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Keir Starmer’s Labour Party has a thumping election win – what does it mean for the UK and the rest of the world?

UK Election 2024: Labour's Victory and Conservative Defeat


Keir Starmer’s Labour Party has a thumping election win – what does it mean for the UK and the rest of the world?

This is a historic moment in British politics. It’s a huge win for Labour. It’s a historic loss for the Conservatives. It also seems to have been the product of one of the lowest turnouts in history.

Disaffection is rife. There is a strong sense that this was a vote against the Conservatives more than a vote for Labour.

But for the Labour Party, a win is win, as they say. Exit polls suggest Labour will end up with 410 of the 650 seats in the new parliament, with the Tories predicted to claim just 131.

The UK’s new prime minister will be Sir Keir Starmer. Knighted for his pre-parliamentary career as a senior public servant, Starmer has worked hard to change the Labour Party’s image since the 2019 loss under the left-wing Jeremy Corbyn. Starmer and his colleagues have positioned the party in the centre ground of British politics – and reaped the rewards as the Conservatives tacked rightwards.

Yet this victory may be a castle made of sand, albeit one protected by the size of its majority. The electorate is still volatile, as it was in 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2019. It raises the question of whether this win is a seachange in British politics in Labour’s favour – and in contrast to the direction of politics in Europe – or another instance of electoral volatility.

Dull defeats disastrous

In the short term, this campaign made little difference.

Labour’s election campaign was the equivalent of watching a 0-0 draw that qualified your soccer team for the finals: cautious, safe, got the job done, but failed to excite.

The Conservatives’ election campaign had all the drama of a funeral on Eastenders: you knew it would go off the rails at some stage, but weren’t quite sure when or how often that would be. (And it did.)

The parties that had the best campaigns were the radical-right Reform UK led by Nigel Farage and the centrist Liberal Democrats. This hurt the Conservatives in two ways: the right-wing vote split, and moderate conservative voters moved to the centre. Labour lost some support but that barely touched this sides of its consistent 20-point poll lead.

In the medium term, the Conservatives effectively lost the election back in 2022. This was due to Boris Johnson’s lack of integrity and Liz Truss’s experiment in think-tank-inspired, retro-Thatcherite economics. The Conservatives lost the already wavering trust of the electorate at that point.

In the long term, demographic change has done its bit, as seats that analysts used to assume were “Labour” or “Conservative” now aren’t. The scale of the majority suggests graduates, home owners and the poor have joined what may prove to be a broad and unstable electoral coalition that Starmer will need to manage.

Labour’s moment

Nonetheless, this is still a historic win for Labour.

Electorates tend to use Labour governments as correctives to Tory misrule. This victory seems to fit that pattern and we are in for one of the few periods of Labour government since 1945.

Although votes are still being counted, this win will compare to the landslide under Tony Blair in 1997. Labour’s small-target electoral strategy made sense, but the public’s engagement with the party’s policies and its leader has consequently been limited.

Labour’s manifesto promised “mission-driven government”. The new government’s immediate focus will be on economic growth, green energy provision, more policing, more childcare, better education and – as always in England and across the UK – improving the beloved National Health Service (NHS), which is in a perpetual state of crisis.

Also look out for votes for 16-year-olds, and – given the size of the majority – House of Lords reform. The latter could be turned into an elected chamber representing the nations, regions and cities of the UK. Whether this will effectively address forces of disintegration in the UK remains to be seen.

Ideologically, this looks like a win for “left conservatism”. Even if the UK appears to be bucking the European trend of heading to the right, the centre of political gravity has shifted rightwards.

The strange death of conservative England?

Amid the popping of champagne bottles at Labour HQ, spare a thought for the losers. Or maybe don’t. Its hard to feel that the party that brought the UK austerity, Brexit, a hapless response to the pandemic, and Liz Truss’s grasp of economics deserves much sympathy. There is a deep sense that Britain is broken.

But schadenfreude aside, there is legitimate cause for concern about where the Conservatives might go after this. One of the winners of the election was Reform UK. Led by Farage, Reform UK is the sort of xenophobic, pro-Putin radical right party that is established on continental Europe.

With all the losses in seats once considered solidly Conservative, moderate voices will be swamped by those who look to Giorgia Meloni, Viktor Orbán, Marine Le Pen and, of course, Donald Trump for ways to revitalise right-wing parties and win elections on divisive platforms.

Reform has about 17% of the overall vote, according to the most recent pre-election polls, and an estimated 13 seats in Parliament. His party’s relatively good showing will give Farage a lot of leverage over the Conservatives as they seek to comprehend the scale of their defeat.

Labour believes it can challenge the radical right insurgency more successfully than Macron. One thing it can do right away is change the tone of politics.

Since Brexit the right has courted socially conservative voters, usually men, and shaped politics as a series of culture war, “anti-woke” issues (think “your uncle at Christmas after a few sherries”, but worse). This can and should change immediately to help restore badly damaged trust in politics that the low turnout reflects.

So to prevent a France-like collapse of the political centre, the Conservatives need to be a truly centrist party in tune with the social changes of the past two generations. This will help preserve public civility and prevent democratic backsliding.

So what does this mean for Australia?

Assuming there is no great change in Starmer’s shadow cabinet, David Lammy will become foreign minister. Lammy is keen to make the case of what he calls “progressive realism”. This means ongoing support for Ukraine, but also closer relations with the European Union short of joining the customs union, notwithstanding the very real prospect of a far-right party dominating French politics during Labour’s years in power.

It also means AUKUS is locked in from the UK’s perspective: it’s good for jobs in the north of England. The main threat to AUKUS and support for Ukraine comes from a Trump presidency in Washington.

But, for now, Labour can enjoy the rare feeling of an election win.The Conversation

Ben Wellings, Associate Professor in Politics and International Relations, Monash University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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