Voices: Keir Starmer’s ‘monumental sandcastle’ could soon be swept away

If Labour wins with a majority bigger than Tony Blair’s, Keir Starmer will be hailed as a colossus. He will deserve to be. It doesn’t matter how lucky he has been, or how much the Conservative Party appears to be run by secret agents of the opposition, the Labour leader has positioned himself astutely and not messed up.

It is surprising – to me, anyway – that the range of uncertainty about the likely outcome of the election now runs from a solid Labour majority to what Grant Shapps, the defence secretary, calls a “supermajority”.

Much of the debate among pollsters in the remaining 19 days of the campaign will be less about how to predict people’s votes than how to calculate how votes will translate into seats. You can feed current opinion polls into different models to produce anything from a Labour majority of 144 to one of 336.

I suspect that the consensus view will narrow towards the lower end of this range, although as the Nigel Farage Tory-wrecking drama unfolds, it might edge up a bit. In which case, Blair’s post-war record of a majority of 179 is likely to be broken.

There will be articles and later books written about the inside story of how the election was won. Morgan McSweeney, the campaign manager for the Labour Party, will be justly praised for seeing a way forward for Starmer as leader even as the party was heading for crushing defeat five years ago.

Starmer himself will become a case study in how centre-left parties can rebuild an electoral coalition of working-class patriots and middle-class liberals and take advantage of divisions on the right.

His government will become a towering, self-fulfilling success: a euphoric fresh start for the self-effacing virtues of integrity, service and trying to make people’s lives slightly better. Imagine the shiny happy faces of Labour MPs, more than half of them newly elected, making up two-thirds of the new House of Commons.

If 1997 is any guide, many people who were hesitant about Labour before the election, complaining that it wasn’t offering much different from the Tories, will be swept along by the euphoria of the democratic catharsis afterwards. After a “change” election, many more people remember voting for the new government than actually did. Just as Blair did, Starmer will enter an imperial phase.

Before we are all swept along too far, however, it is worth listening to one voice of warning. James Kanagasooriam, the political analyst who identified the much-misunderstood red wall before the last election, now says: “Labour is building a monumental sandcastle.”

He says that many people made the mistake in 2019 of thinking that Boris Johnson had put together a lasting coalition, built on the foundation of Brexit, making deep inroads into Labour’s working-class base while retaining Tory support in the middle class. But that coalition was “wide and shaky”, Kanagasooriam says.

Ever since he coined the term “red wall”, it has been used to mean almost the opposite of what he meant. He identified a swathe of seats across the north of England and the Midlands that ought to have been more Tory than they were, by demography and home ownership. They were places that voted Labour out of cultural inertia and they were ripe for the picking by an effective Tory campaign. Their fall to the Tories was foreseeable – not some mysterious and fundamental shift.

“We didn’t spend enough time thinking how temporary and transactional the 2019 result was,” says Kanagasooriam. Johnson “borrowed” votes from those who were ambivalent about his politics. As for Brexit, he says, that too was misinterpreted as a lasting realignment: “People did it with Brexit as well. Just after the 2016 vote, 10-15 per cent of people swapped sides. That should have been a sign of the impermanence of politics.”

The divisions in Johnson’s coalition were reflected in the MPs who were elected then, Kanagasooriam says. “Without economic delivery and growth, the tide washed it all away rather suddenly.”

The same, he thinks, could happen to Labour: “With pressures from the green left on foreign policy and climate change, liberals on tax and business, Reform on immigration and the Conservatives – eventually – on leadership. Campaigning with a union jack saying it’s time for change will work for six weeks. That’s it.”

I think he is right. Public opinion is more volatile than it used to be; this Labour government is less well prepared for office than Blair’s; and it will inherit ruined public finances at a time of economic stagnation. It may be that the Conservative opposition will wander off the stage but, as I wrote last week, the Labour Party will provide its own opposition and Angela Rayner will be adept at putting herself at the head of it.

Let us admire Starmer’s imperial sandcastle in all its glory while we can, before the next big wave washes in and knocks it down.