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A troubled land: Britain and the 2024 election

PETER KENWORTHY on the Tory wipeout, Labour landslide and the changing character of British politics

Reader’s note: In print, this article appeared in four parts over the course of the week.

I GREW up in Harston, five miles south of central Cambridge down the A10. A little tranquil village with a population of less than 2,000 with meadows, a school, village hall, pub, petrol station and post office-cum-store. And a village in an affluent part of Britain that has both a Porsche centre and a Ducati motorbike shop.

Harston has a gross disposable household income of £27,031 — compared to a national average of £20,425. The village is part of South Cambridgeshire, a constituency that in 2019 elected Conservative Anthony Browne to Parliament — who voted with his party in the House on all but one occasion out of 982 — and that has for many years been a Tory stronghold.

A constituency with low unemployment levels and relatively high levels of education, health and income levels that has been named one of the best places to live in Britain several times. And a constituency where the average house price is £429,000 — a lot more than the national average of £286,000.

In the general election on July 4, the voters of South Cambridgeshire (where the constituency boundaries were changed under a recent Boundary Commission review) nevertheless firmly rejected the Tories, who lost by over 10,000 votes to the Liberal Democrats.

A pattern that was seen across the country, where several Cabinet ministers and other Tory “big beasts” lost their seats — including former prime minister Liz Truss.

In 1997 the Conservatives had what was at the time their worst election result in well over 100 years in a general election, after ruling for nearly 18 years, gaining 30.7 per cent of the vote and 165 seats. In the last two elections — and during the Thatcher years as well as in the 1950s and ’60s — the party got over 40 per cent of the vote. In 2024 they won only 23 per cent of the vote and 121 seats — the Conservative Party’s worst result ever.

“The British people have delivered a sobering verdict tonight,” outgoing PM Rishi Sunak said after winning his seat on Friday morning. Later that morning he stepped out of 10 Downing Street, said “I am sorry,” and added he was stepping down as party leader.

Deprivation all round

“We all know how bad things are: massive debt, social breakdown, political disenchantment. But what I want to talk about today is how good things could be,” David Cameron said in his conference speech in 2009, the year before he became PM.

But the electorate has had it increasingly hard during the last 14 years of Tory rule, with a Brexit that split the country and a chaotic last five years that has seen four Tory prime ministers — including nearly 50 disastrous days of Liz Truss and her mini-Budget — and five Chancellors of the Exchequer.

“By 2024, Britain’s standing in the world was lower, the union was less strong, the country less equal, the population less well protected, growth more sluggish with the outlook poor, public services underperforming and largely unreformed,” one can read in a new collection of essays edited by prominent historian Anthony Seldon and political writer Tom Egerton, The Conservative Effect 2010-2024: 14 Wasted Years?

“Overall, it is hard to find a comparable period in history of a Conservative, or other, government which achieved so little, or which left the country at its conclusion in a more troubling state,” the analysis concludes.

The Institute for Government, an independent think tank, says in a new report that most services are performing “substantially worse” than in 2010 when the Conservatives took office and that the new government will face public services on the brink of collapse. New income statistics from the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS), an independent economics research institute, suggest this Parliament is on course to be the worst for living standards on record.

“The rise in material deprivation is seen across every age group, housing tenure, work status, household composition and region,” the IFS concludes in its report, “Living standards since the last election,” published in March.

According to a report from the House of Commons Library on food poverty from August, 4.7 million people in Britain were experiencing food poverty in 2021-22, 2.1 million people in Britain had lived in a household which had used a foodbank in the previous 12 months, and foodbanks are used by an estimated 3 per cent of British families.

The number of people in “food insecure” households rose to over 7 million in 2022-23, an increase of 2.5 million people since 2021-22. And according to the Food Foundation tracker, 15 per cent of households in Britain experienced food insecurity in January.

Even in South Cambridgeshire, there are foodbanks and food hubs open to residents who need to access low or no-cost food — including one on Chapel Lane in Harston, less than half a mile from where I grew up. And if you look beyond its world-famous colleges, prosperous Cambridge has been ranked Britain’s most unequal city on several occasions.

It is also a city where child poverty and homelessness are on the rise and many households in Cambridge are struggling to heat their homes. “Poverty remains a significant issue in Cambridge,” one can read in Cambridge City Council’s most recent anti-poverty strategy. Cambridge City Foodbank gave 15,914 three-day emergency food parcels to people in need during 2023.

So, what does Britain’s electorate — including people in Cambridgeshire — have to look forward to with the new Labour government? Well, that is a difficult question to answer if we are to go by Starmer’s time as leader and Labour’s election campaign.

