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What is Keir Starmer’s nightmare scenario?

Will he be PM by acclaim or by default? Credit: Getty

June 7, 2024 - 7:00am

What would be the worst possible result for Labour on 4 July? There’s nothing in any poll to suggest that losing the election is plausible, but attention should still be paid to the party’s vote share.

Because the non-Labour vote is so splintered, Sir Keir Starmer could finish on less than 40% and still win a substantial majority. Nevertheless, failing to break through this barrier would damage his standing — not least because it would mean doing worse than Jeremy Corbyn did in 2017 when Labour got exactly 40%. The surviving Corbynites would never let Starmer forget it, while the media narrative would focus on Tory defeat rather than Labour triumph.

Consider the precedents. So far this century, there have been three general election victories on a sub-40% vote share. Firstly: Labour in 2005 after Tony Blair won a majority of 66 seats, but only 35.2% of voters. He was gone two years later. In 2010, the Tories came first on 36.1%, but had to govern in coalition with the Lib Dems. In 2015, David Cameron secured a second victory — this time with a barely improved vote share of 36.9%. His slim majority did not save him in 2016.

Looking at the 20th century, the 40% barrier looms large in the fate of premiers. Apart from the coalitions of 1918 and 2010, not a single party leader who failed to clear the hurdle went on to serve a full term as PM.

The good news for Starmer is that Labour is polling in the mid-40s right now. Yet that figure has been flattered by the ineptitude of the Conservative election launch. Only last month, several pollsters had Labour on 41% or 42%. If this is indicative of the true level of Labour support, then the party would only have to lose a few percentage points to fall into the danger zone. For instance, if Rishi Sunak’s handlers master the art of the non-humiliating photo-op, that might move the needle.

Then there are the other parties. On the Left and among Muslim voters, there are those who will follow the Owen Jones line that Tory defeat is guaranteed, thus leaving them free to vote for the Greens, other radicals or, in Islington North, Corbyn himself. Much the same logic will appeal to those who can’t be bothered to vote at all.

Meanwhile, further to the Right, there are alienated ex-Conservative voters who might want to punish the Tories, but fear what Starmer would do without a functioning opposition. If, by election day, caution overcomes anger, that too will nibble at Labour’s vote share.

Finally, there’s Nigel Farage’s last-minute return to the front line. According to Opinium, Leave voters account for a substantial part of the increase in the Labour vote since 2019 and almost all of the Conservative decline. If Reform UK continues to make headway, it will be at the expense of both the main parties. Indeed, the latest YouGov poll, which was conducted following Farage’s comeback, shows Reform on a record high of 17%, the Conservatives on 19% and Labour dropping back to 40%.

These developments are unlikely to cost Labour its majority, let alone first place. With the Tories on the floor and Right divided, Starmer is all but guaranteed the keys to Downing Street. But will he be prime minister by acclaim or by default?


Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.

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UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
18 days ago

In South Africa the ANC is desperately trying to form a GNU coalition because it only got 41% of the vote. In the UK that result could easily be a ‘whopping’ majority, which is a sort of electoral tyranny.

Arkadian Arkadian
Arkadian Arkadian
18 days ago
Reply to  UnHerd Reader

You are comparing apples with pears, though.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
17 days ago
Reply to  UnHerd Reader

The UKs electoral system is awful. You can win an absolute majority on little more than a third of the vote, and current polls would have Reform winning 15% of the vote but only winning 1 seat out of 650

Rob Alka
Rob Alka
14 days ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

The bigger joke is that we call all of this “Democracy”

Dumetrius
Dumetrius
18 days ago

At least I’m not faced with the conundrum of contributing to Labour’s share, as I’m not in Hackney North & Stoke Newington.

Even as a right-winger, I’d feel obliged to vote for Diane otherwise, just to stick it to Starmer.

Adrian Smith
Adrian Smith
18 days ago

I think the big story will be how low the overall turnout was.

Susan Grabston
Susan Grabston
18 days ago
Reply to  Adrian Smith

Indeed. I have to turn out because of my belief that lives were lost to give me this right, but my ballot paper will be spoiled for second time in my life.

