Why should anyone believe Sir Keir now?

Labour Party leader Sir Keir Starmer, is seen on stage during a Sky News election event with Sky's political editor Beth Rigby on June 12, 2024 in Grimsby
Labour Party leader Sir Keir Starmer, is seen on stage during a Sky News election event with Sky's political editor Beth Rigby on June 12, 2024 in Grimsby

The latest televised event involving the leaders of the two main parties raised more questions than it answered about Labour’s plans should it win power on July 4.

Sir Keir Starmer was challenged over his previous support for Jeremy Corbyn, who he said in 2019 would make “a great prime minister”. Sir Keir was evasive about this as about much else, having changed tack many times during his political career. Indeed, his platform for the Labour leadership was significantly more Left-wing than the policies he espouses today.

“I have changed my mind,” he said. But why should anyone believe him now? Sir Keir was insistent that he was being “absolutely clear” about his economic plans, but has said there will be no income tax rises for “working people” without defining who they are or what levels would be immune.

Sir Keir said Labour’s manifesto would focus on “growing the economy” and creating wealth, but the people most likely to be hit by any tax rises are the entrepreneurs and better paid. He also doubled down on the plan to impose VAT on private schools.

These are key differences between the two parties which need to be exploited to the full by the Conservatives. It also reinforces the importance of Labour not being given a “blank cheque”, as Rishi Sunak has warned.

However, the Prime Minister said earlier that he did not share the view of the Defence Secretary Grant Shapps that Labour was on course for a “super-majority”. Mr Sunak perhaps realised that such talk risks being seen as a concession weeks before the votes are counted on July 4.

On Sky, Mr Sunak once again performed well, coming across as less robotic and more personable than Sir Keir, prepared to answer critical questions directly. However, he was required to defend his record since becoming Prime Minister, notably over NHS waiting lists and the small boat crossings.

He was also asked why net migration has more than doubled since the Brexit vote in 2016, with Grimsby heavily in favour of leaving the EU. This is a major problem for the Tories because it is fuelling support for Reform UK.

The latest YouGov survey puts the Conservatives on 18 per cent, just one point ahead of Reform UK. If Nigel Farage’s party takes most of its support from the Tories then dozens of seats will fall to Labour.

The irony is that Sir Keir could end up with one of the biggest majorities ever recorded on a lower share of the vote than that achieved by Theresa May in 2017 or Boris Johnson in 2019.

The YouGov poll puts Labour on 38 per cent, indicating a steady decline in support since the election was called. Yet the pollster projects that Labour will have 422 seats in the Commons, an increase of 220 on the last election.

Since a low turnout is also expected, it is not inconceivable that Sir Keir will have the backing of only around a quarter of the total electorate, such are the vagaries of our first-past-the-vote system.

No party in recent British history has won with more than 50 per cent of the vote. The Conservatives in 1955 came close with 49.6 per cent but Labour had 46 per cent. The difference today is the existence of smaller parties like the Liberal Democrats, the SNP and Reform UK taking votes from the big two.

Mr Shapps is correct to say that a party with a super-majority will usher in a very different country. They usually do. The 1945 Labour government brought in the NHS, largely unreformed to this day, planning laws that are still largely in place, and nationalised industries which lasted until the late 1980s.

Mrs Thatcher from 1983 onwards was able to put her own stamp on the country with two large majorities, unravelling Labour’s union laws and privatising much of British state owned industry. Tony Blair had the opportunity to use his majority to reform the health and welfare system but ducked the challenge. Instead, Blair introduced tax credits, extending welfarism, and put the “human rights” agenda at the very heart of British law.

Sir Keir, a self-professed socialist who supported Mr Corbyn’s 2019 bid to be prime minister, may go much further than Blair. Mr Shapps said it would be “very bad news” if he entered No 10 with “unchecked” power. What exactly would Labour do with such a mandate? We may look in vain at its manifesto today for any enlightenment.