U-turns abound

You turn if you want to. The lady’s not for turning!” former prime minister Margaret Thatcher said in her speech to the Conservative Party Conference on October 10 1980. But U-turning has been a trait of many politicians before and not least since.

Think John Major and the poll tax, Tony Blair and the referendum on the EU constitution, Nick Clegg and tuition fees, Boris Johnson and free school meals and Liz Truss and her tax proposals.

And the new PM, Labour’s Keir Starmer, has also done his fair share of U-turning. Starmer, among other things, pledged and promised to “increase income tax for the top 5 per cent earners” in 2020, during the Labour leadership election — “I will maintain our radical values [ … ] no stepping back from our core principles” as he added in the pledges. Only for him to back away from tax rises.

“We are in a different situation now, because obviously I think we’ve got the highest tax burden since World War II,” he told the BBC in May, when asked about this policy pledge.

Starmer has also essentially abandoned several other pledges, such as to nationalise public services like mail and water companies and the abolition of university tuition fees, among other of his 10 pledges from 2020.

“We are likely to move on from that commitment, because we do find ourselves in a different financial situation,” he told the BBC when asked about tuition fees.

More cake

Labour’s so-called “missions” for Britain (a “long-term plan to get Britain’s future back” that “will drive forward a Labour government”) instead include sticking “tough fiscal rules with economic stability at their heart.”

In Labour’s election manifesto, the party promises not to raise income tax and keep corporation tax at the current level. And in a speech at the launch of the manifesto — that was interrupted by a climate protester — Starmer said that wealth creation is Labour’s number one priority.

“Some people say that how you grow the economy is not a central question — that it’s not about how you create wealth, but how you tax it, how you spend it, how you slice the cake, that’s all that matters. So let me be crystal clear — this manifesto is a total rejection of that argument,” Starmer added.

When in opposition back in 1979, two months before she became PM, Thatcher had said something similar to Starmer’s cake analogy in a speech at the Conservative local government conference: “We can improve our position as a nation only by working together to create greater wealth. We cannot do it by each fighting for a bigger share of the existing cake. The cake is too small.”

If the new PM really wants to turn Britain around and keep his political momentum, he will need more than economic stability, growing cakes and political dilly dallying, however. He will need to improve the lives of ordinary people, as well as keep his promises, principles and integrity.

But Labour’s election manifesto does not even contain the sort of spending plans needed to protect public services from future cuts, the Institute for Fiscal Studies says in a response to the manifesto.

“Delivering genuine change will almost certainly also require putting actual resources on the table. And Labour’s manifesto offers no indication that there is a plan for where the money would come from to finance this,” the IFS adds.

The ‘stood down’ green pledge

If we look at the most important issue of our era — climate change — Labour is more in favour of action than the previous Conservative government. At least according to a study on British MP’s voting patterns since 2010 from VoteClimate (an independent political movement founded by Ben Horton, a climate campaigner from Cambridge).

According to the study, no elected Tory MP has given more votes in favour of action on climate (all were given an “anti”-rating), while most Labour MPs have voted pro-climate.

Starmer has voted pro-climate 11 times and not voted eight times (which gave him a “good” overall rating), while several fellow Labour MPs and Liberal Democrats have only given pro-climate votes (and were given a “very good” overall rating).

In 2021 Rachel Reeves, who was shadow chancellor at the time, told the Labour Party Conference: “I am committing the next Labour government to an additional £28 billion of capital investment in our country’s green transition for each and every year of this decade.” And in 2022, Starmer said that “a central mission of my Labour government will be to turn Britain into a clean energy superpower.”

But Labour has since scaled back and dropped the £28bn green investment pledge, even though Starmer has previously said that no issue is “more important to our future than the climate emergency.”

“We won’t reach the £28bn envisaged. That figure is effectively stood down [ … ] The reason for that is because since we announced the £28bn the Tories have done terrible damage to our economy,” Starmer told Channel 4 News in early 2024.

In the party’s Green Prosperity Plan, there are instead promises such as to quadruple offshore wind, more than triple solar power and more than double onshore wind capacity by 2030. As well as new nuclear projects and investing in carbon capture and storage.

And in the party’s election manifesto, Labour says it “will ensure the institutional framework for policymaking reflects our commitments to reach net zero and meet our carbon budgets.”

But the U-turn on the green investment pledge and the fact that Starmer flew by private jet to a campaign rally in Scotland about clean energy jobs during the election campaign and that he has previously used another private jet after attending the Cop28 climate conference in Qatar, undermines his attempts to claim the moral high ground on climate change.

