GE2024: some hot takes

white and yellow roller coaster
Photo by Min An on

I’m so out of the habit of blogging that after six weeks since the General Election I still haven’t managed to write anything about it. But I just wanted to jot down some basic points about how I think it has gone and where we might go from here.

My ideal result won’t happen. But it might?

The best outcome of this election in my view is that Labour gets a thumping great majority and the Lib Dems end up the second largest parliamentary despite coming third (or possibly fourth) in terms of the popular vote.

Supporters of the single member plurality voting system currently used in UK Parliamentary Elections have for decades assured us that such an outcome is perfectly legitimate and a fair outcome. I believe they are wrong in the eyes of most members of the public but would be delighted to put it to the test. While I don’t for one minute think that Starmer will see this result and decide to implement his party’s policy for proportional representation, I do think it be the best opportunity we’ve ever had for electoral reform.

But aside from that, sidelining the Conservative Party to such an extent that it isn’t even the official opposition (with all the media and financial opportunities that provides) will be extremely just desserts for a party that has behaved outrageously and self-indulgently for 14 years. Play stupid games, win stupid prizes.

It would also mean that Labour will, at least in the short term, be opposed at PMQs, etc., from the left and not from the right. Given how poor Starmer has proven himself to be at standing up to rightwing populism in any meaningful sense, this can only be a good thing.

Of course, I am far too Sensible to think that is actually going to happen. The polling consensus is that the LDs are going to do well and the Conservatives will do badly, but they will not actually crossover, and I suspect that that is correct. But it will probably end up coming down to just a handful of votes scattered here and there that could have changed the outcome entirely. That in itself is a sign of a political system coming off the rails.

Labour needs to save itself from Starmerism

There doesn’t appear to be as much enthusiasm for Keir Starmer as there is for getting rid of the Tories. That’s pretty much always the case, no? It certainly was the case in 1979, 1997 and 2010 (when Cameron couldn’t even win a majority). There does seem to be something particularly underwhelming about Starmer however.

It was inevitable that following the idealism and incompetence of Corbyn that Labour would swing back to a form of Blairism, but this seems to be a particularly hollow and charmless kind of Blairism. The Labour right likes to think Blair was incredibly popular and had a magic touch, but the real reason for his ability to get re-elected twice was that his government delivered a series of policy outcomes that made a meaningful difference to people’s lives, and Blair was able to take credit for the things he opposed behind closed doors. It wasn’t Blair who championed the national minimum wage or even Sure Start. It certainly wasn’t Blair who reversed the decline of the NHS – he was incredibly resistent to Brown’s push to raise national insurance to pay for improved healthcare. Indeed, when you get right down to it, it’s incredibly hard to think of a single policy that Blair pushed for that has left a lasting legacy, except of course the illegal invasion of Iraq on a false prospectus.

With Starmer we have a leader with the charisma of Brown and the radicalism of Blair. Worse, most of the last six weeks have involved him ruling out hypotheticals and tying his hands even more tightly to stop him from being able to do anything that might be considered progressive or egalitarian. It’s been a sobering few weeks realising that neither of the main parties are remotely interested in the votes of anyone other than a handful of wealthy, reactionary and racist octogenarians – most of whom won’t even see another general election. The decision by Starmer and Wes Streeting to spend the last week of the campaign attacking trans people at the bidding of the Daily Mail and J.K. Rowling has been particulatly depressing.

As you might be able to tell, I have absolutely no faith in Starmer beyond the simple fact that he cannot possibly be as bad as any of the cretinous Conservative Prime Ministers we’ve been inflicted with over the last 14 years. But then, I’ve never really seen leaders as much more than a necessary evil; that isn’t where dynamism in politics resides.

I will admit to having somewhat more faith in the Labour Parliamentary Party as a whole. While Starmer and the ultras such as Luke Akehurst have done their best to purge their ranks and replace them with people in their image, it remains the case that the majority of Labour politicians are pretty decent, broadly left-leaning people.

The 1997-2010 Labour government was filled with moments whereby the Labour Parliamentary Party saved the country from its own government’s worst instincts. On issues such as LGB rights, it was backbenchers who lead the way, not the front bench – after all, Labour refused to whip to lower the age of consent for same sex couples. Section 28 was only scrapped after Labour backbenchers backed an amendment tabled by a certain Lib Dem MP Ed Davey.

I think we will see something similar in the next parliament, with centrist troglodytes like Streeting continuing to resist progressive reforms but being forced to change position in the face of continued pressure from the backbenchers. It won’t work every time, or even on enough issues, but we will see moments of reversal from time to time, and a larger backbench will be less shy about open defiance than a small one. The Tories’ claim that a so-called “super majority” will lead to less political debate will probably end up being the opposite of the truth given their narrow culture war-ridden definition of the word “debate”.

