Friday, July 12, 2024

Landslide win for U.K.’s Labour ends 14 years of Conservative rule

LONDON — Keir Starmer and his renewed Labour Party won a landslide election in Britain on Thursday, according to the exit poll, ending 14 years of Conservative Party rule and moving toward a new government dominated by the center left.

This was an election that was more about mood than policy, and voters conveyed their frustration with the incumbent Tories and a willingness to take a chance on a “changed Labour Party,” as Starmer calls it, purged of its hard-left elements and socialist rhetoric.

The sophisticated exit poll, sponsored by Britain’s top broadcasters, found that Labour was on track to win 410 seats in the 650-seat Parliament. The Conservatives were projected to take 131 seats — which would the party’s worst result since its founding.

The Liberal Democrats came in third with 61 seats, according to the model. One of the surprises was how well Nigel Farage’s new, right-wing Reform UK party was doing. Official results will follow, with most coming in the early morning hours in Britain.

The end of the Conservative government — and the resurrection of what appears to be a more disciplined, centrist “establishment Labour” — marks a huge reversal for Britain’s top parties.

BBC announcers and their guests were tripping over themselves to pronounce the results seismic, landmark, huge — and gobsmacking.


Stories to keep you informed

Today’s Labour leaders bill themselves not as socialist firebrands but sensible managers. They don’t read Das Kapital. They read the Financial Times.

Starmer, who edited a Trotskyite magazine in his youth, has promised to put “wealth creation” at the center of all the new government does, to rouse a sleepy economy, help young families buy affordable homes and bolster the beloved but overextended National Health Service.

Starmer and his team have vowed to be sober-minded guardians of the treasury — and they will have to be. Public finances are stretched. Government debt has soared to its highest level since the 1960s. Many assume taxes will rise.

The mood in Britain right now can be described as somewhere between fairly dubious and highly skeptical of politicians and their promises. Like their American cousins across the pond, British voters are feeling sour. The vibe is gloomy. The chances of disappointment are high.

Starmer ran under the banner of “change,” but his manifesto was as vague as it could be. He is liked but not loved. When he enters Downing Street, his supporters will be relieved — but maybe not euphoric.

As a lawyer — first a left human rights defender, then a senior government prosecutor — Starmer was known to build his cases piece by piece. He is a detail man.

He is often described as a dull orator. He’s no Boris Johnson, no Tony Blair — for better or worse.

As the Times of London newspaper put it, “Labour has bored its way to power.”

In interviews with The Washington Post over the past six weeks of election campaigning, voters have repeatedly said they want a better deal. They want to tone down the chaos — and they are sick of self-dealing by politicos who assume it is one deal for the public and another, better deal for them.

Specifically, they want salaries that beat inflation and lower mortgage rates as well as better public services.

Unlike his predecessor, the hard-left Jeremy Corbyn, Starmer has been careful not to promise a bunch of freebies. This election, Labour wasn’t selling a super fabulous future, but rather the competent management of slightly improved days to come.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak didn’t need to call an election before the end of the year, but he decided to gamble, hoping that the polls would narrow — or perhaps that rebels in his party wouldn’t eat him alive.

It was a grim election night for the Tories.

Tim Bale, a professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London, said it was “difficult to spin this as anything other than a disaster” for the Conservatives — but not an existential one. He noted that the British electorate is a “volatile” lot and that the Tories were capable of coming back “but it might take a few elections.”

The reversal in fortunes is stunning. After Boris Johnson won an 80-seat majority in 2019, giddy Tories began to talk about holding power into the 2030s.

Johnson and his successors blew it — first with Johnson’s prevarications over boozy parties during pandemic lockdowns and then with the 49-day premiership of Liz Truss, whose economic plans led to a run on the British pound and nearly crashed the economy.

Sunak’s 18 months have been less turbulent. But voters tell pollsters that they no longer trust Conservatives to handle the economy. That had been one of the party’s traditional strong points.

Wes Streeting, a Labour leader, said on the BBC that the reason the Tory party was swept out was “it’s a clown car.”

On Election Day in south London, Fraser Douglass, 52, a longtime Conservative supporter, reluctantly voted for his party. But he readily conceded, “I think we need a change of government. It’s time for a change.”

Freddie Bennett Brookes, 22, who just graduated from a university, voted for Labour. She said she cared mostly about the high costs of rent.

On Starmer, she said, “I think he will be sensible. We have had quite a few not sensible ones, and I think a lot of people say he’s quite boring, but maybe that’s something we need to have. Maybe that’s necessary, even if it’s not exciting.”

More than 60 countries representing half the world’s population are voting in elections this year. Britain is one of the few expected to shift left.

The contrast is especially stark with neighbor France, where President Emmanuel Macron’s centrist movement and a coalition of leftist parties are expected to lose to Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Rally in legislative elections Sunday.

Sara Hobolt, a professor of politics at the London School of Economics, said the same anti-incumbent sentiment was being felt on both sides of the English Channel. The difference, she said, had to do with what people were voting for or against, as well as Britain’s first-past-the-post voting system in which smaller parties are at a disadvantage.

“There’s nothing to suggest that Brits are more left wing, or less populist or love immigrants more; they are very similar” to voters on the European continent, she said.

Nigel Farage’s right-wing populist party, Reform UK, was projected to take 13 seats — far more than previous polls suggested.

The trend toward the far right in Britain is “more muted or less easy to see” than in France, or in a different way in the United States, said Tony Travers, a politics professor at the London School of Economics.

“Nigel Farage comes and goes as its leader, it doesn’t have many members, it’s rather chaotic in many ways. It’s not a long-term movement, and that could make it hard for it to build to the equivalent scale of National Rally in France or indeed [Donald] Trump’s Republicans,” Travers said. Still, the upstart party was besting Conservatives in some constituencies.

In the election, hardly anyone was talking about the drain hole of Brexit. The public is exhausted by the subject.

The highflying visions of Johnson’s “global Britain,” with lucrative trade deals around the world and busy factories at home, never came to pass.

Many people think a Labour-led government would seek a closer relationship with the European Union. But when asked by reporters whether he could foresee any circumstances under which Britain would rejoin the single market or customs union within his lifetime, Starmer replied: “No.”

When it comes to Britain’s foreign policy and its special relationship with the United States, there is not a lot of difference between Labour and Conservatives — at least on paper.

Expect no major moves by Starmer. He will be steadfast on NATO and continue to support and help arm Ukraine. On the Israel-Gaza war, he may press harder for peace deal.

It is an open question, however, if Starmer’s vision “includes reestablishing Britain’s place in the world, or whether their concerns are so overwhelmingly domestic that foreign policy comes a bit more down the line,” said Bronwen Maddox, director of the Chatham House think tank.

There is one issue on which the two parties are clearly at odds: deporting asylum seekers to Rwanda. Starmer has called the policy “gesture politics” and said Labour would instead introduce a new border security unit.

After former president Donald Trump’s criminal conviction in May, Starmer told reporters, “Ultimately, whether he’s elected president will be a matter for the American people and, obviously, if we’re privileged to come in to serve, we would work with whoever they choose as their president.”

He added: “But there’s no getting away from the fact this is a wholly unprecedented situation.”

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