D Glover
D Glover
16 days ago
Reply to  Susan Grabston

I would urge you not to do that, Susan. Surely you can see that spoiling your ballot paper is exactly the same as not turning up?
The ballot will be discarded, the candidates will neither see it nor care. You don’t hurt them that way.

j watson
j watson
17 days ago
Reply to  Adrian Smith

Because the more Right leaning stayed away as shocked by the Right’s offerings and embarrassed. Yep that could be the headline.

Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
18 days ago

“What would be the worst possible result for Labour on 4 July?”

I think the worst possible result for Labour is not losing, but winning big without really understanding why they won – without understanding why people have turned away from the Tories, who is voting for them, and what they will be expected to deliver once in power. I mean by this, buying your own sales pitch to convince yourself that you are being voted in for what *you* want, rather than to deliver what the voters want. Boris Johnson did that, and his party is in now mired in an existential crisis.

And, looking at the bog standard pythonesque ding dongs of the current campaign, it is clear no on the Labour side actually understands that this is the last throw of the dice, and if they get hung up on the woke stuff, or the net zero stuff, or ramping taxation by nefarious means (as Hunt has done via for example fiscal drag etc), then they are going to come a cropper in much the same way as the Tories.

Michael Cazaly
Michael Cazaly
17 days ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

Yes quite! Boris and the Tories won in 2019 courtesy of Farage standing down his candidates in order to “get Brexit done”.

Neither he nor the Tories understood that.

In fact May almost lost because Corbyn said he would comply with the result of the Referendum, and lost next time because he went along with Starmer’s “another Referendum” policy.

One thing is certain…there’ll be no more referenda in the UK.

Martin M
Martin M
15 days ago
Reply to  Michael Cazaly

Well, at least Boris “got Brexit done”.

Andrew R
Andrew R
18 days ago

Winning

Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
18 days ago

And… Another comment bites the dust, And another one gone, and another one gone,
Another one bites the dust…Yeah!

Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
17 days ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

I’m not even sure what makes them disappear. Mine do aswell – and there’s no rhyme or reason to it. Some really pedestrian ones very clearly within the commenting guidelines vanish while others I’ve written which are very acidic, even borderline, are immediately visible – which makes me think it’s not moderation.
At the end of the day, commenting on UnHerd isn’t a productive use of my time so I’m not annoyed – I would just like to know how the product I have purchased works.

Lancashire Lad
Lancashire Lad
17 days ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

Quite. But just to add: i doubt you’ve ever written a pedestrian comment in your life.

Rob Alka
Rob Alka
14 days ago
Reply to  Lancashire Lad

As a new subscriber (1 month, until July 8) I queried a comment (but not in an accusing or unacceptable way) and yet it disappeared. Why would one waste time returning to try and find out why it was pulled and whereabouts, if anywhere at all, it was re-entered.
I feel that comments are more gratifying if they generate a conversation, no matter how brief. If that is to be censored and without reason, Unherd’s subscribers become UnHeard and if it really is like that I too will be UnHeard after July 8.
Granted, many of the articles are interesting and offer food for thought, so if I quit I would be cutting off my nose to spite my face. That’s often the downside of a point of principle.

Benedict Waterson
Benedict Waterson
17 days ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

A certain number of downvotes seems to disappear comments temporarily (until they are moderated by UnHerd staff) and then I think it affects future comments if you had a few downvotes or flags on previous comments.

Martin M
Martin M
15 days ago

Does it? We should conduct an experiment: get everyone to downvote an entirely innocuous comment, to see what happens.

D Glover
D Glover
16 days ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

Some of Lancashire Lad’s comments disappeared from the thread The Mannheim attacks reveal Europe’s impotence
I feared that he had been banned. Overnight his comments have been restored. I don’t know what goes on.

Arkadian Arkadian
Arkadian Arkadian
18 days ago

I thought it was a given that Starmer would be prime minister by default.
If you replace him with Kermit the frog I don’t think it would make much difference.

Lancashire Lad
Lancashire Lad
17 days ago

It would to Kermit. He deserves better.