That won’t be enough for some people, but after 14 years of seeing the government forced rightwards by its own backbenchers, it feels like the closest thing we can have to hope without major electoral reform. I’m way past the days when I am so self indulgent as to choose personal purity over and above voting that would make things better for people less privileged than myself, however slight. But I admit that I’m putting my faith into the hands of a bunch of people I barely know and don’t even like the political culture they have come up through.

See-saw politics

2019 was one of Labour’s greatest ever defeats and 2024 looks set to be the Tories’ greatest ever defeat. This is all fun and games but it ought to give the greatest defenders of our system some pause. We can’t afford to see politics swing this way and that every 5 years; it will lead to even more short termism and even more populism – something which, frankly, the right are much better at. And yet, even if Labour does manage to get a majority of historic proportions, a huge proportion of those seats will be immensely vulnerable to a future Tory (or whatever emerges from a new Tory-Reform alignment). While it certainly looks as if the Conservatives are on the brink of an existential crisis, there is every chance they can bounce back, worse than ever before, and win the next election.

Labour have made their mantra in this election to under-promise and over-deliver. They’d better stick the landing of that one because if people don’t feel substantially better off by 2029 then we could be staring at a Faragiste Prime Minister in five years time.

The rational response to this, surely, would be to pivot away from the instability that single member plurality voting and adopt a PR system that is less vulnerable to swings and ensures that future governments can command the endorsement of a majority of voters and not just a random plurality. Increasingly however, I’ve come to the conclusion that Labour isn’t lead by sensible people; it’s lead by a cargo cult that has confused Tory unpopularity with Labour strategic genius. I pray that I’m wrong and that we can convince them otherwise.

The Lib Dems: back to business as usual?

2019 was a disaster for the Lib Dems, despite increasing their share of the vote. 2024 looks to be a triumph – their greatest ever share of MPs – despite losing support and getting less than half of the vote share they achieved in 2010.

For a lot of Lib Dems that will feel like a vindication of Ed Davey’s approach, the return of sensible targeting and the art of pavement politics perfected by Chris Rennard et al in the 1990s and 2000s.

Electorally though, where will the Lib Dems go from there? If the term “supermajority” is meaningless in a UK parliamentary context, then increasing your parliamentary party from 11 to 77 means even less. In the next election they will be defending more seats than ever before and are likely to have very little prospect for growth. The downside of having your vote share so efficiently distributed across the country is that you will have very few obvious targets next time around – even if the vote share goes on to increase.

The other question is: which way will the Lib Dems turm after all this? If they become the official opposition, it will be easiest to tack Labour from the left, just as the party broadly did from 1997 to 2007. With a hegemonic Labour parliamentary party, there is a good chance that some frustrated backbenchers will even cross the house to join Ed Davey. But there is also a good chance that we’ll witness what happened after both the Tory wipeout in 1997 and the Brexit mess in 2016: disaffected centre-right Conservatives choosing to join the Lib Dems as the Tory hard right flexes its muscles.

At first those disaffected Tories will seem quite innocuous, but it won’t be long before they start steering the party off to the right in the name of “classical liberalism”. All of this has happened before, etc.

My greatest fear is that after gaining ground from Labour for a good few years, the Lib Dems are at risk of doing the same heel-turn they did in the late 2000s and strategically align themselves with the Tories (or whatever emerges after the Tories collapse), taking all those progressive voters for granted once again.

When Davey defeated Layla Moran in the 2020 leadership election I assumed that we’d go into the next election campaign with the colourful Tories up against two beige Sirs who have nothing to promise but insipid centrism. I will happily admit that while Sir Keir has lived up to that, Sir Ed has run probably the most colourful Lib Dem election campaign ever. His commitment to carers comes across as genuine, and I appreciate that the party’s manifesto is more egalitarian and redistributive than Labour’s. But only just.

I’m no longer privy to the policy discussions inside the Lib Dems, but from my outsider’s perspective, it certainly seems to be minimal these days. An email I received from the Social Liberal Forum at the start of June announced that they had “won the battle of ideas”. If that’s true, then the 2024 manifesto doesn’t have a huge amount to show for that.

I can’t particularly fault the Lib Dems for their thoroughly unideological stance over the last five years, given that they found themselves at the end of 2019 with just 11 MPs and without a leader. The last 14 years have been rough for the party and I can understand why they’ve retreated to the safe space of pavement politics and carving out safe and popular policy niches that the main parties find it inconvenient or difficult to talk about much. But if they want to claw back that ~20% of the vote that they took for granted in the 2000s, let alone aim higher, they need to start associating their brand with much more than just bungee jumping and roller-coasters. And that means bigger ideas, namely about the economy – a topic that has divided UK liberal parties for a century now.

The one thing I can say about all the Lib Dem leaders that came between Clegg and Davey was that I was pretty convinced that they acknowledged the mistakes of the coalition government. Davey has never quite given me that impression, not in either of the leadership elections he fought, or when he has been pushed on it during this general election campaign. He’s definitely proven himself capable of pulling the party back from the brink. Whether he’s the leader capable of taking the party to the next level remains to be seen.

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