After 14 Years Of Conservative Chaos, A New Dawn For The Uk

After 14 Years Of Conservative Chaos, A New Dawn For The Uk

The last decade and a half have been the most difficult years in recent history, not just in the UK but in the entire European continent

A L I ChouguleUpdated: Wednesday, July 10, 2024, 09:01 PM IST
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UK PM Sir Keir Starmer | X

At least two years before Britain went to polls on July 4, public opinion had turned so much against the ruling Conservative Party that its defeat in the 2024 general election looked almost certain. This was confirmed by a nationwide exit poll on Thursday night which indicated a decisive end to 14 years of Conservatives’ chaotic rule. A day later, when the results came in, not only the centre-left Labour Party won a resounding victory but the Conservative Party crashed to the worst defeat in its history, lower than its previous worst result in 1906, when it had won just 156 seats.

Labour Party leader Sir Keir Starmer, a former human rights lawyer knighted for his services as public prosecutor, purged the hard left from his party and shifted the Labour to the centre ground after he succeeded Jeremy Corbyn in 2020. He has become the United Kingdom’s 58th prime minister with a majority of 174 seats, almost as large as the majority Tony Blair had achieved in 1997. However, while Starmer took office in Britain just about a decade after he entered politics and became MP in 2015, his landslide victory on the promise of a “national renewal” pointed to a dissatisfied and fragmented nation. Still, the mood of the moment is one of hope and optimism, as Starmer has presented himself as a prime minister ready and able to alter the current alarming situation.

Though Labour has won a robust majority in a lowest turnout (60 percent) election in years, the party’s vote share of about 34 percent is said to be the “lowest share of the vote won by any single-party majority government”. In other words, the Labour Party’s decisive victory that swept the Conservatives out of power is only in terms of seats but not votes. This is because the Conservatives’ loss of 20 percent votes as compared to 2019 election, has been the gain of other parties like the far-right Reform UK (14 percent), the Liberal Democrat (12 percent) and the Green Party (7 percent) which collectively won 115 seats.

Starmer has entered Downing Street with a simple message of “Change”. But his wipeout win on a modest share of overall votes is being seen as something of a sign of warning for the new government. As Labour governments only come once in a generation, Starmer described his success as an opportunity for the country to “get its future back”. Labour may have won a landslide on a collapse in Conservative support, but another politician who has reason to rejoice over his party’s performance is Nigel Farage, Britan’s veteran political disruptor and hard Brexit campaigner. His new anti-immigration party, Reform UK, won only 4 seats but came second to Labour in about 100 seats. Reform won more than four million votes, making it Britain’s third most successful party in terms of vote share. The far-right party has been blamed for causing Tories to lose many seats.

Farage had tried seven times to become a member of parliament, failing on each occasion. But this time he won the race. Reform’s 14 percent vote share translated into only a handful of seats in Parliament, but it will still give the party a foothold in Britain’s politics, discomforting the Conservatives and presenting Farage with a platform for his far-right politics and anti-immigration agenda. Farage’s entry in the House of Commons is in line with the emergence of far-right parties and leaders in Europe with far reaching ramifications for centrist parties and politics. Like Reform, another stunning performance came from the Liberal Democrats, a centrist pro-European party, which won 71 seats, its highest tally since 1923, making it the third largest party in Britain in terms of lawmakers. Liberal Democrat’s aggressive campaigning also dented Conservatives’ seat tally.

Labour’s victory has been hailed as a beacon of hope for progressives worldwide after the surge in support for far-right parties in Europe and with Trump currently slightly favourite to win the US presidency. However, the low voter turnout – second lowest in a British general election since 1885 – speaks to the mood of an electorate that seemed frustrated with the last government and, at the same time, not full of optimism for the new one. Clearly, Starmer will have to work hard and fast to restore voters’ faith in mainstream politics and parties. If the UK had a different polling system, there would have been a level of fragmentation in votes similar to other countries in Europe.

Britain’s bulwark against the populist, extremist tide sweeping through Europe may be its electoral system. It not only dents the electoral impact of the votes cast for smaller parties but also deters some potential supporters from backing them in the first place. So, coming out of 14 years of Conservative rule, if the British voters were looking for change, they had no real choice but to choose between the left (Labour) and the right (Conservative). Western political experts are of the view that the relative success of smaller parties, despite structural constrains on them to achieve power, is driven by the same political trends that are reshaping Europe. Even if there are electoral incentives to vote for the two major mainstream parties in UK, political experts say the election outcome suggests the vote is splintering more, and with more impact.

Labour’s victory came as a surprise to almost no one because 14 years of Conservative rule gave the election an “air of inevitability”. After being in power for so long, it was very hard for the Tories to make promises about the future that diverge from the past. And their past performances were grim under four unpopular prime ministers in five years. Since the Brexit Referendum, the economy has stalled, and immigration has soared, despite claims that leaving the European Union would do the opposite. Housing costs have risen, cost of living crisis has worsened, and waiting lists for the fragile National Health Service are at an all-time high. Among the young, there is a sense of cynicism and despair. The last decade and a half have been the most difficult years in recent history, not just in the UK but in the entire European continent.

In times of cynicism, despair, and anaemic economic growth, Starmer’s victory, in his own words, is the “sunlight of hope” in a darkened sky. With his decisive win he has the parliamentary strength to be daring. That means fulfilling hopes and produce a meaningful change, though he campaigned on a minimalist platform, carefully designed to keep expectations low. There are many messages in Labour’s landslide. The country has clearly told him to act decisively and bring economic, social, political, and democratic changes to Britain.

The writer is a senior independent Mumbai-based journalist. He tweets at @ali_chougule

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