Stay up to date with notifications from The Independent

Notifications can be managed in browser preferences.

My crystal ball predicts one piece of bad news for Labour next year

Sir Keir Starmer will almost certainly win next year’s general election but there is still trouble in store for the Labour leader – not least with what to do about Ed Miliband

John Rentoul
Saturday 16 December 2023 17:15 GMT
Keir Starmer says Rishi Sunak should call for general election if PM loses Rwanda vote

The general election will be on 24 October next year; Labour will win; and Keir Starmer’s honeymoon will be short. The Peter Mandelson Memorial Dim Sum Supper (more on this later) this week failed to make any shocking predictions about the year to come – although it was a remarkable turnaround from the predictions from last year.

Twelve months ago, a majority of those present forecast that Rishi Sunak would win the next general election. This year saw the return of the ritual self-flagellation, in which we process around the table hitting ourselves with napkins, that has marred so many of these gatherings in the past.

This annual exercise in futurology began on 23 December 1998, when I was dining with a group of friends in a Chinese restaurant in Soho and news reached us – by pager – that Mandelson had resigned as trade secretary. By coincidence, the same group of friends was lunching on 24 January 2001 when Mandelson resigned again, this time as Northern Ireland secretary.

Since then, we have gathered just before or after the new year in honour of Lord Mandelson – I should make clear that he is not involved in any way – to make predictions. An idle enough entertainment for us and for readers of The Independent, you might have thought, except that it turned out that David Cameron, when he was prime minister, followed our proceedings closely.

“I read your column, the dinner party, the dim sum,” he told me. “We need to win a lot of seats off the Lib Dems,” he said. This was in early 2015. I should have convened an emergency meeting of the supper club at that point to revise our prediction that Ed Miliband would be prime minister in a hung parliament.

Still, important as it is to learn from our past mistakes, it wouldn’t do to dwell, so let us get on with the business. We thought the election would probably be on 24 October 2024, the last Thursday before the clocks go back. There was one vote for 10 October, but we ignored the heckler in the corner. Either option would mean cancelling party conferences. There was a long discussion about whether Sunak would go for early December or even January 2025.

I still think December is quite likely, but we had to move on to the more important question of who is going to win. Last year there was a wide range of views; this time our forecasts were clustered in the “small Labour majority” zone, of between 10 and 30 seats (my prediction was 20). I thought it was notable that there were no takers for the Tory meltdown scenario, and that the consensus was that the opinion-poll gap would narrow as voters focused on the choice.

Several minor predictions were dispensed with quickly. Jeremy Corbyn would not stand as an independent in the London mayoral election in May 2024; Sadiq Khan would win; neither Boris Johnson nor David Miliband would be candidates at the general election; Reform UK would put “The Brexit Party” in its official name on ballot papers and would stand in most constituencies.

Other predictions took longer. The majority view was that Corbyn would stand as an independent in Islington North, but he wouldn’t win. The minority (including me) thought he would bow out rather than risk losing. The question of who would be chancellor of the Exchequer at the election also divided the company: most thought it would be Claire Coutinho, currently the energy secretary and a Sunak favourite, thinking that Jeremy Hunt would stand down beforehand and that Sunak couldn’t fight the election with a chancellor on the way out.

After the election, we thought Kemi Badenoch would be the leader of the opposition and were split down the middle between Joe Biden and Donald Trump in the US election on 5 November 2024. So far, so much conventional wisdom.

The most challenging part of our discussion, though, was trying to predict what would happen to a Labour government. Predictions were made of high office for Douglas Alexander and Shabana Mahmood. Alexander, who was international development secretary in the last Labour government and who lost his seat in 2015, is expected to return as MP for East Lothian. Given that he is one of the few people available to Starmer with cabinet experience (along with Hilary Benn, Yvette Cooper and Ed Miliband), and given the need for Scottish representation in a Labour cabinet, he could be foreign secretary.

The big question, both before and after the election, is what happens to Ed Miliband, guardian of the narrow strip of clear green water that lies between the Labour and Conservative parties. The view of the dim sum supper was that he would survive but that his ideas would not. The £28bn a year of extra borrowing for green investment has already been postponed and capped by the fiscal rules laid down by Rachel Reeves, the shadow chancellor whose translation to 11 Downing Street was taken for granted.

There will be none of it left within months of a Labour government that will be rapidly engulfed in a public spending crisis, even after the incoming chancellor has raised stealth taxes in her first Budget.

So it was interesting to see that Patrick Maguire, the pre-eminent chronicler of Starmerism and co-author of a forthcoming book about its transition to government, issued what looked like an agreed statement by Starmer and Miliband in his Times column on Friday.

It looked as if Miliband, stung by the apparent slight in Starmer’s speech on Tuesday (“we’d lost our way, not just under Jeremy Corbyn, but for a while”), had demanded assurances. Maguire wrote: “Starmer does not see his predecessor but one as part of the problem. Instead, unsettling though this will be for some of his contemporaries to read, Milibandism has become a large part of the solution that the Labour Party will offer the electorate next year.”

However, when we examine what this Milibandism consists of, it disperses like smoke. Apparently, we will be hearing more about plans for “cheaper power” and “new opportunities for workers” in the election campaign. “For Miliband, this is not hippy-dippy environmental evangelism but an economic policy and industrial strategy that is incidentally environmental,” according to Maguire.

That sounds like a headlong retreat and a strong endorsement of the Sunak-Coutinho view that green is good as long as it doesn’t cost people anything. Indeed, it was a surprisingly early vindication, a mere 24 hours after the dim sum supper, of its prediction of the end of Milibandism.

The view of the assembled company was that grand ideas of a green tech revolution would disappear within months of a Labour government, which will struggle to meet expectations that it could not be any worse than what had gone before. We discussed the idea, popular in some quarters, that things can only get better under Labour because the economic and fiscal situation it will inherit will be so bad. It had no takers.

The good news for Keir Starmer is that we predicted he will win. That is also the bad news for him: that he will win in such difficult circumstances that it may feel like losing.

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in