Castles Built On Sand: The Illusory Nature Of UK Labour’s Supermajority

Castles Built On Sand: The Illusory Nature Of UK Labour’s Supermajority

The result was the outcome of very specific factors unique to this election, most notably the division of right-wing votes and the implosion of key Opposition parties

Conrad Kunal BarwaUpdated: Thursday, July 11, 2024, 04:53 PM IST
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UK PM-elect Sir Keir Starmer | X

As expected, the 2024 General Election in the United Kingdom resulted in the widely anticipated landslide victory for Labour. The five deeply unpopular years of Tory rule characterised by the inability to deliver the promised benefits of Brexit, to cut migration, mismanagement of the Covid pandemic response and the continual disunity and infighting that led to three prime ministers over the life of a single parliament, two of whom were forced to resign in disgrace with Boris Johnson’s penchant for cronyism and persistent lying to both the public and Parliament and Liz Truss’s suicidal economic libertarianism, had meant that since 2019 all opinion polls gave Labour a clear lead. Rishi Sunak with his cipher personality and dry managerial style promised some modicum of stability to his predecessors, but was unable to deliver a decisive break; his disastrous election campaign, which was dogged by mis-steps such as leaving the immensely symbolic D-Day celebrations early in northern France to give a non-essential TV interview to the recurrent scandals over betting by Tory MPs, was reflective of his whole dismal tenure in office. The swing towards Labour was unprecedented with the party winning more than 200 additional seats to its 2019 performance and ending up with 412 seats; immediate comparisons were made to Tony Blair’s landslide win of 1997 where Labour won 418 seats. Unfortunately, such comparisons flatter to deceive as Labour’s current win is built on far weaker foundations and is not an effective indicator of its electoral popularity.

Firstly, it should be noted that the result was the outcome of very specific factors unique to this election, most notably the division of right-wing votes and the implosion of key Opposition parties. There was a major collapse in the Tory vote, which fell by 20%, as the populist right-wing Reform Party posed a major challenge from the right and absorbed many disgruntled Tory voters and won 15% of the popular vote. In 102 constituencies, Reform was the runner-up, of these seats 93 were won by Labour. Such calculations are tricky but if all Reform votes had transferred to the Tories, then they would have won an additional 180 seats, still less than Labour but more than double their current count, which is their worst performance since 1906. The other factor was the implosion of the Scottish National Party in Scotland which had dominated politics there for two decades, but mired in its own corruption and leadership scandals had lost faith of the voters and saw Labour resurgence in its Celtic fringe where once again it is the largest party. Labour won 37 seats in Scotland, up from just 1 in 2019, with vote swings of up to 31%, most of these seats were wrested from the SNP, who were reduced to its just nine seats. Five years is a long time in politics, and there can be no guarantee that in 2029 Labour will be lucky enough to face a divided right-wing Opposition and regional parties in disarray; these are one-off factors that are unlikely to be repeated.

Secondly, the success of Labour reflects the anti-Toryism of the electorate rather than any enthusiasm for Labour or Starmer; while it has 63% of the seats in Parliament, its vote share is only 35%, less than each of Blair’s victories and less than the 40% of votes achieved by Jeremy Corbyn in 2017, indeed, 3 million more people voted for the much-maligned Corbyn in 2017 than they did for Starmer in 2024. A staggering statistic. Before the election, the polling agency YouGov reported that nearly half of Labour’s voters gave “get the Tories out” as the main reason for their choice, with only 5% giving agreeing with policies as the main cause and a diminutive 1% citing Starmer’s leadership. All this is off a very low turnout as well of 60%, the second lowest since 1885 (only bested by 2001’s turnout of 59%). Despite winning an additional 211 seats, Labour’s increase of the popular vote rose by 2%, and even this is mostly down to sharp regional differences, namely its stunning recovery in Scotland where its vote rose by 17%, in England it remained broadly static while in Wales it declined by 4%. The operation of Duverger’s Law, named after the French political scientist Maurice Duverger, that first-past-the-post Parliamentary electoral systems tend to result in two-party systems, the concept driven by the idea that in the long run rational politicians and voters will realise that it is pointless to have more than two parties competing at the national level as although a few other parties may remain in contention for a few years, any party which begins to slide will rapidly disappear as everybody comes to realise that it will win no seats at all if its support is evenly dispersed. In this case, while ideological rifts have ensured that other parties apart from the main two have seen success, it has still reflected a basic two-party system which has disproportionately benefited Labour in terms of seats. This along with the increase of volatility of recent elections impart the lesson that few seats are safe any more.

Thirdly, Starmer doesn’t inherit the same situation that Blair did, nor does he have much of a grand strategy on how to deal with it. Blair was fortunate to benefit from inheriting an economy on the cusp of a boom and sustained global expansion, he also despite his faults committed to spending considerable amounts to improve public services, particularly the National Health Service, if not always very efficiently. Starmer faces a very different economic landscape, with Britain trapped in a low growth loop with economy not growing and being starved of vital funds for investment. Money earmarked for infrastructure and human capital development is instead spent on day-to-day costs (schools and hospitals both have repair backlogs amounting to £12 billion). Britain’s recovery from the financial crisis, the pandemic and the energy spike has been more protracted and less complete than in other G-7 economies. Labour’s manifesto response to this has been lukewarm in its ambition, with the Institute for Fiscal Studies deriding Labour’s current spending plans as “tiny, going on trivial”; Andy Haldane, former chief economist at the Bank of England, derisively referred to the spending increases as amounting to less than a weekend’s GDP.

