Don't be fooled by Labour's big UK win: British politics is melting down

Yes, Keir Starmer won a massive majority as the Tories collapsed — but the stage is set for a far-right comeback

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published July 6, 2024 5:45AM (EDT)

Keir Starmer and Nigel Farage (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Keir Starmer and Nigel Farage (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

It’s too early to draw clear conclusions about the meaning of Thursday’s dramatic national election in the U.K., and still less about what lessons it might offer to America's feeble attempt to preserve democracy. But one thing is clear enough: Headlines around the world announcing that Keir Starmer’s Labour Party has won a huge victory are factually accurate yet fail to convey the underlying complexity of the situation — especially the extent to which British politics has been thrown into complete disorder. 

Starmer, the moderate who has led Labour since 2020 following the party’s crushing defeat the previous year under leftist avatar Jeremy Corbyn, literally became prime minister overnight after the resignation of Rishi Sunak, who also announced that he would step down as leader of the Conservative Party. Sunak oversaw his party's devastating collapse at the polls over the six-week election campaign, and has no possible political future after that. Based on near-final vote counts, Labour has won 412 of the 650 seats in the House of Commons — one of the largest majorities in British political history, and the party’s biggest win since Tony Blair’s neoliberal-flavored “New Labour” surged to victory in 1997.

But the actual voting patterns in this week's election appear not just counterintuitive but counterfactual, compared to those results.

Labour’s overall percentage of the total vote was up less than two points from its near-catastrophic 2019 loss — in fact, it appears that Labour received 500,000 fewer votes nationwide than it did under the supposedly toxic Corbyn regime. And if we compare this week's election with Corbyn’s narrow loss to Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May in 2017, the picture is even more upside-down: In that election, Labour got 40% of the vote and about 12.9 million votes overall; this time around, in what will go down as a historic victory, Labour garnered less than 34% of the vote, about 9.7 million in all. 

It’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that below the surface Britain has just experienced an implosion of mainstream electoral politics.

Starmer’s supporters will no doubt shrug that off, and maybe they’re right: What matters in the British system, as in ours, is winning enough seats to control the reins of government, and Labour has certainly done that. But it’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that below the surface Britain has just experienced an implosion of mainstream electoral politics, along the lines of what has already happened in major European nations like France, Germany and Italy. The full consequences of that meltdown are effectively concealed, however, by the U.K.’s “first past the post” electoral system, in which the candidate with the most votes in a given district wins the seat, even when that person often (or, indeed, most of the time) falls well short of a majority. 

So how in the name of Guy Fawkes and John Bull could Labour have literally shed millions of votes over the past seven years and won such a massive majority? The real story here, to be sure, is the astonishing total collapse of the pro-Brexit, cross-class coalition put together by disgraced former Prime Minister Boris Johnson in his sweeping 2019 victory. The Tories (as the Conservatives have been known since before the party’s official creation) lost roughly half their vote total from that election, falling to 24% of the overall total and fewer than 7 million votes.

There are ample and satisfactory reasons for that, given the insulting and chaotic quality of Tory misrule over the last 14 years and the U.K.'s general mood of doom and gloom — but where did all those votes go? Not to Labour, clearly enough, and largely not to the centrist Liberal Democrats, who won a startling total of 71 seats — their best showing since the days of the old Liberal Party in the 1920s — but also lost votes, weirdly enough, compared to 2019. 

How in the name of Guy Fawkes and John Bull could Labour have literally shed millions of votes over the past seven years and won such a massive majority?

The only parties that actually gained a significant share of the vote since the last election? Well, let's give a very quiet shout-out to the Green Party, which got nearly 2 million votes and goes from one seat in Parliament to four. Many of the 7 million or so missing Tory voters from 2019 (along with the half-million missing Labour voters) simply stayed home; turnout this year is estimated at 60%, which would be decent in the U.S. but represents the second-lowest rate in Britain in the last 140 years. Those ex-Tory voters who did show up largely punched their tickets for what might be called the secret subterranean winners of this election: Reform U.K., the newly-hatched ultra-nationalist, anti-immigrant party led by professional far-right provocateur and Donald Trump superfan Nigel Farage.

Reform, which was originally known as the Brexit Party before its official rebranding on Jan. 6, 2021, only won five seats in Parliament, one of which will be held by Farage himself. But in terms of total votes and vote share, it has suddenly become the third-largest party in Britain, outpolling the Liberal Democrats (despite their impressive electoral gains) by roughly 600,000 votes. More to the point, Reform accomplished its chaos-agent agenda by torpedoing the Tories in countless parliamentary districts, splitting the right-wing vote and handing over scores of previous “blue wall” seats — the U.K. political color palette being the reverse of America’s — to Labour or the Lib Dems. 

This leads to the most salient single fact of the 2024 British election: Labour's huge parliamentary majority is built on just 9.7 million votes; Reform and the Tories, put together, got nearly 11 million — and as a hypothetical united force, would probably have won. On paper and in the House of Commons, Keir Starmer looks like this year’s big winner, but the pendulum that just swung so hard in his direction can just as easily swing back. He needs to learn the lesson that American liberals and progressives are absorbing, in painful fashion, right now: Don’t assume that the disgruntled far right has been beaten just because it lost an election. 

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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