The UK’s Major Political Shifts

Photograph Source: Simon Dawson / No 10 Downing Street – OGL 3

“The entire clown show caught up with us.”

– Anonymous senior Tory speaking after the election result

Last week the Conservative Party received an absolute drubbing in the UK general election.

The Tories had their worst performance in their 190-year history, losing almost half their share of the vote and 252 parliamentary seats in the 650-seat House of Commons, surpassing their previously greatest electoral catastrophe, when the Balfour government went under in 1906, losing 246 seats. There are now 121 Conservative MPs, and no Tory MPs in Central London, Wales, Oxfordshire (one of the leafy shires that were previous Tory strongholds), and Cornwall (which has had at least one Tory MP since 1924).

The Tory campaign was woefully inept. Rishi Sunak, hardly the most prepossessing of physical specimens, held its launch outside the prime minister’s residence in Downing Street during a torrential downpour, while spurning an umbrella—he ended-up looking like a tormented drowning rat.

A Sunak campaign visit to Titanic yard in Belfast (near where the Titanic was built, but now populated by luxury condominiums), was an open invitation to journalists to ask if he was the captain of a sinking ship.

Another Sunak campaign stump at Silverstone, the UK’s Formula One racing venue, simply brought to mind the contrast between the sleekly high-performing racing cars and a rickety Tory campaign with wheels that were falling off.

Sunak also made the terrible mistake of bailing on the second-half of the 80thyear commemorative D-Day ceremony in Normandy. The Tories pay lip service to the notion that they are the patriotic party, and Sunak’s refusal to be at what was probably the last such D-Day commemoration attended by aging veterans, created a barely concealed racist hullabaloo in the rightwing media (with snide insinuations about Sunak’s brown skin and Indian immigrant background, overlooking the fact that 87,000 colonial Indian soldiers died fighting for the Allies in World War II). Sunak was taught the hard way that no one can be a Tory leader with being heedful of perceived patriotic obsequies.

Sunak’s campaign was not helped by the fact that several prominent Tories, seeing the proverbial writing on the wall, decided to retire rather than contest the election, while others who remained election candidates simply went into hiding. As a result the Tory media campaign was fronted by second-raters who were unrecognizable to all but the most dedicated political aficionados, and they were of course no match for the sharpest TV and radio interviewers. (Unlike the US, the top British media interviewers do not pose “soft ball” questions— Sam Donaldson, and Helen Thomas in the White House press room, were probably the last US media figures seriously to challenge politicians on screen and in the air, and their prime years were during the Reagan, Bush I and II, and Clinton presidencies.)

As a last straw, the closing days of the election campaign saw disclosures of Tory officials and politicians using insider knowledge to bet on the setting of the date of the general election. This is now the subject of a police investigation.

Bereft of ideas, and mired in sleaze and corruption, the Tories resorted to a “war on woke”. Alas for them this only served to wake up the British public.

With regard to the election itself, the low turnout of 59.9% was a sharp decrease from the 67.3% that voted in the 2019 election– it was the lowest turnout at a general election since 2001, when just 59.4% voted, this being the lowest percentage since before World War II.

Labour’s vote-share was just under 34% (though it won 64% of the seats), the lowest score for a majority-winning party since 1832, and not much greater than the 30.7% that Tory John Major received in 1997, when he was annihilated by New Labour’s Tony Blair. Blair won 43.2% of the vote and 418 seats (to the Tories 165 seats). In 2024 the Tory vote-share plunged from Boris Johnson’s 2019 44% to Sunak’s 24%.

These figures indicate overall that Starmer’s majority was wide but relatively shallow. For one thing, Labour did not achieve the 253-seat super-majority that Blair did in 1997. So what preempted a more deep-rooted victory?

Obviously the above-mentioned low turnout played a part—historically Tory voters, more prosperous in general and more resolute than Labour supporters in defending their class interests, turn up in proportionally greater numbers at polling stations.

Labour also benefitted from gains made by the hard-right Reform, which ate significantly into the Tory vote. Although it only won 5 seats,

Reform came 2nd in 103 constituencies, primarily those which had voted for Brexit in 2016 (and thus Tory in 2019). Over 4 million people voted for Reform, giving it 14% of the total vote. The vagaries of the UK’s first-past-the-post electoral system translated this into a mere 5 Commons seats (including one for its leader Nigel Farage), but Farage now has a base from which he can capitalize even further on Tory disarray, as well as potential dissatisfaction with Labour on immigration (Reform’s pet theme, based largely on approximations of Schroedinger’s Cat fantasies about “furriners” taking jobs from native Brits, but also somehow coming over to milk the UK’s unemployment benefits system). Something like a challenge to Labour on this issue is bound to happen, given that Labour has pledged to reform the UK’s chaotic immigration structure to make it fairer and more coherent, and shows no signs of faltering in this undertaking. There is nothing altruistic about this stance, since everyone knows that voters with proximate immigrant backgrounds tend to vote Labour.

