Why Starmer can’t delay the promised change

Labour’s huge win was partly made possible by others who cut into opponents’ votes. If the new UK PM can’t deliver soon, those parties will be waiting to pounce
Why Starmer can’t delay the promised change
Express Illustration - Mandar Pardikar

Caution rules the waves as the British Labour Party takes charge in the United Kingdom after an election victory that ousted the Conservatives from power with the loss of 250 parliamentary seats.

With an overall majority of 238 in the 650-seat chamber of the House of Commons, Labour’s leader Keir Starmer is in a strong position to effect the ‘change’ his team promised throughout the election campaign. However, he was at pains to lower expectations of a swift transformation in ‘broken Britain’ when he addressed the public outside 10 Downing Street.

Admitting that most people no longer had faith that things would be better for their children, he promised that Labour would “fight every day until you believe again, unburdened by doctrine”.

He and Rachel Reeves, the UK’s first woman chancellor, have severely limited their ability to make rapid improvements in public services by insisting they will not rely on borrowing or increase general taxation in the near future. Instead, the new government will focus on ‘growth’ by seeking to stimulate private investment.

This is in marked contrast to the approach favoured by the last Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, whose socialist agenda in 2019 garnered more votes than Labour won this time. He attracted many young people to the party, but their enthusiasm was trounced by Boris Johnson riding on a wave of misplaced euphoria over Brexit, which has since damaged the British economy and disillusioned so many.

Now expelled from Labour but running as an Independent, Corbyn kept his seat in a north London constituency by beating Labour’s candidate, one of more than 100 prospective parliamentarians of Indian origin in this general election. Of the 26 who were successful, most stood for Labour, including 10 Sikhs.

Controversial Conservative MPs Priti Patel and Suella Braverman were both re-elected, as was Britain’s first Hindu and richest Prime Minister Rishi Sunak. In a gracious admission of failure, announcing that he would stand down as leader of the Conservative Party, he was flanked by a rather glum-looking Akshata. His wife was gripping the umbrella that might have come in handy when he announced a hastily-called general election in pouring rain six weeks ago.

His party’s collapse to the worst result in more than a century was brought about in large part by the emergence of the far-right Reform Party led by two wealthy mavericks, Nigel Farage and Richard Tice. They ensured Labour’s ‘landslide’ victory by coming second in 98 seats and taking most of their votes from the Conservatives.

Reform won 14 percent of the overall vote, but were rewarded with only four seats, as were the Greens with only 7 percent of the votes; yet Labour with a 34 percent share of the vote won more than 400 seats.

Other results also showed anomalies in Britain’s first-past-the-post system. Welsh nationalists Plaid Cymru won four seats with a mere 1 percent of vote, while republican nationalists Sinn Féin in Northern Ireland won seven seats with a similar share. The Scottish Nationalists were reduced to nine seats with a 3 percent share. All of which is bound to strengthen calls for a system of proportional representation, one of the consistent demands of the resurgent Liberal Democrats, who won 71 seats with only 12 percent of the votes.

Meanwhile, the incoming government will also have to deal with the fact that independent candidates made a strong showing in several areas with a large Muslim population, winning three seats and even unseating former shadow cabinet minister Jonathan Ashworth. Fuelling a revolt among Muslims who usually vote Labour has been anger at the party’s lacklustre response to the crisis in Gaza, coupled with dismay at the prominence of so many Labour Friends of Israel among potential cabinet members, including the new prime minister.

This will be one of many conundrums facing David Lammy, likely to be the new foreign secretary, as he seeks to balance his support for Israel with his dealings with most of the world’s nations that have condemned outright Israel’s bombardment of the Gaza strip.

The Conservatives presided over a turbulent period in British politics, with Brexit and the Covid pandemic undermining confidence not only in their leadership, but also revealing behaviours that many voters regard as corrupt and self-serving.

Jubilation at their dismissal is tempered with anxiety that the page Keir Starmer promised to turn with a promise of “calm but patient rebuilding” might simply mean a new period of austerity and crushed dreams. There is much riding on his optimism that his will be a “government of service in a mission of national renewal” in what he admitted is “an increasingly volatile world”.

A great deal of racist dog-whistling about immigration has been a feature of the election campaign, not least from Reform Party campaigners, but more pressing issues confront communities throughout the British Isles.

A hiatus in house-building, shortcomings in the National Health Service, especially in mental health services and the provision of care for the elderly and disabled, and a dearth of teachers and safe school buildings are issues that need urgent attention. They all directly affect voters and represent the biggest challenges facing the new government if it is to demonstrate a capacity to respond swiftly to public concerns.

More than 13,000 asylum-seekers are currently incarcerated at public expense. Allowing them to work while their applications are being assessed could make a contribution to resolving some of these problems at the community level.

An imaginative approach to mending broken Britain lies less in preventing the arrival of those seeking sanctuary from war, oppression and climate change, than in addressing the bread-and-butter needs of citizens who would happily welcome those keen to contribute and earn their keep in a safe country.

The caution urged by the Labour leadership will not sit well with voters if they are expected to wait for a second Starmer administration for things to get better. Across Europe and the Atlantic, right-wing parties like Reform are set to pounce if the mainstream fails to deliver.

Mike Jempson

Bristol-based journalist and Director, The MediaWise Trust 

(Views are personal)

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