LONDON—The British Labour Party finally concluded its protracted leadership contest last weekend, four long months after suffering its worst election defeat since before World War II. The result came as no surprise, with the former shadow Brexit secretary, Sir Keir Starmer, replacing Jeremy Corbyn as party leader after romping to a first-round victory with 56.2 percent of the vote—more than twice as much as the Corbynite runner-up, Rebecca Long-Bailey, and far ahead of third-place finisher Lisa Nandy. Starmer, who hails from Labour’s social democratic “soft left,” is expected to lead a more moderate party than Corbyn did, but Labour will remain markedly more left-wing than it was under former Prime Minister Tony Blair.
Unfortunately for Starmer, there has hardly been a worse time to become Labour leader. Holding a mere 202 seats in Parliament, his party finds itself 118 seats short of a working majority and currently employs 163 fewer MPs than the Conservatives. Labour hasn’t been this diminished since the 1935 election. The last time it found itself in a similar position, in 1983, it took the party 14 long years to return to power. If historical precedent is anything to go by, it’s unlikely that Starmer will ever become prime minister.
But it’s not just parliamentary arithmetic that should worry Starmer. It wasn’t merely the scale of Labour’s defeat in December that was so catastrophic; it was the nature of the loss as well. The party lost scores of seats in post-industrial towns across the north of England that are widely regarded as Labour’s traditional heartlands. Many of these constituencies, like Bassetlaw outside Sheffield, hadn’t backed the Conservatives since World War I, while others, like Blythe Valley on the North Sea coast, turned blue for the first time in their history.