/ 10 July 2024

Labour landslide: But Keir Starmer’s UK win is overshadowed by huge challenges

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New British Prime Minister Keir Starmer holds a press conference, following his first cabinet meeting at Downing Street. (Photo by Claudia Greco-WPA Pool/Getty Images)

In a defining shift for British politics, the centre-left Labour Party has clinched a resounding victory, marking its dramatic comeback after a devastating defeat just five years ago.

Keir Starmer, the Labour leader and former human rights lawyer, is now the prime minister with a staggering majority of around 170 seats, echoing the historic win of Tony Blair in 1997. 

This remarkable comeback reflects Labour’s appeal with a moderate, centrist platform in an era rife with populism and polarisation. The Conservative Party, on the other hand, has faced an unprecedented collapse, securing only about 120 seats — a record low in its storied history, worse than its 1906 debacle.

This monumental defeat is compounded by the emergence of the populist, anti-immigration Reform Party, which, despite a significant vote share, managed to win only a handful of seats. Additionally, the centrist Liberal Democrats have made striking gains, reflecting the electorate’s shifting sentiments. 

But, for Starmer and his colleagues, it is too early to celebrate this election as a triumph of Labour and the centre-left. The Labour Party, despite winning 412 seats, secured two percent more votes compared to 2019 — from 32% to 34%. British voters, like their counterparts elsewhere, remain tepid towards the socially liberal, fiscally conservative platform of the Labour Party.

Despite Labour’s substantial seat margin, voter turnout was near a record low, reflecting widespread political disengagement. This so-called “landslide”, as many commentators dubbed it, underscores the challenge ahead for Labour. The party secured a significant number of seats but garnered a remarkably low share of the vote. The victory, while impressive on paper, raises questions about the depth of public support for Labour’s agenda.

The Conservatives have seen their vote share plummet by about 20 points to 24%, largely because of the newly-formed Reform Party, which captured 14% of the votes but only secured four seats. The Conservatives suffered significant damage from Reform, which fragmented right-wing support and syphoned off crucial votes, leading to a substantial loss of seats.

The effect of Reform highlights the Conservatives’ struggle to consolidate their base and highlights the challenges they face. The election results mark a turning point, setting the stage for a period of introspection and potential recalibration for the beleaguered party. The Liberal Democrats secured the third-highest number of seats despite having a vote share of 12% — although Reform ranks third by vote share. Despite their significant vote count, Reform struggled to convert votes into seats, returning just four MPs, including leader Nigel Farage in Clacton.

For so long in opposition and even throughout this campaign, Starmer’s Labour Party has danced to the populist tune set by the Sunak government and its media allies. Now, as Starmer has taken the reins, his administration faces the monumental task of recognising this election as a watershed moment — a decisive rejection of past mistakes and a call for political renewal. 

More profoundly, this election may signify a fundamental shift in British politics. The existential question is whether this moment will permanently alter the political landscape of Britain. As Labour steps into power, the electorate’s demand for genuine change looms large. The future of British politics hinges on whether Starmer’s leadership can transcend past failures and meet the heightened expectations of a weary populace seeking a new direction. 

This seismic shift could reshape the political landscape, ushering in an era where Labour’s ascendancy challenges the long-held Conservative hegemony. The stakes are high, and the expectations for transformative change are palpable. 

As Britain tackles its complex political landscape, the true test for Labour will be converting this electoral success into genuine enthusiasm and addressing the underlying disillusionment that pervades the electorate. In an era of polarised politics, this uneasy mandate may prove difficult to sustain.The denigration of public services, from education to the National Health Service (NHS) to the armed forces, alongside crises in housing, climate, and inequality, has gone unchallenged for too long.

The damage extends to the country’s international reputation, with strained relations among the UK’s closest European allies. These systemic failures are inextricably linked to 10 Downing Street and its four most recent occupants. This election has drawn a line under these errors, signalling a demand for change.

The electorate’s verdict is clear: a rejection of past missteps and a call for renewal. The new administration inherits a landscape marred by neglect but also holds the promise of rejuvenation. The priority should be on restoring trust, mending alliances and addressing the profound issues left in the wake of previous administrations. 

The Labour Party faces the Herculean task of revitalising chronically underfunded public services amid economic hardship. A major challenge is improving the state-funded NHS, a critical issue for voters. However, other significant infrastructure projects also demand attention.

The pressing question is where Labour will find the necessary funds and how swiftly it can act. Whether this can be achieved in time to meet public expectations remains uncertain. Starmer’s administration will be closely scrutinised for its ability to restore integrity to government and address the nation’s pressing issues. Failure to deliver promptly could lead to significant backlash. Starmer’s tenure will be judged by his ability to bring about effective change and repair the damage of previous administrations. 

Farage’s Reform Party has capitalised on Europe’s rising populist wave, securing about 14% of the national vote in the general election. This impressive share makes Reform the third-largest party by vote percentage. But Britain’s electoral system has limited their parliamentary representation to just four seats.

Despite this, Reform’s presence is a significant political development, potentially unsettling both the Conservatives and Labour. Farage now has a platform to push his anti-immigration agenda and could become a formidable challenge if Starmer fails to deliver on his promises. Farage’s influence is poised to shape British politics in the days ahead. Farage’s influence could rival that of other populist leaders such as Marine Le Pen in France. The stakes are high, and the window for action is narrow. This is the defining challenge of Starmer’s premiership.

Dr Imran Khalid is a freelance columnist on international affairs based in Karachi, Pakistan. He qualified as a physician from Dow Medical University in 1991 and has a master’s degree in international relations from Karachi University.