Dem 51
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GOP 49
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Report on the British Elections

Now that the dust has settled a bit, we have some comments on the results of the U.K. elections from two of our regular British correspondents. First up, S.T. in Worcestershire, England, UK:

In 1979, the Labour Prime Minister Jim Callaghan commented to one of his aides that "There are times, perhaps every 30 years, when there is a sea change in politics. I suspect that there is now such a sea change." Looking at the results of last week's General Election campaign, has this been a sea change election?

In truth, these elections happen rarely. Arguably there were only three in the U.K. in the 20th century. The Liberal victory in 1906 led to a series of social and economic reforms and ultimately, when the Conservative-controlled House of Lords obstructed, amended, or voted down these measures, led to the single most important constitutional change of the century, the abolition of the Lords veto (although only after two further general elections). Labour's first majority government in 1945 saw a series of social reforms, many of which are still on place, notably the totemic National Health Service, economic changes such as the nationalisation of key industries, new planning policies and regional policies, and the start of decolonization with Indian independence. The Conservative victory in 1979, forever to be associated with Margaret Thatcher, rejected government intervention and saw a policy of selling state enterprises and assets, moving from direct to indirect taxation and attempts to remove perceived barriers to economic growth.

We are now 45 years on from 1979 and arguably the changes made then have proved notably durable. Of course, that is partly because the Conservatives have been in sole or joint power for 32 of them. It is notable, though, that the Labour government between 1997 and 2010 took a "sticking plaster" approach, ameliorating specific problems with the introduction of a minimum wage and tax credits to assist the low-paid, and promoting some policies to aid social mobility and early life chances. The presumption, however, that the private sector was more effective than the public remained largely unchallenged, resulting notably in what proved to be the ruinously expensive "public-private partnerships." Whilst economic times were good, this seemed to suffice. When the banking crisis hit in 2008 it came under strain. The austerity program from 2010 onwards undid much of it.

The manifestos of the main parties in this election were notably timid when it came to change. The Conservatives, taking a pick-and-mix approach to the Thatcherite legacy, promoted tax cuts as the main panacea. Labour announced a few very limited tax increases and spending targets but little else. The LibDems promised specific funding on the health and care sectors. For Reform, ending immigration would just about solve every problem. Arguably, only the Greens offered a fresh vision of any scale. All parties offered "carefully costed" programs which, under examination, proved laughable.

Yet this seems odd. In many ways the Thatcherite legacy is proving deeply flawed. Many of the U.K.'s most endemic problems have been created or exacerbated by it. To give a few examples: The ever widening gulf between the rich and the rest, and between the South East and the remainder of the country; a widely dysfunctional and expensive housing and rental market; a healthcare system with record waiting lists and a social care system in near collapse; high levels of debt in both the public and private realms; previously state-owned utilities and assets now operating as private monopolies and oligopolies; an emaciated local government with several councils (including Birmingham, the largest in the country) having declared effective bankruptcy and more to follow. Growth is weak and investment levels miserable.

The level of change proposed by the parties rarely exceeds 1% of GDP. It seems inadequate to address the issues faced. And an intellectual argument to support change—as was in place in 1906, 1945 and 1979—seems largely absent. New PM Kier Starmer's solution is "growth," but whilst a more stable political scene is probably a necessary prerequisite to achieve this, it is unlikely to create it per se—and have you ever met a politician who opposes growth?

So unless Starmer shows a willingness to go much further than his campaign promised, this does not appear to be a sea change election. Merely just another footnote in the U.K.'s relative decline?
And now, A.B. in Lichfield, England, UK:
Elections are sometimes as much about expectation management as they are about the actual results, and it says much about the slightly surreal nature of the U.K. election that Labour are likely slightly disappointed at their massive landslide victory, because their 412 seats fell just short of the 418 won in Tony Blair's 1997 landslide victory, while the Conservatives are likely slightly relieved that they didn't do worse, despite their 121-seat total easily falling below the previous worst result in the party's history (the 156 seats won in the 1906 Liberal landslide). But, then, most polls had Labour doing better, and the Conservatives doing worse, than the final result.

