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DAVID BLUNKETT: Call me a party pooper… but Sir Keir Starmer must not take victory for granted after Labour’s spectacular by-election wins


There is much to celebrate for Labour following its spectacular by-election wins in Wellingborough and Kingswood last week. But there is much to remember, too.

Take this sobering fact: there have been only six Labour Prime Ministers in British history.

Call me a party pooper if you like, but the General Election will be very different.

And whatever polls suggest, Keir Starmer and his team will be cautious. With good reason.

There has been much talk of 1992, when, despite huge public dissatisfaction with a tired Conservative administration, Labour’s apparent lead – under Neil Kinnock – evaporated at the ballot box.

Yet I urge Labour to look back further and learn from the General Election of October 1964.

Keir Starmer campaigning with Labour's by-election candidate Gen Kitchen last week in Wellingborough, North Northamptonshire

Keir Starmer campaigning with Labour’s by-election candidate Gen Kitchen last week in Wellingborough, North Northamptonshire

Things then looked pretty good for Labour, as they do now. After 13 years of Tory rule, it was time for a change. A landslide was predicted.

With a young, modernising leader in Harold Wilson, it seemed Labour would engage an electorate that dared to hope for a brighter future after half a century of war and economic depression.

By June 1963, the Conservative Government was a shambles. Prime Minister Harold Macmillan had sacked a third of his Cabinet and fallen out with his Chancellor. In October, he resigned amid the humiliation of the Profumo scandal and had been replaced by Alec Douglas-Home, a ‘toff’ of the old order, more suited to his family grouse moors than the spirit of the times.

The result of the 1964 General Election seemed a foregone conclusion. And yet…

When the votes were counted, Labour had a Commons majority of just four seats.

If not quite defeat, it was a long way from resounding victory.

Why? One reason was the innate small ‘c’ conservativism of the British electorate, something we would do well to heed today.

But for me, the real answer is that caution had overwhelmed the Labour Party’s better instincts. Fearful of defeat, it took refuge in optimistic but technocratic promises – a ‘new Britain’ based on the ‘white heat’ of technology (as famously promised by Wilson a year before the Election).

David Blunkett says that Keir Starmer should not take the by-election victories for granted 

Starmer with Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar (centre) and the new Labour MP for Rutherglen and Hamilton West Michael Shanks (left) at a rally after Scottish Labour's win in Rutherglen and Hamilton West by-election last year

Starmer with Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar (centre) and the new Labour MP for Rutherglen and Hamilton West Michael Shanks (left) at a rally after Scottish Labour’s win in Rutherglen and Hamilton West by-election last year

It sounded good. There was a buzz in the air.

Yet what did such things mean to the daily lives of voters?

They gave their brutal answer at the ballot box. Labour: 317 MPs. Tories: 304. Liberals: nine.

For all the sacrifices of the 1940s, millions remained in hardship. They wanted not just hope for a better world, but a plausible explanation of how it was to be achieved. The voters of 2024 want the same.

Make no mistake, there are powerful forces ranged against a Labour victory.

I understand the internal anguish Keir Starmer’s team must feel as they address them. I know it is hard to find a balance between offering hope and covering your back.

Even so, Labour must be brave and persuade voters not just to dispose of a tired and divided Government, but to turn out for a positive alternative. ‘Defeating the Tories’ is not enough.

Starmer joined by musician Feargal Sharkey at Labour HQ in London canvassing voters before the Wellingborough and Kingswood by-elections

Starmer joined by musician Feargal Sharkey at Labour HQ in London canvassing voters before the Wellingborough and Kingswood by-elections 

Labour MP Damien Egan reacts after winning the Kingswood by-election

Labour MP Damien Egan reacts after winning the Kingswood by-election

Labour’s leadership has ambition. There is a desire to join with business and the unions to achieve economic growth, transform productivity and create a more equal and less divided Britain.

None of this matters, however, if we are shackled by fear – unless we have the courage to set out our stall.

Labour must acknowledge the needs of the millions who live outside the more affluent corners of our great metropolitan cities. People who value our collective past and dislike those who they believe despise it.

After 60 years in the Labour Party, I rejoiced at last week’s by-election successes. But nothing can be taken for granted.

Yes, we need to ‘go green’ and invest. But Net Zero and the promises made about it mean nothing to most people.

Voters want to know how policies will work, what those policies mean for their daily lives and how they can bring about a better future for themselves.

They value the British way of life and the institutions that hold us together. And they are dismayed to see the disgraceful collapse of so many towns and cities.

They want to know how an incoming Government would reverse the dereliction of boarded-up buildings, of graffiti and of anti- social behaviour.

How it would make the highly profitable utilities of water, gas and electricity treat customers with respect.

How it would reverse bank branch closures and encourage something better than inhuman online contacts and pathetic excuses for poor customer service.

How, in other words, it would help with the reality of daily lives.

Above all, we need more than a new set of individuals at the helm. We need a vision that the public can share.



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