In the manifesto, Labour also talks of kickstarting economic growth with “a new partnership with business to boost growth everywhere,” as if growth and net zero go well together. And of oil and gas production in the North Sea being with us “for decades to come,” with an “ongoing role [ … ] in our energy mix.”

 

Right turn

UNDER Starmer, Labour has moved to the right – although he recently described himself as a “socialist.” He also said, however, he had “changed this party permanently” and that “a vote for Labour is a vote for stability – economic and political.”

Rachel Reeves said during a speech to business leaders at Rolls Royce early in the election campaign that “I want to lead the most pro-growth, pro-business Treasury in our country has ever seen” and that she wanted “a new spirit of partnership between government and business.”

In Labour’s manifesto, business is mentioned 60 times while climate change is mentioned four times and inequality is mentioned once. The party also says it “will negotiate additional returns
arrangements to speed up returns and increase the number of safe countries that failed asylum-seekers can swiftly be sent back to.”

And during the election campaign, then shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper refused to rule out sending asylum-seekers to another country to have their claims processed. “We would look at what works,” she told the BBC.

One of the Labour Party’s affiliated unions, Unite, refused to endorse the 2024 Labour manifesto. Unite, under a previous leadership, had called Labour’s 2019 manifesto, launched by then Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, “a fantastic offer from Labour to the electorate.”

Jeremy Corbyn also self-identifies as a socialist. His Labour 2019 election manifesto amongst other things included bringing forward the UK’s net-zero target, increasing income taxes for those earning more than £80,000, reversing cuts in corporation tax, nationalising railways, postal services, energy and water, increasing the minimum wage as well as scrapping tuition fees.

Corbyn was blocked from running as a Labour MP in this election by the Labour national executive committee and later expelled from the party.

Starmer had served under him in the shadow cabinet, called him a friend, said he would make a great prime minister and promoted Corbyn’s 2019 manifesto. “That’s what this manifesto is about — real change, ambitious change,” Starmer had said.

But as party leader Starmer suspended Corbyn in 2020 over the latter’s reaction to a critical report on anti-semitism in the Labour Party, that Corbyn believed was “dramatically overstated for political reasons” against the left-wing of the party.

In the report, the Equality and Human Rights Commission concluded that an investigation “has identified serious failings in leadership and an inadequate process for handling anti-semitism complaints across the Labour Party.”

An inquiry by barrister Shami Chakrabarti, set up by Corbyn in 2016, had concluded that ”the Labour Party is not overrun by anti-semitism, Islamophobia or other forms of racism,” although there were “minority hateful or ignorant attitudes and behaviours festering” and a concern amongst some Jews that “anti-semitism has not been taken seriously enough in the Labour Party.”

The Forde report — an independent investigation commissioned by the Labour Party’s national executive committee in 2020 — on the other hand concludes that members of WhatsApp groups in the Labour Party “were protecting the party from Jeremy Corbyn rather than helping him to advance his agenda” and that “there was a deep hostility from the majority of the [Parliamentary Labour Party] to Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership.”

Leaked documents, emails, video and audio files from the Labour Party obtained by Al Jazeera also revealed how people within the Labour Party attempted to undermine support for Corbyn. According to Al Jazeera, “several supporters of Corbyn were smeared with false accusations of abusive behaviour […] including homophobia and anti-semitism, with the stated intention to suspend or expel them from the party.”

“They have created an incredibly hostile environment for anybody – including any Jew – who is in any way critical of Israel,” Andrew Feinstein, who is himself Jewish and was then a Labour-member, said in the Labour Files documentary.

Feinstein challenged Starmer in the Labour leader’s own north London constituency, Holborn and St Pancras, where the writer, activist and former ANC MP ran as an independent. Feinstein amongst other things had launched his campaign because of what he called Starmer’s “unprincipled” politics and “lust for power.”

Feinstein’s campaign focused on issues such as better funding for public services including the NHS and opposing privatisation. A foreign policy based on human rights and international law and welcoming refugees. As well as taking the climate crisis seriously and bringing back Labour’s previous £28 billion climate pledge. But Starmer won, getting nearly 19,000 votes with Feinstein collecting 7,312 — although Starmer got less than half of the votes this time round compared to nearly two-thirds in 2019 and 70 per cent in 2017.

“People are ready for change,” Starmer said after winning his seat. We have to return politics to public service, country first, party second, he added, once Labour was certain of a majority.

But Corbyn — who also ran as an independent — ended up beating the Labour candidate in Islington North, Praful Nargund (an Islington councillor since 2022, who runs a private IVF firm, and who had avoided attending election debates with Corbyn) with over 7,000 votes.

