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The Great Tory Loss

If nothing else, the UK election of July 4, 2024 will go down in history as the single biggest loss for any sitting government in that country. Losing almost half their vote (43.6% down to 23.7% from the previous election) and two-thirds of their seats (365 to 121), Rishi Sunak's Conservative Party has landed a landslide victory to Keir Starmer's Labour Party in terms of seats (202 to 412), albeit with only a modest improvement in their primary vote (32.1% to 33.7%). Another big winner was the Liberal-Democrats who, also with a small change in percentage (11.6% to 12.2%) nevertheless gained many seats (11 to 72), their highest since 1923, as the Tory vote collapsed. For their part, the Scottish Nationalist Party have fallen into an existential crisis, losing fourth-fifths of their seats (48 to 9). Also of note was the rapid and late-rise of the populist UK Reform under Nigel Farage, which whilst gaining a few seats (0 to 5), achieved a notable 14.3% of the vote.

Each of these results should be viewed carefully to provide an understanding of the event. For the Tories, the rot began to set in with the Brexit referendum of 2016. Prior to that the neoliberal (socially and economically liberal) Tory Prime Minister, David Cameron, had delivered a largely successful government, albeit one which could only manage the effects of the Global Financial Crisis through austerity measures. However, he critically under-estimated the rise of a populist right which would find an outlet with Nigel Farage's UK Independence Party which gained 12.6% of the vote in the 2015 election. After Cameron's resignation, Theresa May's Prime Ministership was dominated over Brexit negotiations, scraping through in the 2017 election, surviving two 'no confidence' motions, and having her Brexit proposal rejected by parliament three times. Resigning in July 2019, she was succeeded by the prominent and "colourful" supporter of Brexit, Boris Johnson.

It is fair to describe Johnson's period as scandal-prone, who arguably lied to the Queen to prorogue Parliament, acted slow on COVID-19, was accused of cronyism in pandemic response contracts, and consistently broke the government's own advice and rules for social distancing (the most extreme being labelled "Partygate"). Following a survival of a no-confidence, Johnson was subject to dozens of resignations from the government and eventually resigned in July 2019. His replacement was the hapless Liz Truss, who resigned after forty-nine days, making her the shortest-serving Prime Minister in British history. Truss' resignation followed a mini-budget that proposed lower taxation for the wealthy and lower corporate taxation, all funded by borrowing, a suggestion that was broadly rejected across the spectrum from conservative financial institutions to welfare groups. The final Tory Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, was in office from October 2022 to July 2024 and followed the usual footsteps of Tories showing little concern or leadership for those suffering under Britain's post-Brexit cost-of-living crisis. Sunak's uncharismatic leadership did not experience any additional internecine conflicts among the Tories but failed to their popular collapse.

In contrast, Labour's vote was disciplined and their policy platform was deliberately designed "not to scare the horses". Their final vote did not shift significantly from the previous election and notably, the previous leader, Jeremy Corbyn, retained his seat as an independent. It is fair to say that Labour did not win the election insofar as the Tories lost it. It is also worth observing that Labour regained the famous "red wall" across the midlands, which they had suffered losses in the 2017 and 2019 elections, mainly through Brexit popularism, and the presence of the UK Independence Party and the Brexit Party. In 2019 Nigel Farage made the dramatic decision that the Brexit Party would not contest Tory seats. In this election, much has been made by political commentators that Reform split the centre-right vote. However, Labour's final vote was well below the 40%+ expected by pollsters only a few weeks beforehand, and part of that drop is attributable to the late return to politics by Farage, and the sudden rise of Reform; the Tory vote on the other hand remained at a fairly stable low throughout the entire election campaign.

Labour also gained many seats at the expense of the Scottish National Party, whose reason for existence has been challenged since the majority "no" vote in the Scottish Independence Referendum of 2014. At first, the SNP was able to achieve a significant positive response, becoming the third largest party in the 2015 election, under Nicola Sturgeon and retained popularity following the Brexit referendum as Scotland supported Remain and has argued that Scotland deserved a second referendum given the significant change of the UK leaving the EU, a position rejected by Westminster. Opinion polls on the referendum have fluctuated, with pro-independence polls strongest in 2021. Following Sturgeon's resignation in 2023, the SNP has had two additional leaders, Humza Yousaf (for approximately one year) and John Swinney (for two months at writing). The SNP in these elections argued that the 2024 elections were an opportunity to argue from a position of strength for a second referendum. That opportunity, at least for the foreseeable future, is not going to happen.

Another beneficiary of the collapse of the Tory vote was the Liberal-Democrats, especially in the south and south-west of England. This is an interesting turn of events considering how, following their coalition support of David Cameron's minority Tory government, the LibDems were savaged in the 2015 election losing 48 of their 56 MPs, especially after breaking their pledge on capped tertiary education fees, and being soundly defeated in the 2011 Alternative Vote referendum. The party was able to regain support during the Brexit referendum, by advocating a strong pro-Remain argument and, in this election, taking many policy positions that were to the left of Labour.

Despite Labour's landslide victory, they cannot take too much for granted. It is clear that the electorate, and especially Labour-held seats, are prone to popularism and volatility, which no doubt demagogues such as Farage will seek to exploit. Labour simultaneously needs to deal to the core objective conditions, the impoverishment and inequality, that have led to the susceptibility without buying into the nationalistic and anti-immigration rhetoric espoused by the populist right as a solution, (surely, after the disaster of Brexit some economic sense should be obvious). The problem for Labour is that many of the conditions are the result of many decades of disenfranchisement and which will take more than a single electoral cycle to resolve. In the meantime, Reform will continue its reactionary and nostalgic appeals to a British imperialism that has long since passed and cannot ever return. Not that governance is the aim, anyway; their existence is predicated on harnessing misplaced anger to cause disruption and damage democracy. And in whose interest could that be?


Turnout for this election was down 7.4%. Labour's "raw vote" declined to 9.7m from 10.2m, about 5%. In comparison, the Tory vote declined by over 50%! So given this, it is fair to say the Labour vote was disciplined.
Now raw votes themselves don't win elections, but rather it is relative to other candidates. It certainly says something about the decline of British political culture and disenfranchisement, which is mentioned in the final paragraph.