UK elections: a return to the centre ground



Picture of Sir Ciarán Devane
Sir Ciarán Devane

Executive Director of the Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations and Associate Pro-Vice-Chancellor for International Relations at Coventry University, former chief executive at the British Council and Trustee of Friends of Europe

To little surprise the UK’s Conservative government has lost power and 251 of its 372 seats. It was a major collapse, which had an air of inevitability. The collapse was UK wide and dramatic. As one example, in the case of Wales, the collapse was total. There are no Conservative MPs from Wales.

The loss of votes came in two forms. The first was that many voted for whichever of the centre left parties was most likely to defeat the Conservative candidate. In the north this was usually Labour, in the south the Liberal Democrats. In a first past the post system of single seat constituencies this is the ‘efficient’ way to oust a government and Labour increased their seats by 211 to 412 and the LibDems by an impressive 64 to 72.

The second cause of pain for the Conservatives was the 14% of the vote which went to Nigel Farage and the Reform Party. This split in the right was damaging to Conservative candidates and allowed many centre left candidates to win despite having lower vote shares than the combined Conservative/Reform vote. The Reform vote, however, was ‘inefficient’ and spread across (mostly) England. They won only five seats in total. Farage was one of them.

Four years on [Labour] were an acceptable home for moderate votes from across the spectrum

The other losing party was the Scottish Nationalists who have been coping with the arrest, for financial impropriety, of the husband of the former First Minister Nicola Sturgeon. The electorate removed 39 of their 48 seats from them, largely to Labour’s benefit.

If that is why the election was lost, how did Labour win?

After the previous election’s shift to the hard left led to defeat, the party appointed a centrist leader, ditched policies which made them dangerous in the eyes of the centre right and tackled an undercurrent of antisemitism. Four years on they were an acceptable home for moderate votes from across the spectrum.

Knowing the public wanted the Conservatives out, Labour’s campaign strategy was to say very little. The manifesto was thin. No hostages to fortune, no extravagant commitments, nothing to frighten the centre or attract the ire of the largely right of centre press. They were helped in not being dragged into policy by a chaotic Conservative campaign, which did nothing to discredit the view that they had lost direction, purpose and competence. Along with Sunak’s faux pas with his early exit from the D-Day commemoration, his campaign director, parliamentary secretary and protection officer are being investigated for placing bets on the supposedly secret plans for a July election date. The public were not impressed. Labour won by not interrupting the Conservatives as they continued to shoot themselves in their feet. They won by just not being the Conservatives.

The early signs are that the new government is open, even keen, to lean in on security cooperation, on mobility, on veterinary collaboration

Now, they are in power with a clear majority which will hold to the next election in five years. They are, however, conscious of a few truths. The votes they gained because of who they are not will be soft. Those votes might go home with a revived Conservative leadership. Labour also know they will be judged by the electorate on their record. So, despite the poor state of public finances, they have to deliver.

Labour realises that growth is the only way to generate the money to fix public services. And growth needs trade and trade with the EU above all. The early signs are that the new government is open, even keen, to lean in on security cooperation, on mobility, on veterinary collaboration. Single market access is a step too far at the moment but increased collaboration leading to increased trust, and ideally amnesia about the Brexit process, are priorities.

Keir Starmer, the new Prime Minister, is a technocratic lawyer and not a larger than life ‘character’. His challenge will be to show he has heard the public’s frustration with the previous government and the state of the nation but to counsel patience, given how slow intractable problems can be to get fixed. If he is seen to have delivered, he can be confident of another victory. If he does not, then it might be the UK’s time to see a true surge towards the far right. It is his turn to show he will improve lives by doing “what works?”. He has five years to do so.

The views expressed in this #CriticalThinking article reflect those of the author(s) and not of Friends of Europe.

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