Back in May, I wrote a summary of what I thought were the "eight key points to look out for" in this election. Let's quickly revisit those, as they help to unpack what happened last Thursday:
  1. How well will Labour recover in the "Red Wall" seats? Easy answer: spectacularly. The traditional Labour-voting seats in the post-industrial Midlands and North of England (the equivalent of the Midwest Rust Belt) were won back resoundingly. Outside a smattering of the wealthier districts of London and Birmingham, there's barely an urban seat in Great Britain held by the Conservative Party. The Red Wall hasn't just been recaptured, it's been extended. Labour also found themselves winning rural seats in the Midlands and North where the Conservatives had won more than 50% of the vote in the last election.

  2. How well will Labour recover in Scotland? Arguably even more spectacularly. In 2019, the pro-independence Scottish National Party (SNP) won 45% of the Scottish vote, and 48 of the 59 Scottish seats. Labour won just one seat in Scotland, coming fourth in seat total behind the Conservative Party (6 seats) and LibDems (4). In last week's elections, the SNP—dragged down by years of scandal, political mismanagement, internal disagreements over social policy, and hubris—were reduced to just 9 seats, while Labour won 37 of the Scottish seats (the LibDems were on 6, and Conservatives on 5). Labour has returned to a position of dominance in Scotland it hasn't held since its support collapsed in the 2015 general election, and even the SNP are conceding that independence is off the table for the foreseeable future. The SNP arguably had the worst night of any major party. Even the Conservatives could take some occasional crumbs of comfort in aspects of the result across the U.K. as a whole; there are no crumbs for the SNP.

  3. How well will the Liberal Democrats do in the "Blue Wall"? Are we tired of me writing "spectacularly," yet? The LibDems, the traditional, centrist third party in the UK, won 72 seats, the best result for any third party since their predecessors in the old Liberal Party won 158 seats in the 1923 election—not bad for a party that only won 11 seats in the 2019 election. While the Party now holds seats across U.K., from the southern tip of Cornwall to Orkney and Shetland off the north of Scotland, much of their success came from winning seat after seat in traditionally Conservative seats in the south of England. There's now a band of 39 contiguous Lib Dem-held seats between North Devon in the southwest and Eastbourne in the southeast, forming a yellow wall around the remaining Conservative seats in the region.

  4. How badly will the Conservatives do in London? Very badly indeed. They now hold only 9 of the capital's 73 seats, with the LibDems holding 6, and Labour holding all but one of the rest. That sole exception is former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, who ran and held his seat as an independent after being expelled from the Party. One of the notes of caution for Labour this election is in their loss of 5 seats to pro-Gaza independents in urban seats across England, with 4 of those (the exception again being Corbyn) in areas with a notably high percentage of Muslim voters. So while the impact of Gaza may not have been significant, it was nonetheless notable.

  5. How well will Reform UK do? This is... complicated. Back in May I predicted that the populist hard-right Reform would split the right, but fail to get any MPs elected; in the end, they managed to elect 5, and came third in share of the vote (behind the Conservatives, but ahead of the LibDems). That, however, was before Friend of Trump Nigel Farage announced that he was taking over as party leader again, and would be contesting the seat of Clacton. This pushed the party towards winning a handful of seats, but they remain less ruthless and effective than the LibDems in targeting winnable constituencies. Their real impact was, paradoxically, in helping Labour and the LibDems. Reform won just over 14% of the vote across the U.K., while Labour won 34% (yes, nearly two-thirds of seats on just over a third of the vote), the Conservatives 24%, and the LibDems 12%. But in the U.K. system, you only need to win the most number of votes in a constituency, not 50% of the vote. So in the Welsh seat of Brecon, Radnor and Cwm Tawe, for example, the LibDem candidate won the seat with just 29.5% of the vote. Reform came fourth, but a hypothetical combined Conservative and Reform vote total would have comprised 40% of the vote and won the seat. This will have profound implications for the Conservative Party over the next few years, as they decide whether to tack to the center to attract Labour and LibDem voters, or tack to the right to attract Reform voters. Meanwhile, Farage won Clacton, and will seek to be a loud and disruptive voice in British political discussions.

