Labour’s landslide victory is a personal triumph for Keir Starmer that once seemed impossible

The Labour Party’s resounding victory in the UK general election marks a historic moment in modern British political history and a huge personal triumph for Keir Starmer, the Labour leader who will become the country’s next prime minister.

Starmer’s victory, with a three-figure majority in parliament, is all the more remarkable considering the journey that Labour has been on since the last general election in 2019. Then, the party suffered its worst loss in a generation under former leader Jeremy Corbyn, who stood on a hard-left platform.

A path back to credibility and even being competitive in a general election looked potentially a decade off, as the Conservatives emerged triumphant from the carnage of Brexit under the charismatic leadership of Boris Johnson.

Johnson not only defeated his political rivals, but completely upended the norms of British politics. Under his leadership, his party won seats in traditional working-class Labour areas once deemed out of reach to Conservatives. For a year at least, he seemed untouchable.

It was in this context that Starmer took control of a broken Labour Party on April 4, 2020. On that day, David Lammy, one of his Labour colleagues, took him to one side and warned Starmer: “Set yourself a 10-year cycle. You might just lose the next election, and then you can go again.”

According to Lammy, Starmer smiled and said “No, I can do this in five.”

Even Starmer could not have predicted what would happen between the end of 2021 and Thursday night.

The Conservatives succumbed to repeated self-inflicted wounds, beginning with the “partygate” scandal, when Downing Street staff held illegal gatherings while the rest of the country was under strict Covid-19 pandemic lockdowns.

Johnson would cling to power until the summer of 2022 despite what seemed like daily calls to resign. His successor Liz Truss would propose unfunded tax cuts that threw the economy into turmoil and forced her to resign after just 49 days in power. Rishi Sunak would replace her at the end of 2022, but by that point, most in the Conservative Party had accepted it was over.

During that time, Starmer stood his ground and dragged Labour firmly into the center ground of British politics with moderate policies designed not to spook Conservative voters.

Critics within his party say that he has not offered an exciting enough program for government. They fear that Starmer’s moderate policies of fiscal responsibility and mild manners won’t enthuse voters and that five years from now, at the time of the next election, he could fall foul of a right-wing populist surge.

Their fears might not be unfounded: one of the main sub-plots of the night was the surge of the populist right-wing Reform UK, led by the only Brexiteer more famous than Johnson and noted friend of Donald Trump, Nigel Farage.

There has for months been a working assumption that a Starmer victory would be in part thanks to a general disdain for the Conservatives after 14 years in power. Farage’s return to frontline politics during the election campaign meant that the right-wing vote would split further, helping Starmer come through the middle in key seats and secure an even more comfortable majority.

In other words, Starmer’s victory might not immediately mean public support for him personally or any great enthusiasm for Labour’s legislative agenda. That could become a problem once he gets his feet under the desk. It has been clear for a long time that the public wanted change more than anything else.

For all these reasons, it is reasonable to say that this win is not without its caveats. The populist threat is real, the Conservative Party is far from crushed and Labour’s majority is not as large as some polls had predicted in the days before the election.

Starmer will not be worrying too much about this for now. He is heading for a parliamentary majority so large that he will be able to push through his agenda with ease, and he will have the full mechanics of the state to help him govern. It is a level of power that seemed out of reach for any Labour leader, least of all a boring lawyer, not so long ago. And after 14 years in the wilderness, that will be enough for many in Labour for now.

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