Lastly, the greatest threat comes from progressive sources, both within and outside the party. Starmer while elected on the promise of an inclusive platform, as has been the wont of leaders from the right of the party, done the exact reverse and carried out a purge of leftist members while openly disavowing the Corbynite legacy, by suspending and then hounding the former leader from the party, all the while loudly proclaiming to the public that the Labour party has “returned to normal” from its detour towards a more radical leftist stance, to reassure its middle-England voters. This has come at some considerable cost, by suppressing internal dissent and targeting what were seen as prominent voices of the previous regime, resulting in some ugly situations such as the mishandling of Diane Abbot’s suspension and confusion over whether she could stand as a Labour candidate — a huge symbolic blow, given her iconic status as the first Black British woman elected to Parliament and a vocal outlet for a wide range of social justice causes. It took the public backing of the Deputy Leader, Angela Rayner, to reverse behind the scenes attempts to get Abbot to step down quietly and be replaced by a loyal apparatchik. No such luck for another candidate Fazia Shaheen, a well-respected economist and popular local candidate, who despite being earlier endorsed by Starmer was deselected, for the crime of liking some pro-Palestinian tweets on X.

The issue of Gaza has hung over like a heavy pall over Labour; the moral cowardice and vacillation over Israel’s punitive campaign led to the egregious sights, such as Starmer, always ready to burnish his credentials as a human rights lawyer, asserting in a radio interview that “Israel has the right” to withhold power and water from Palestinian civilians, itself a clear violation of International Law. Passions were inflamed by a senior journalist with The Jewish Chronicle commenting that a Labour leader had dismissed those leaving the Labour party over its stance on Gaza as “shaking off fleas;” the frankly delusional disconnect that Gaza was a remote fringe issue, which people would soon forget about was belied by subsequent events, with continual protest marches and Labour councillors resigning. Four candidates standing as independents on a platform for Gaza were elected, defeating Labour candidates, making such dissidence hard for Labour to shake off so easily. Instead of addressing these concerns, the party leadership indulged in sotto voce mutterings about communal politics failing miserably to see that Palestine was a catalyst for longstanding dissatisfaction with Labour over its general retreat from its own principles, including its commitment to international humanitarian liberalism. While one in five Asian voters said that Gaza would influence how they would vote, broader dissatisfaction in the party was impossible to disguise with 54% of Labour voters in March saying that Starmer was handling the issue badly, compared to only 19% who thought he was handling it well. This disconnect was also seen on the ground, as the liberal journalist Owen Jones noted, in his survey of Chingford constituency, with the complacency that the Labour candidate, Wes Streeeting, Shadow Health Secretary regarded the insurgent campaign by a 23-year-old British Palestinian woman, Leanne Mohamad, challenging his seat over the issue of Gaza and who came within 500 votes of defeating him. As Owen Jones damningly commented, this showed that “many Labour MPs simply do not understand their own constituencies”.

Perhaps the most worrying is the external challenge from the Greens, who won all four of the seats they targeted, breaking out of their long-time sole stronghold of Brighton. This change was most telling in Bristol Central – where the party’s co-leader Carla Denyer won a more than 10,000 majority over Labour’s shadow cabinet minister Thangam Debbonnaire – despite as local journalist Tristam Cork reported, Labour throwing “the absolute kitchen sink” at Bristol Central because it feared that if the Greens won there, it would set an example that other voters would follow at the next general election. By contrast the marginal Tory seats surrounding Bristol, Labour expended far fewer resources and energy; showing where they see the potential future threat to emanate from. In at least 35 other seats, the Greens came in second to Labour, showing the future threat they pose and many of these seats are in largely urban areas with diverse and young voters. Many of them are private renters, with a high proportion saddled with student debt, many in insecure work. As Owen Jones points out, this suggests a widespread disillusionment with Labour even before it even came to power and as governments tend to become less popular rather than more popular with age, all this remains a serious concern for the incoming Labour government.

Starmer has said he wants a decade to transform Britain, but his electoral base is broad, shallow, and unstable. Voters rank the NHS, cost of living, migration and housing as their most pressing issues. Dealing with these issues will require a comprehensive strategy, capacity, and money — none of which is much evinced by the Labour manifesto. Keir Starmer faces arguably the most formidable task of any postwar Labour prime minister — reviving a comatose economy, reinvigorating a collapsing state, and most crucially governing a deeply polarised and embittered electorate, who while cynical and exhausted by previous governments which promised much but delivered little, nonetheless have huge demands and expectations for the future. A leader with a strong mandate would find it difficult to fulfil these hopes, a leader without one will struggle.

Conrad K Barwa is a senior research analyst at a private think-tank, and a senior research associate at the Birmingham Business School

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