  6. Will tactical voting hurt the Conservatives? A strong yes. Across the U.K., centrist and center-left voters were willing to vote for the party best-placed to defeat the Conservatives rather than their preferred party, and this significantly increased seat totals for Labour and the LibDems while depressing the Conservative total. Alongside the rise of Reform, this is one of the two factors that hurt the Conservatives the most.

  7. Will Nationalists/Republicans win more seats than Unionists in Northern Ireland? Yes, but with caveats. Of the parties in the Nationalist/Republication tradition, Sinn Féin won 7 of the 18 Northern Irish seats, with the traditionally more moderate SDLP winning another 2; in both cases, this was the same number of seats won in 2019. Meanwhile, the scandal-ridden Democratic Unionists slumped from the 8 seats they won in 2019 to just 5. However, none of the three lost seats were won by Nationalists. One was won by the more moderate Ulster Unionists, one by the more hardline True Unionists, and one by the non-sectarian cross-community Alliance Party. So Sinn Féin becoming the largest Northern Irish party (with the important note that they still abstain from taking up their Westminster seats) is arguably down to splits in Unionism rather than SF winning more seats. This is nonetheless a potentially significant symbolic moment in Northern Irish politics.

  8. Whither Wales? An expenses scandal facing Labour Welsh First Minister Vaughan Gething had very little impact on the overall result in the country. Labour maintained their stranglehold on the old mining and industrial districts, the Welsh Nationalists of Plaid Cymru won the 4 seats where the Welsh language still has the strongest presence, the LibDems won a single rural seat, and the Conservatives were completely wiped out.
So what does this all mean? Labour's victory is simultaneously broad but shallow. If voters in the next election (due no later than 2029) are less willing to vote tactically, if the split on the right is somehow addressed, if the SNP recover in Scotland (and support for independence remains static at 45% or so, even as support for the main pro-independence party has collapsed), if Gaza continues to be an issue, then Labour could be in for a much rougher time than their massive 2024 majority might suggest. Again, they've won nearly two-thirds of the seats in Parliament on only just over a third of the vote. And the in-tray facing Keir Starmer is formidable.

At the same time, I'm perhaps more cautiously optimistic than my compatriot S.T. Tone matters; so does competence. Starmer is widely perceived as slightly boring, but after the last 8 years of chaos since the Brexit referendum, many U.K. voters would welcome a period of quietly competent serious government in the national interest, as opposed to in the interests of the perpetual internal psychodramas of the Conservative Party, even where they might disagree with individual policies. If Starmer can deliver on the latter, and can also show clear evidence of incremental improvements on the challenges the country faces, voters might well be relieved.

I'll close by noting two significant differences between U.K. elections and recent U.S. elections. The farewell speech from Rishi Sunak saw the outgoing PM take full responsibility for the poor result, acknowledge public anger towards his party, and offer gracious and generous praise to Keir Starmer, describing him as a "decent, public-spirited man, who I respect." The contrast with Trump couldn't be sharper. Meanwhile, we're replacing a Hindu Prime Minister of South Asian heritage with an atheist who celebrates the Shabbat on a weekly basis with his observant Jewish wife and children; Evangelical Protestantism is virtually absent in political debate, and Christianity isn't a prerequisite for prime ministers.

Thanks to both of you! We still have reader perspectives on other foreign elections in the hopper, which will be published shortly, followed by some meta commentary from us. (Z)

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