Corbyn ran on a platform of fundamental redistribution of power and wealth, including a universal basic income, a wealth tax, nationalisation (of energy, water, rail and mail) and a fully public and funded NHS, as well as adherence to human rights and a Green New Deal that includes eg opposing new licences for oil and gas extraction, instead promoting investing in publicly owned renewable energy and rewilding.

“The Labour Party has won a very large majority but on a considerably lower vote than was achieved in previous elections. I think the figure is likely to be around 37 per cent of the vote, which is not a great figure on which to have a huge parliamentary majority. It does call into question the first past the post system and that no doubt is going to be a debate,” Corbyn said on the night.

 

THE turnout at last week’s election was just over 60 per cent, compared to 67 per cent in 2019.

First-past-the-post problem

The latest British Social Attitudes report, published in June by the National Centre for Social Research, reveals that 79 per cent of those polled say the system of governing Britain could be improved “quite a lot” or “a great deal.”

And perhaps the real problem with British politics has to do with the first past-the-post-system where large parts of the electorate are not (comparatively and sufficiently) represented in the British Parliament.

This is a system where Labour and the Conservatives have a virtual monopoly on power and left-of-centre and right-of-centre politics — even though both parties have dwindling memberships (Labour has lost 200,000 members since the last election when Corbyn was leader) and the Conservatives have implemented an increasingly right-wing and populist set of policies that include Brexit, ditching green policies and a Bill that aims at sending asylum-seekers to Rwanda.

A system that would seem to exclude any real possibility of fundamental change, one way or the other, where more than 20 per cent of the electorate voted for the Greens and Reform UK, who only got a total of nine seats in the 650-member parliament.

Starmer’s Labour’s 33 per cent of the vote and less than 10 million votes secured 412 seats in 2024 and a majority of more than 170, while Corbyn’s Labour in 2017 only got 262 seats from 40 per cent of the vote and more the 12 million votes as well as 202 seats from 32 per cent and over 10 million votes in 2019.

The first past-the-post-system is also a system where tactical campaigning and tactical voting often forces people to vote for the least worst option.

“We deserve better than a Labour Party that is offering more of the same. Angela [Rayner, Labour Deputy Leader] says that Keir has changed the Labour Party and she’s right — he’s changed them into the Conservatives,” Carla Denyer, the Green Party leader, said in a BBC election debate.

Power as an end?

Sunak announced the election in pouring rain, and when Starmer met the king at Buckingham Palace, the umbrellas outside were also abundant. A rather fitting metaphor for the state of the country and British politics.

Soon after the sun came out. And when the new Prime Minister stood outside the door at number 10 Downing Street, Starmer said that Britain needs a reset and that the work of change will begin immediately. “My government will fight until you believe again,” he added.

And I hope that the politicians that have been elected to the new parliament will look to change Britain, including dealing with child poverty, homelessness and foodbanks in the area where I grew up and countrywide. As well as climate change and the many other pressing issues in the country today. But I am not hopeful — and I am not alone in this.

Politicians are the least-trusted profession in Britain — below advertising executives, journalists and estate agents. And trust in British politicians is at an all-time low, since Ipsos surveys began in 1983. Just 9 per cent of the British public trusted politicians to tell the truth in December, down from 22 per cent in 2022 and 23 per cent in 1999.

The new British Social Attitudes report reveals that the public is more critical now of how Britain is governed than ever. Nearly half say they “almost never” trust governments of any party to place the needs of the nation above the interests of their own political party — 22 points above the figure from 2020. In the late ’80s and early ’90s, the number was well below 20 per cent.

And a YouGov poll from late June showed that most Britons think that parties go back on their manifesto promises and that they tend to see both the Conservatives’ and Labour’s election promises as unaffordable and unrealistic.

For true change to happen, we will need a generation of politicians more willing to be consistently truthful, lead, be visionary, shape public opinion, and not just focus on the importance of being electable and elected by reacting to polls and political currents. For to truly change something, to make an impact, you need to challenge and change opinions, not merely secure votes.

Starmer — and many modern politicians — on the other hand would seem to represent what inner-party-member O’Brien says to Winston Smith in George Orwell’s 1984 in the Ministry of Truth: “The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake. We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power [ … ] Power is not a means; it is an end.”

Margaret Thatcher was once asked what her greatest achievement was. She replied, “Tony Blair and New Labour.” Keir Starmer (and his cautious “Ming vase manifesto,” as it was called by a former New Labour aide) could in turn be the greatest achievement of the collective efforts of Cameron, May, Johnson, Truss and Sunak.

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