Starmer’s victory comes with constraints

Starmer’s victory comes with constraints

A centrist leader wins after a tired government runs out of energy. The British election result might possibly suggest parallels with Greece in 2019. And, while centrism is being defeated in France, it seems it has scored a major victory in the UK. This interpretation does not tell the proper story, however.

Yes, the tired government of Rishi Sunak suffered a devastating defeat – the worst in its history. But the Labour victory – while huge – is slightly less than Tony Blair won in 1997. And Labour’s share of the national vote was barely any more than it obtained when it lost badly to Boris Johnson in 2019. The key difference is the collapse of support for the Conservatives – by over 20 percentage points.

After 14 years of the Conservatives in power, the country yearned for change. Many voters chose tactically to vote for the party with the best chance of keeping the Conservatives out in their district. Before the campaign started, the Conservatives had lost support as a result of a series of self-inflicted crises: Boris Johnson holding parties during the Covid lockdown; Liz Truss wrecking government finances and increasing mortgage costs; and a sequence of scandals indicating poor ethical behavior. The Conservative Party now faces a bitter internal battle over its own future. 

Sir Keir Starmer changed the Labour Party. It’s appeal was sanitized – with the aim of being as inoffensive to as many voters as possible, in order to maximize its vote. Radical policies adopted under Jeremy Corbyn were dropped or diluted. And, with an unpopular Conservative government, the strategy worked. Thus, while public opinion turned to “hate” the Tories, it now tolerated Labour. Starmer won with exceptionally wide support across the country, but in reality that support also looks soft and shallow.

In the protest against the Conservatives, other parties scored spectacular successes. The Liberal Democrats achieved their highest support in a century. For the first time, the Greens now have four MPs. Nigel Farage’s party took many votes from the Conservatives – it was a key factor in the Conservative’s collapse – but it won just four MPs also. By contrast, in Scotland, the nationalist vote collapsed as voters chose Labour to defeat the Conservatives as the UK government.

Labour campaigned with the slogan of “Change,” but this is a million miles away from the radicalism of Andreas Papandreou in 1981. The Starmer project is redefining a future for social democracy. The tight fiscal discipline he is committed to limits the scope for increased public expenditure to enable the state to provide better welfare support and public services. Starmer speaks also of “hope,” but his fiscal discipline seems to say this can only be provided gradually.

The British media talk about last Thursday’s victory indicating Starmer will remain in power for at least two terms. Well, they said that about Boris Johnson after his victory in 2019. The British electorate has become less loyal.

Starmer’s ambition of increasing Britain’s economic growth is made much more difficult by his acceptance of Brexit. Last Wednesday, Starmer went much further than before and said he would never take Britain back into the EU or its single market while he was PM. Many are puzzled why he constrained himself – for all time – with this commitment. 

This week was not a Blair-type moment. But Starmer’s victory reflects a public that is tired of the chaos and scandals of recent times. His persona suggests he can match that aspiration for decency. However, Labour’s victory does not mean right-wing populist nationalism is no threat in the UK. As elsewhere, it’s appeal is encouraged by feelings of economic and social exclusion. And Starmer’s greatest vulnerability is on the economy. His electoral strategy and his commitment to tight fiscal discipline risks failing to satisfy public expectations. That brings implications for the political system: the failure of another government would increase public alienation from politics and politicians.

Kevin Featherstone is emeritus professor at the London School of Economics.

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