Home News Labour won a landslide victory in the UK. But doesn’t it feel...

Labour won a landslide victory in the UK. But doesn’t it feel that way?

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British voters handed the Labour Party a landslide victory in the election this week, but the victory came with some negatives.

British Prime Minister Keir Starmer took office on Friday with a commanding majority in Britain’s parliament, but his party won just a third of the vote in terms of total votes, down from when it lost to the Conservatives in 2017. Labour has made gains across the U.K., but its victories have often been overshadowed by Conservative losses, including the ouster of unpopular former Prime Minister Liz Truss.

The voter outcry may be the most important message from the British election. It ushered in a new era of Labour government, handed the Conservatives their worst defeat in history and warned incumbents around the world of the dangers of failing to deliver on their promises.

But Labour’s victory was just one of several crosscurrents that reveal the profound instability of the modern British electorate: the rise of an anti-immigrant insurgent party, Reform UK, which won more than four million votes; a collapse in the vote for the main parties; the lowest voter turnout in decades and the emergence of the Gaza war as a campaign issue that stung Labour candidates, even Mr Starmer.

Although Starmer easily retained his London seat, he won 17,000 fewer votes than in 2019, partly due to a challenge from an independent who channeled left-wing anger over Labour’s stance on Israel and the war in Gaza.

All these factors combined to create a complex election that defies easy categorization: a landslide but not a straightforward realignment of the political landscape; a tilt toward the center-left but providing a valuable foothold for right-wing populism; a Labour landslide but without the euphoria that accompanied Tony Blair’s 1997 landslide. “It was a loveless landslide,” one commentator said on Friday morning.

Anand Menon, professor of European politics at King’s College London, summed up Britain’s complex political situation when he said: “We want change but we are not inspired by the Labour Party.”

In some ways, Britain’s embrace of center-left parties sets it apart from the right-wing tide that is rising across Europe and even in the U.S. Next week, when Starmer travels to Washington for a NATO summit, he will be a fresh force in a dwindling number of centrist leaders: President Biden, French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz.

But some analysts say the election should not be interpreted as an embrace of left-wing policies. Labour’s victory is partly a result of Britain’s first-past-the-post electoral system, which favors large parties over smaller ones. It also reflects the depth of the Conservative Party’s decline, which has been amplified by the Reform Party’s ability to siphon off right-wing voters.

“This is not a big leftward shift,” said Tony Travers, professor of politics at the London School of Economics. “Labor has moderated significantly under Keir Starmer.”

On Friday, Starmer said he knew there was no time to waste in exploiting Labour’s absolute majority: 412 seats, almost as many as Blair won in 1997. He also extended an invitation to voters who had not backed Labour.

“You have given us a clear mandate and we will use it to deliver change,” Starmer told cheering supporters after arriving at 10 Downing Street. “Restore service and respect to politics. End the era of raucous showmanship. Take your lives more lightly. Unite our country.”

Hours after King Charles III invited him to form a government, Starmer went to Buckingham Palace to name his top team, including Rachel Reeves as chancellor, the first woman to hold the post.

Analysts say Starmer must act quickly to satisfy an impatient public. He has pledged to boost the economy by reforming planning laws and supporting an overburdened National Health Service. But with Britain’s public debt ballooning, he has limited tools at his disposal to begin what he has touted as a decade of national renewal.

Moreover, the rise of the Reform Party – which won 14.3% of the vote, compared with 23.7% for the Conservatives and 33.8% for Labour – has left Britain, in the eyes of some, vulnerable to the kind of far-right populism seen in France, especially if the new government fails to quickly secure some victories.

Nigel Farage, the populist radical who led the reform movement and was an early supporter of Brexit, appears to be trying to reinvent himself to that end.

“There is a huge gap on the centre-right in British politics,” a jubilant Farage told cheering supporters in the town of Clacton after winning his first parliamentary seat in eight elections. “My job is to fill that gap and that is exactly what I will do.”

The Reform Party won just five seats, which will limit its voice in the House of Commons, but analysts say Farage can use his platform to torment a Conservative Party that is divided, demoralized and vulnerable to the lure of the far right.

The centrist Liberal Democrats were another big winner Thursday night, winning 12% of the vote and increasing their seats from eight to 71. They dealt a heavy blow to the Conservatives in the Conservative heartland of southern and southwest England. The party is strongly opposed to Brexit and one of its priorities is closer ties with the European Union.

Reform UK and the Liberal Democrats highlight the rapid fragmentation of British politics. Labour and the Conservatives together won just 57.5% of the vote, the lowest share of the vote for the two parties since World War II. In 2019, the two parties won 75.7% of the vote; in 2017, they won 82.4%.

The sense of political weariness was also exacerbated by voter turnout, which at about 60 percent was the lowest since 2001, when Blair won a second term.

In his Downing Street speech, Starmer acknowledged the deep dissatisfaction with the traditional political system. He said: “This leads to a country that is tired at heart, that has lost hope, spirit and belief in a better future. This wound, this lack of trust, can only be healed through actions, not words.”

Professor Travers said traditional voting patterns had been upended in recent years, partly because of the rise of social media, but also because disaffected people were now using elections to get their message across.

“It’s a shift from being firmly committed to one party to being open to new parties,” he said. “People don’t vote the same way their parents did. People don’t vote along class lines anymore. They just don’t identify as much with parties anymore.”

Another important difference between this election and the previous two: it was not dominated by the Brexit debate. Britain’s 2016 decision to leave the European Union received little attention during the six-week campaign, with both parties reluctant to rehash the arguments of the past seven years. Labour focused on family matters such as the economy and the NHS.

But just because Brexit is absent from the debate doesn’t mean it hasn’t played a role. The emotions stoked by the referendum have divided the Conservatives, pushing them in more extreme directions on issues like immigration. Many voters blame Brexit for Britain’s economic ills, either because it has hampered trade with Europe or, in the view of Brexiteers, because Brexit was never properly implemented.

“Brexit is still the root of all this,” Professor Travers said. “The Conservative party has suffered because of it. Also, Brexit is now unpopular or seen as not being handled well.”

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