The combined Tory–Reform vote, at 38%, was larger than Labour’s 34% share. So in the end was the result more of an anti-Conservative vote, than a pro-Labour one?

Another contributing factor to Labour’s landslide but shallow electoral outcome was due to areas with a Muslim electorate of 20+% who baulked at Starmer’s Zionism regarding Gaza– Labour lost 5 seats to pro-Palestinian candidates who stood as Independents, including the former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, who had been expelled from the party by Starmer.

Labour gains were also enabled by the Scottish National Party’s implosion in Scotland. The SNP, which won 48 seats in 2019, won 9 this time, while Labour, who won a single Scottish seat in 2019, now has 37. This creates a conundrum for independence-seeking Scots, who number around 45% consistently in opinion polls, but who now have no viable political party to further this aspiration.

Yet another factor contributing to the Tory defeat was the strongest Lib Dem showing since 1923. The Lib Dems got 71 seats, at the expense of the Tories in the main, indicating fairly clearly that many voters who were anti-Tory preferred the Lib Dems to Labour.

The Greens, more progressive than the now centrist or even centre-right Labour, increased their vote share from less than 3% to 7%, but  gained a mere 4 seats. The Greens came second behind Labour in dozens of seats, thus highlighting yet again the fundamental unfairness of the UK’s first-past-the-post electoral system.

Green voters are largely  in urban areas with an often varied and younger electorate. Many live in rental properties, often carrying the burden of student debt, and with a large proportion in precarious jobs. Labour, with its greater determination in catering to capitalist interests and the asset-manager class in particular, poses less appeal for this kind of individual.

As a result, more Labour MPs in urban areas will have to compete for votes with the more progressive Greens. This will be reflected in growing incentives to tax the wealthy, enhancing public ownership of now privatized industries, the abolition of tuition fees, greater investment by the government, the amelioration of child poverty, and

stronger measures in addressing the climate crisis. Labour will not have the alibi of treating the Tories and Reform as its sole electoral competitors, thereby competing with them in endless rounds of  spurious measures to thwart asylum seekers and in race-to-the bottom cuts in public expenditures.

14 years of Conservative rule brought Brits cruel austerity, ruinous Brexit, Boris Johnson’s Covid-era Partygate, Covid pandemic PPE corruption, economic decline, the proliferation of food banks, the Grenfell Tower fire disaster, and so forth. The Tories came to power in 2010, and everything in 2024 has become worse for most Brits.

“Change” was Keir Starmer’s constant refrain during the campaign. At the same time, all he offered voters were Tory-lite policies and retro-patriotism. The fare offered was so light that the Murdoch-owned media endorsed him. So what is the context in which “change” can occur?

In addition to problems caused by harmful Tory policies since 2010, the UK faces longer-term and more deeply entrenched structural problems.

Wage growth from 2010 to 2020 was the lowest over any peacetime 10-year period since the Napoleonic Wars. The UK’s annual growth rate in productivity since 2007 has been a paltry  0.4%, its lowest over an equivalent period since 1826.

Per capita GDP has grown by a feeble 4.3% over the past 16 years, compared with 46% in the previous 16 years. Moreover, GDP growth over the past few years has been generated almost exclusively by the size of overall population growth. That is to say, by the immigration that both Labour and the Tories say they want to curtail.

Tory governments go by the mantra of  low taxes, but this government has had to increase taxes to a level not seen in almost 75 years, when the UK was still suffering from economic burdens incurred in World War II. A flatlining economy reduces the government’s revenue streams, and the reduction of these streams has had to be countered by increased taxation.

The average annual real wage has fallen by about $14,000 below the level existing before the financial crash of 2008.

The new Labour government will have to confront these seeming intractables. Keir Starmer has said Labour needs two terms in office to remedy these problems. He is being optimistic.

The UK’s economic problems are long-term and systemic. They can’t be dealt with in the span of a single government’s two (or even more) terms in office.

The social contract which existed from the end of World War II until it was dissolved by Margaret Thatcher ensured that wages kept up with productivity. That generation had decent incomes, and assets (especially housing) were reasonably priced.

What came with Thatcher, however, was a switch of emphasis from the productive economy to financialization– basically speculation and arbitrage on asset prices. Asset prices were jacked up in a series of speculative bubbles to create “wealth,  for those possessing assets.

But inflating asset prices also meant that they were increasingly out of reach for a newer generation trying to acquire them for the first time.

An entire generation– a recent Guardian piece called it ‘Generation Rent’ (though rents are unaffordable for young families in 66% of the UK) — has been wiped-out when it comes to having a long-term stake in the economy.

To remedy this at least 2 things will have to happen: (1) the UK’s productive economy will have to be restored: and (2) the UK’s archaic and dysfunctional political system will have to be realigned drastically if the first objective is to be achieved.

Nothing proposed by Starmer, who uses the word “delivery” as often as “change”, comes remotely near to delivering on these 2 objectives.

Kenneth Surin teaches at Duke University, North Carolina.  He lives in Blacksburg, Virginia.