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Labour’s Historic Majority in UK Reflects Disenchantment With Conservatives

Labour won a commanding majority but with historically low voter turnout and no guarantee whether its hold will last.

Supporters listen as Britain's Labour Party leader Keir Starmer delivers a speech during a victory rally at the Tate Modern in London, early on July 5, 2024.

The U.K.’s Conservative government, which has held power for the last 14 years, was resoundingly booted to the curb by voters in Thursday’s election. It was a huge — and necessary — repudiation for a government that has done vast damage to the country through Brexit, austerity budgeting, xenophobic policies toward asylum seekers, and an inability to keep basic public services such as the National Health Service (NHS) functioning properly. The election result was also a rejection of the political instability that has characterized the Conservatives, who have run through five prime ministers since the Brexit vote.

By night’s end, the Labour Party had more than doubled the number of Parliamentary seats it held, going from being a fairly powerless opposition party to being the party of government, with one of the largest majorities in British history. Conservative grandees went down like ninepins: The minister of defense, the education secretary, the leader of the House of Commons and even ex-Prime Minister Liz Truss all lost their seats. All told, eight ministers in Rishi Sunak’s government went down to defeat, a record decimation of the country’s governing elite.

However, Labour’s victory appears more to be the product of a vast voter rejection of the Conservatives rather than a full-throated embrace of Labour and its political priorities. In fact, below the surface the election wasn’t quite the epic narrative of Labour triumph that some headlines suggest.

The result doesn’t in any way, shape or form show a vast surge in Labour’s overall vote. To the contrary, the Labour party got 40 percent in 2017, when the Tories won reelection in the first post-Brexit vote. This time around, in a low turnout election, Labour looks like it will have snagged less than 35 percent of the vote. Due, however, to the peculiarities of the U.K. electoral system, the distribution of that vote across hundreds of parliamentary constituencies, and the fragmented nature of the non-Labour vote, it has resulted in one of the most lopsided elections in U.K. election history, with the Tories losing more seats than they did even in 1906 in the great “liberal landslide.”

In 1997, when Tony Blair ended 18 years of Conservative Party governance, 45 percent of the electorate went for the Labour Party, giving the new prime minister a 179 seat majority. A generation later, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer will be the new prime minister, with an almost identical majority as Blair’s — yet with only 35 percent popular support (far less than most polls in the run-up to the vote suggested Labour would receive).

How did that happen? Largely Labour’s victory was the result of a stunning collapse of the Conservative vote. But it was also aided by the rise of the hard right anti-immigrant Reform Party, led by the charismatic Nigel Farage, as a viable party competing for the majority of right-wing voters — while Reform only won four seats, in constituency after constituency the populist grouping beat the conservatives, emerging as the second party in scores of seats won by Labour. And the Labour win was facilitated by a successful strategy, pushed by Sir Keir Starmer, to rebrand itself as a determinedly centrist political vehicle, one shorn of the ideological baggage of the Jeremy Corbyn years, and, indeed, purged of Corbyn and many of those deemed too left-wing for the new leadership.

To that end, Starmer’s party didn’t make many political promises, and those it did make — to reduce NHS wait times, for example, or to mildly boost the minimum wage — were milquetoast rather than firebrand. It wasn’t exciting politics, but it worked — convincing a critical mass of voters that the party could implement the longed-for “change” without necessarily triggering ideological warfare.

In a first-past-the-post system, the combination of distaste for the Conservatives combined with Labour’s new strategy proved devastating for the Conservatives. Through a combination of disciplined electioneering and the luck of having a politically exhausted Conservative Party under the hapless Rishi Sunak as its foil, Labour ended up with a massive majority, reducing the Conservatives to their smallest parliamentary representation ever. It was remarkable to see one senior Conservative Party figure after the next losing his or her seat as the night wore on — ex-chancellors, ex-party leaders, and so on. By night’s end, the U.K.’s political map had been comprehensively redrawn.

Yet it was redrawn without the sort of mass voter buy-in that has accompanied other seismic political shifts. In 2019, for example, the Conservatives, in breaking down the Labour Party’s so-called red wall, came in with nearly 44 percent support, an almost identical level of support to that which Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives received in 1979 when the Iron Lady wrested political power away from the Labour Party. In 1945, when Labour won a historic victory against Churchill’s Conservatives, Clement Atlee became prime minister with 48 percent of the voting public having cast their ballots for his party. This time around, Starmer’s party only enjoyed the support of slightly over one-third of the electorate. Notably, Corbyn had won a higher percentage of the vote in 2017 when he was defeated by Theresa May.

At the same time, it was an election characterized by shockingly low voter turnout. It looks likely to have come in at under 60 percent. That indicates a profound level of disenchantment, and disengagement, with the broader political process, after years of political and economic drift, and also a sense of lack of suspense — it’s been abundantly clear for months now that Labour would win in a cakewalk and that the Conservatives would be drummed out of office after years of scandal and dysfunction, so for voters who disliked the Conservatives but weren’t particularly inspired by the rather bland and cautious Labour Party, there was little incentive to vote.

Another parliamentary victory from Thursday may reflect the risk of Labour’s restrained approach: Corbyn, who ran as an independent after being expelled by Starmer in 2020, was reelected, defeating a Labour candidate. “His victory shows that there is an appetite for a more radical policy agenda,” wrote a former director of policy for the Labour Party.

By virtue of the scale of his parliamentary margin, Starmer will come in with a mandate to tackle the many rolling crises that have largely paralyzed British public life in recent years. Yet he will also come in with a Damocletian sword hanging over his new government.

The public mood is as unsettled the day after the election as it was in the months before the election — and while today Starmer’s party has a commanding majority, it’s built on unstable foundations, and there’s no guarantee that that majority won’t prove as fleeting as was the Conservative one Boris Johnson engineered in 2019.

With Farage’s Reform Party surging, the stakes couldn’t be higher: Unlike most countries on the continent, the U.K. has, historically, avoided the scourge of large far right parties competing with mainstream right parties for political preeminence. It would be a tragedy if, out of the progressive seeds sown in Labour’s victory, a hard right party consolidated its role at the heart of the British political process.

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