UK Labour’s victory rests on rocky foundations

5 July 2024
Jordan Humphreys
Labour Party leader Keir Starmer PHOTO: AFP

The British Labour Party has won the UK general election, securing a large majority of seats and routing the Conservative Party, which ruled the country for the last fourteen years. The Tories, as the conservatives are known, have been reduced to a rump, losing 250 seats, including some that have voted for the party since it was formed in the 1830s.

Labour’s victory was widely predicted. The Conservatives stumbled through years of explosive political controversies, from Boris Johnson’s flouting of pandemic restrictions to party with his rich friends to the meltdown of Liz Truss, who held the prime ministership for just 49 days. The chaos was fuelled by divisions within the party and among its base—between centrist conservatives and a radicalised far right. The results showed the latter’s influence: Nigel Farage’s far-right Reform UK party won more than 14 percent of the vote.

The last fourteen years have been a disaster for workers. In the wake of the 2008 global financial crisis, the Conservatives slashed government spending, leaving schools and the health system to crumble. Wages stagnated; working-class communities were devastated. Meanwhile, the Conservatives funnelled money to their wealthy mates and the bankers of the City of London.

As the masses became alienated from the government, the Conservatives moved sharply to the right. They tried to divide the population and give themselves the appearance of popular support. They deported refugees, demonised trans people, condemned the left and riled up their conservative base. Yet while people were turned on each other, they also turned on the Tories, leading to the emergence of various far-right formations and a revolving door of prime ministers.

All of this fed the widespread desire for the Conservatives to suffer a humiliating defeat. Few will mourn the end of Conservative rule in Britain.

Yet Labour’s victory is far less impressive than it first appears.

Keir Starmer’s Labour comes to power with the lowest primary vote of any party entering or retaining government since 1929. While it will hold 65 percent of the seats in the new parliament, this is almost double its share of the vote, which was less than 34 percent. That’s more than 6 percentage points lower than when Labour lost the 2017 election under the leadership of left-winger Jeremy Corbyn. It is barely higher than the Labour result in 2019—a result considered so terrible that it led to the removal of Corbyn as Labour leader.

So while voters despised the Conservatives, not many were won to Labour. Some of those deserting the Tories were traditional right-wing voters who instead backed either the centrist Liberal Democrats or Reform UK.

Substantial numbers of working-class people and young left-wing voters also refused to vote for Labour. In Islington North, Jeremy Corbyn won as an independent, defeating the official Labour candidate by more than 7,000 votes. Pro-Palestinian independent Shockat Adam defeated Labour shadow cabinet minister Jonathan Ashworth in a surprise win. Ashworth’s vote plunged to 13,760, from 33,606 in 2019.

Another pro-Palestine independent, Adnan Hussain, defeated Labour in Blackburn, an industrial city held by the party for the last 69 years. So too did Iqbal Mohamed in Dewsbury and Batley, and Ayoub Khan in Birmingham Perry Barr. In Ilford North, pro-Palestine independent Leanne Mohamad was just 500 votes behind the Labour candidate. As well, Labour shadow culture minister Thangam Debbonaire lost their seat to the Greens in Bristol Central by more than 10,000 votes.

Even Labour leader Keir Starmer wasn’t immune to the backlash over his staunch support for Israel’s genocide. Starmer’s vote fell to 18,884, from 36,641 in 2019. Andrew Feinstein, a South African-born anti-Zionist Jewish activist, came second, winning more than 7,000 votes.

Then there were those who voted for no-one. Voter turnout was 60 percent, the second lowest in any general election since the franchise was established in 1928.

Even among those who voted for Labour, there was hardly great enthusiasm for Starmer’s project. The chief data reporter for the Financial Times, John Burn-Murdoch, noted on X that the “lack of enthusiasm for Labour at this election really is striking”, pointing to analysis of a British Election Study poll revealing that “among those who plan to vote Labour ... the party is much less well-liked than in 2019, 2017 or 2015 (no data before that)”. A YouGov poll found that 71 percent of voters felt that the election campaign didn’t address any issues they cared about.

All of this is understandable when you look at what Starmer’s Labour Party is all about.

“Change begins now”, Starmer said in his victory speech, “and it feels good, I have to be honest, after four and a half years of work changing the party. This is what it is for!” Later, he repeatedly returned to the theme, telling the audience: “The party has changed”, “We will govern as a changed Labour Party”, “The values of this changed Labour Party are the guiding principles of a new government”, “This election could only have been won by a changed Labour Party”.

Starmer was referring to his four-year crusade to destroy the influence of Jeremy Corbyn and shift the party to the right. In this, he has been very successful. At the launch of the party manifesto in June, Starmer argued that Labour should be “pro-business” and “the party of wealth creation”. He rejected the idea that there should be higher taxes on big businesses and argued that significant increases to social services were ruled out because “you cannot play fast and loose with the public finances”.

The British bosses have lapped it up. In May, the Times newspaper printed a statement by 120 business leaders supporting Starmer’s party. Starmer also received the backing of the majority of the corporate newspapers, including the Murdoch-owned Sun and the voices of the centre-right establishment, the Economist and the Financial Times.

In response to Conservatives and the far right running a hysterical campaign demonising refugees and migrants, Starmer has made it very clear where his government will stand. “Read my lips—I will bring immigration numbers down”, he told the Sun. “I will control our borders and make sure British businesses are helped to hire Brits first.”

Israel’s war on Gaza only intensified Starmer’s campaign to shift Labour ever further to the right. Speaking to Jewish News shortly after winning the leadership, he said: “I support Zionism without qualification”. On this, he hasn’t disappointed. As Israel launched its horrific assault on Gaza, Starmer told radio host Nick Ferrari that “Israel has the right” to deny electricity to Palestinian civilians. Since then, he has driven out Labour members for supporting Palestine, sacked frontbench MPs for supporting a ceasefire motion and suspended Labour MP Kate Osamor for calling Gaza a genocide.

No wonder that pro-Palestine candidates were able to bring down some Labour MPs.

Starmer’s Labour comes to power, then, in a fraught context. On the one hand, there is already a substantial minority of left-wingers angry with Labour over its centrist pro-corporate politics and support for Israel. This is bolstered by the fact that the UK has had the biggest rallies in solidarity with Palestine anywhere in the world. On the other hand, the rise of Reform UK shows that a sizeable radicalised right-wing section of society will try to push politics further to the right.

“What is interesting is there is no enthusiasm for Labour, there is no enthusiasm for Starmer. Half the vote is simply an anti-Conservative vote. This Labour government will be in trouble very, very quickly. And we will now be targeting Labour votes”, Nigel Farage stated ominously after being elected for the first time as a UK MP.

“Keir Starmer is going to be attacked on all sides; there is not going to be a honeymoon”, Channel 4 News political editor Gary Gibbon argued as the results rolled in. Referring to those seats lost to pro-Palestine independents, Gibbon noted: “It’s almost like mid-term anger but at the very start of a new government”.

Starmer’s huge majority in parliament may give the illusion that he is running an all-powerful government, at least for a period. However, the election results reveal that the social basis for such a government is weak.

The disappointment of the UK general election is that, despite there being a significant space to the left of the Labour Party, no socialist groups were capable of taking advantage of the situation. Several pro-Palestine independents were elected, but none seem more generally connected to the organised far left, which has declined significantly in size and influence.

Rebuilding the socialist left will be vital if workers in the UK are to fight back against Starmer’s pro-corporate Labour government and the threat of an emboldened right wing.

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