Stephen Follows
Stephen Follows
17 days ago
Reply to  Lancashire Lad

If they chose Kermit, Labour still wouldn’t have had a female leader. What happened to Miss Piggy?

Brendan O'Leary
Brendan O'Leary
17 days ago

At least Kermit wouldn’t find it too easy to be Green.

Martin M
Martin M
15 days ago

I don’t think Kermit the Frog is a British Citizen. Is he even eligible to sit in the House of Commons?

Elon Workman
Elon Workman
17 days ago

I m beginning to wonder whether all this is a side show with wars in the Ukraine and Gaza. Both the U K and the U S A are being governed badly. In the U K we are likely to have a new Prime Minister who has shown little interest in foreign affairs and in November a U S A President either Biden or Trump who for half the country is ‘not my President’. We have just celebrated the eightieth Anniversary of D Day. Where are our inspirational leaders like Churchill and Roosevelt? The West has none.

Richard Calhoun
Richard Calhoun
17 days ago

I expect in all likelihood Labour will win a small majority, if Farage has the impact I expect.
So don’t expect any of our problems to be resolved in GE2024.
I expect a total of 3 elections by 2030, before the electorate decides to resolve this political shenanigans.
The question being .. will they vote for the continued Big State or the Small State with low taxes and economic growth?

Martin M
Martin M
15 days ago

Is there a party offering option 2?

AC Harper
AC Harper
17 days ago

“What would be the worst possible result for Labour on 4 July?”
A huge outright majority for Labour which would erode party discipline as each group of internal dissidents could ignore the whip if they chose. Giving Starmer a lot of stress and anguish as he tries to hold it all together.

Rob Alka
Rob Alka
14 days ago
Reply to  AC Harper

Hold what together? It’s already falling apart

j watson
j watson
17 days ago

The worst scenario is he looses.
Author refers to a potential crisis of legitimacy if less than 40%, but if folks don’t vote it means they are effectively recognising the potential outcome and our first past the post system is, rightly or wrongly, designed almost to avoid weak or coalition/minority Govt. One could also contend many stayed away as thought it wasn’t going to be close and thus didn’t need to. What’s certain is it’ll give folks multiple different options in how it’s spun.
He probably doesn’t want too big a majority. Big enough to not be disabled by a few inevitable by-election defeats as he takes on difficult stuff, but not too large no discipline amongst his Backbenchers because they realise he can offer only so many of them a chance of Ministerial opportunity. Something like Bojo got probably his ideal.

Dougie Undersub
Dougie Undersub
17 days ago

I don’t care what Starmer’s nightmare scenario is. It’s enough that Starmer is my nightmare scenario.

Martin M
Martin M
15 days ago

No matter how you spin it, a Corbyn Premiership would be worse than a Starmer Premiership.

Rob Alka
Rob Alka
14 days ago
Reply to  Martin M

Except that Corbyn exposed himself to what he was like, whereas Starmer is content to rely on his Unique Selling Proposition that he is not part of the Conservative government and, without even needing to say so, Starmer will accommodate the increased horde of workshy freeloaders – plus depressed youngsters who are all the rage, in both senses – who just wanna go to Uni and have fun – plus Starmer’s lifelong worship of his Mum’s NHS, which is eventually bound to work in partnership and harmony with major funeral directors and Care Homes. The morning after having entered Number 10 and got a good night’s sleep, the Union leaders and activists and Marxists (same difference) will tell Starmer what to do or plan or promise. It will take about couple of years before investors fly over rather than land in Britain and those wealthy investors who had lived here will take themselves someplace else – quite possibly to one of the places to which they have already shifted their money.

Martin M
Martin M
14 days ago
Reply to  Rob Alka

Well, I certainly take your point, although I for my part am not so pessimistic. I mean, if Starmer was such a rabid Lefty, would he have accepted a knighthood?

David Lindsay
David Lindsay
16 days ago

Labour got 12,877,918 votes in 2017. There is absolutely no chance of that this time.

Martin M
Martin M
15 days ago

The surviving Corbynites would never let Starmer forget it…. Could be why he is doing his best to purge them.