 2019, Jeremy Corbyn led his party to its worst electoral result since 1935. Devoid of a coherent policy on Brexit, and weighed down by Corbyn’s personal unpopularity, the party lost swathes of its traditional heartland working-class seats.

Although many of Corbyn’s policies – on renationalising public services, for instance – were popular, there was so much “free stuff” in the manifesto that voters simply didn’t believe it. Labour were left with just 202 MPs in a 650-seat parliament, and a reputation badly dented by a failure to tackle antisemitism within the party.

Then Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn in 2017 (Photo: Carl Court/Getty Images)

As Corbyn’s replacement, Starmer has focused ruthlessly on winning. To reassure voters, he has made it clear that Brexit will not be unpicked on his watch, nor will antisemitism be tolerated. He has, controversially, rowed back on the more radical pledges he made to win the Labour leadership and overseen a “purge” of more leftwing candidates. 

The result of this centrist shift has been a turnaround in Labour’s image and the creation of a party that has long been ready for the massive victory that has now come its way. At the time of writing, Starmer’s team were expected to take around 410 seats: a colossal majority.

Critics point to the help Starmer has received from the extraordinary unpopularity of the Conservatives, a function of their disastrous running of Britain for the last 14 years. But long-term governments are always unpopular: the Tories were hated when Tony Blair won a landslide in 1997, as were Labour in 1979 when Margaret Thatcher came to power. 

Oppositions still have to be ready to take advantage of that situation, just as Starmer has. Labour’s 2024 vote tally is not remarkable, but then it didn’t need to be. Starmer has focused relentlessly on the specific voters Labour needed to win back, in specific constituencies, and done so successfully.

There is, of course, little enthusiasm for him personally: his net favourability is not much above zero. But that doesn’t bother Starmer: he thinks the electorate wants low-key, unfussy competence after the eventful but chaotic Tory years. 

UK Labour leader Keir Starmer in 2020, before he was elected leader (Photo: Ian Forsyth/Getty Images)

That does not necessarily mean that his is a method for New Zealand Labour to emulate. Although our National-led government looks chaotic at times, it is also managing to get through much of its agenda, either unanimously or by invoking the coalition’s “agree to disagree” provisions. 

It is also unlikely, by 2026, to have achieved the same level of incompetence and dysfunction that the UK Tories built up over a decade and a half. Britain is suffused with a kind of despair that even New Zealand, with its myriad issues, has not yet experienced. Despite the UK tax take being at a post-war high, almost nothing works properly. 

To take just one instance: average wages in Britain today are barely higher than they were in 2010. By contrast, they are set to rise here in the next few years. It is possible, of course, that National and its partners may lose the reputation for competence that was the key to their victory over Labour, especially if the economy stagnates. But unless that happens, Hipkins will not be able to rely on a British-style wave of despair to carry him to victory; something more inspiring is likely to be needed.

Chris Hipkins at the podium on election night
Chris Hipkins on election night, 2023 (Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

There are also dangers in Starmer’s small-target strategy, which promises to repair Britain’s creaking public services but with just £7bn annually in tax rises, a tiny amount in the UK context. Every respected thinktank has described this as, in essence, a fantasy. Starmer will either have to raise taxes significantly more than promised, or risk failing to repair public services.

That, in turn, poses a much graver threat. The other big story of the UK election was the rise of the rightwing populist Reform, a party liberally sprinkled with outright racists and led by the Putin apologist Nigel Farage. It looks, at the time of writing, to have attracted around 15% of voters, and, by splitting the rightwing vote, helped Labour win scores of seats.

The most optimistic take is that the Reform vote is essentially a protest one. The country is in such a state, and all “mainstream” politicians so tarred with the Conservatives’ failures, that it is hardly surprising voters have decided to give the establishment a black eye.

If those voters are simply fed up with a crumbling public realm, Labour can win them back by just making things work again: cutting hospital waiting lists, cleaning up sewage, lifting wages. And it does have some noteworthy policies. It will slowly reverse the disastrous 1990s-era privatisation of the railways, clamp down on the worst forms of precarious work, and create a new, publicly owned renewable energy company. 

But if, through being unwilling to raise sufficient taxes, Labour cannot repair public services quickly enough, it risks amplifying the Reform vote. Like centre-left leaders the world over, Starmer also struggles to handle immigration as a political issue. 

The election was lost through Tory incompetence more than it was won by excitement about the prospectus Labour offered. The latter will need a decade to undo the Conservatives’ wanton destruction. But if Labour cannot govern competently, it will have little to fall back onto, little to generate enthusiasm and loyalty, when it tries to retain voters. 

Overall turnout in the election, what’s more, appears to have been painfully low. Labour’s win masks a swathe of problems, and – unless it proves more radical in power than on the campaign trail – the party risks having neither the answers to the problems Britain faces nor a strategy to ward off ugly nationalism. These risks should give pause to anyone in New Zealand looking to take a leaf from the Starmer playbook.

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