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What’s Next For The U.K. After Labour Hands Tories Worst Defeat In Nearly 200 Years?

Despite Labour handing the Tories their worst election result in history, things aren’t as bad as they seem for U.K. conservatives.

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While most Americans were watching fireworks last Thursday evening, Britain was undergoing some political fireworks of its own. As predicted, the Labour Party won a large victory in the July 4 general election, with party leader Keir Starmer becoming prime minister on Friday.

For both of Britain’s major political parties — the victorious Labour and the defeated Tories — the election outcome brings challenges. In a fragmented political environment, maintaining (or, in the Tories’ case, regaining) party unity will remain a constant struggle.

Labour Lurching Leftward Again?

Paradoxically, Labour’s thumping victory could give Starmer headaches. With 412 members of parliament (MP) in the House of Commons, which only requires 326 for a majority, the new prime minister will face demands from his backbenchers to move further leftward.

Knowing full well that previous leader Jeremy Corbyn had made the party unelectable with his fiscally irresponsible promises and appeasement of antisemitism, Starmer worked hard over the past four-plus years to restore Labour to the center ground. Starmer kicked Corbyn out of the Labour Party — though he was reelected anyway last Thursday as an independent MP — and pledged no new tax rises during the coming Parliament. The new prime minister even went so far as to agree with his Labour predecessor, Tony Blair, that “biologically, a woman is with a vagina and a man is with a penis,” after saying last year that “99.9% of women” do not have a penis. (By Labour standards, acknowledging basic biology is little short of revolutionary.)

But Starmer will face pressure from both his MPs and activists. On spending, with the National Health Service and other public bodies facing frequent strikes the last several years over wage demands from workers, the unions that constitute the backbone of the Labour Party will demand more spending for their members. In foreign policy, Muslim supporters will increase calls for a ceasefire in Gaza and other concessions to Hamas.

The Tories had already put taxes up over the last five years, and Britain is running deficits as in the United States. But don’t think those two facts will bring to an end the calls from Labour’s left wing to play the tax-and-spend card yet again.

Starmer will have to remind his MPs that, while the party has a historically high majority in the House of Commons, it achieved that majority while only winning a third (33.7 percent) of the national vote. Ironically, because of low turnout, a left-winger like Corbyn won more votes in 2019 (10.3 million) than did Starmer on Thursday (9.7 million) — even though Starmer more than doubled the number of Labour MPs. Whether Starmer can remind Labour of their precarious political position, and fend off the far left, will be the main issue facing the United Kingdom in the coming years.

Tory Wipeout Not As Bad

On one hand, the Conservative Party suffered its worst election result ever — the fewest number of MPs returned to Parliament in its two-century history and the greatest number of seats lost by any British political party in any general election. On the other, the result could have been worse, with many preelection polls predicting the Tories to end up with fewer than 100 seats.

The party does (barely) have a rump of MPs who can work to scrutinize the new government and form the backbone of the fight to regain the majority. They will eventually have a new leader, as outgoing Prime Minister Rishi Sunak made the self-evident decision to stand down following Thursday’s bloodbath.

The Conservatives also have a roadmap to regain relevance, in the math surrounding the defeat of Liz Truss, the short-term prime minister whom party members elected in 2022, only to see party MPs depose her weeks later. Truss lost reelection to a Labour candidate in her South West Norfolk constituency by 630 votes, while the Reform U.K. candidate took nearly 10,000 votes — virtually all of them away from her.

Similar scenes happened around the country, particularly in areas of the industrial North that voted to leave the European Union in 2016. Disgruntled citizens who voted Conservative in 2019 marked a ballot for Reform U.K. this year, and so eroded the Tories’ tallies that Labour reclaimed the seats. In some seats, the Reform candidate drew more votes than the Labour margin of victory, meaning that if all those votes had gone to the Conservatives, the Tories could have denied Labour a majority in Parliament.

That math favors some type of alignment — an alliance, merger, hostile takeover, call it what you will — between the Conservatives and Reform. Five years ago, Nigel Farage, who then led the Brexit Party, later renamed Reform, declined to put up candidates in many seats, because he wanted to ensure that a Conservative majority would deliver Brexit. This time around, Reform won five seats outright (including Farage’s) and came second in 98 more.

Some Conservatives object to a political alliance, due in part to the media dubbing Reform a “far-right” party. A few of Reform’s candidates in the current election made antisemitic and offensive statements (they were removed), and Farage himself, who finally won a seat in Parliament on his eighth try, seems better at attracting splashy headlines than the basic blocking and tackling of government.

But the vast majority of the 4.1 million Britons who voted Reform aren’t racist but disillusioned. They haven’t seen the economic benefits of Brexit, just more paperwork for those moving goods to Northern Ireland (the part of the United Kingdom that shares a land border with the EU). They despair at the masses of boats landing on their shores and a Conservative government that, despite its get-tough rhetoric, seems powerless to stop them. And they get angered when the focus on “net zero,” an obsession of Conservative elites since David Cameron visited the Arctic nearly two decades ago, leads to soaring energy bills at a time of high inflation and rampant government spending for temporary subsidies that don’t solve the underlying problem.

Will the Leaders Listen?

In both cases, voters gave party leaders clear messages: Labour must keep the extreme socialism of the Corbyn era behind it, and the Conservatives must come up with better plans on immigration and Brexit and reestablish their reputation for responsible stewardship of the economy. As one columnist noted, Truss’s departure from the House of Commons could help immensely on the latter front by removing a political bludgeon Labour used to beat the Conservatives over the head since her aborted premiership.

Numerically speaking, the Tories have a tough road to regain the majority, but given that the combined Reform and Conservative votes (10.9 million) outnumbered Labour’s (9.7 million), there exists a viable path to power. Whoever listens closer to the voters’ messages could well find themselves the favorites in the next general election.


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