Labour activists buoyed by return to government after years in wilderness

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Labour activists watched a victory of crushing proportions materialise before their eyes with a sense of disbelief as UK election results emerged in the early hours of Friday morning.

The party last won a general election 19 years ago and has since endured endless false dawns. Leader Sir Keir Starmer has now reversed Labour’s huge defeat in 2019 into huge victory just one parliament later, the most dramatic turnaround in political fortunes since 1945.

A national exit poll released at 10pm on Thursday forecast Labour would win 410 seats in the House of Commons, triple the number expected for Rishi Sunak’s Conservatives. The estimate gave Starmer a 170-seat majority.

“What an extraordinary opportunity we now have to change the country,” said one Labour aide.

Ahead of the result, Labour sought to be a model of self-restraint even though polls had consistently forecast a big win for the party since late 2022. It dubbed its election party in central London a “watch event” rather than a celebration, mindful of looking complacent.

Angela Rayner, the incoming deputy prime minister, said after the exit poll that she was not “counting her chickens” until all the results had been counted. But the moderation in Labour’s ranks quickly dissipated. “I think an electoral meteor has now hit planet Earth,” declared Lord Peter Mandelson, a former Labour cabinet minister.

Activists told the Financial Times they felt “buoyant”, “delighted”, “thrilled” and “over the fucking moon” as they finally let themselves believe the waiting was over and that Labour would be running the UK from Friday.

There were notes of caution in the results. Psephologists forecast that Labour’s share of the vote was set to be lower than the 40 per cent won by former leader Jeremy Corbyn in the party’s unsuccessful 2017 general election.

But this time Starmer’s party benefited from a more even distribution of Labour votes and by the clear split in the rightwing vote between the Tories and Reform UK.

Labour’s expected seat numbers are in the ballpark of Sir Tony Blair’s landslide victory in 1997, the high-water mark of the party’s performance in recent decades.

But the Tories look set to win fewer constituencies, meaning Starmer will face a weaker opposition.

Labour’s forecast majority in the Commons means Starmer will face few obstacles in pushing through his programme of reform, an agenda that includes a far-reaching set of employment reforms, the setting up of a new state-owned energy company called GB Energy, reforming the House of Lords and nationalising the railways.

The incoming prime minister will on Friday enter Downing Street and begin the rapid work of appointing his cabinet and handing out roles within Number 10 to his most trusted aides.

The emphatic nature of the Labour victory is all the more remarkable given how badly the party performed in 2019, when it endured its worst result for nearly a century under hard-left leader Corbyn.

“We were on the brink of extinction,” said Wes Streeting, who will be the new health secretary, on Thursday night.

Starmer became leader a few months later in early 2020. During the Covid-19 pandemic, he sometimes struggled for attention and persistently warned that he had a mountain to climb.

He dropped many of his predecessor’s policies and sought to take Labour on to the middle ground of British politics by taking more patriotic and pragmatic positions on issues ranging from Brexit to immigration.

Over the last six weeks the Labour leader ran a largely uneventful and gaffe-free election campaign, attending carefully controlled events usually in front of party staff.

His manifesto was a relatively restrained document with only a handful of tax rises on non-doms, the oil and gas industry, private equity executives and private schools. He has become only the fourth Labour leader to ever win a parliamentary majority in the party’s 124-year history.

Yet Starmer has faced questions from economists about how he will face some of Britain’s major challenges, given the state of public services and the tight public finances.

The FT recently revealed that Labour had drawn up a “shit list” of immediate problems it would have to deal with, ranging from crowded prisons to the potential collapse of Thames Water. If anything the list could underestimate the challenges ahead.

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