Labour hasn’t won a UK general election since 2010. Will 2024 be any different?

The dilemma for Starmer is that he was elected leader in 2020, promising to fulfil much of Jeremy Corbyn’s agenda. However, since that time, he has been seeking to recalibrate and reduce the range of his policy agenda.
Britain's main opposition Labour Party leader, Keir Starmer, gestures as he delivers a speech at the National Composites Centre at the Bristol and Bath Science Park in Bristol, south-west England, on January 4, 2024.
Britain's main opposition Labour Party leader, Keir Starmer, gestures as he delivers a speech at the National Composites Centre at the Bristol and Bath Science Park in Bristol, south-west England, on January 4, 2024.(File Photo | AFP)

Rob ManwaringFlinders University

Democracy faces challenges around the globe in 2024: at least 64 countries will ask their citizens to elect a government this year.

One of the most keenly observed will be the United Kingdom general election, likely to be held in November. The British Labour Party has not won an election since 2010 and has lost the last four elections. At the last election in 2019, it was beaten handsomely.

The 2019 result saw the Conservatives win 365 seats out of the 650 seats in the House of Commons, while Labour limped in with 202 seats. At that point, Boris Johnson was an immensely popular political leader, single-handedly delivering the Conservatives a historic win.

Famously, Johnson broke down part of Labour’s “red wall” seats—historically safe Labour seats in parts of Northern England. With Johnson’s emphatic win and Brexit "done," one writer predicted a further “decade of conservative dominance.”

Yet, the decade of conservative dominance did not arrive, and on current reading, the Conservatives look destined for opposition.

The most recent poll confirms Labour’s long-standing 20-point lead over the Conservatives (45%-25%). Since the Brexit Referendum, there has been unprecedented volatility in British politics—not dissimilar to the leadership churn in Australia.

Since the 2016 referendum, the Conservatives have chewed through five different leaders, from David Cameron to Rishi Sunak.

Each successive leader has been ensnared in a range of crises, from Theresa May’s record common defeats over Brexit, Johnson’s handling of COVID, Sunak’s problems with inflation, and of course, the blitzkrieg politics of shock and incompetence of Liz Truss.

The Conservative Party has fragmented and factionalized, with the hardline right pushing to veto key policies.

The volatility has led to wider governing instability.

Since 2019, there have been five home secretaries and a remarkable six chancellors (the role of federal treasurer in Australia). This turmoil takes an incalculable toll on effective government as policy settings continuously change and the public service are left reeling in the aftermath.

For the Johnson government in particular, personal loyalty and factional support trumped appointing competent ministers.

The case of Priti Patel is instructive.

She was forced to resign as minister for international development in the May government in 2017 after it emerged she had not been candid about unofficial meetings with Israeli ministers, businesspeople, and a lobbyist.

Despite breaching the Ministerial Code of Conduct for allegations of bullying staff, she later became home secretary in Johnson’s government.

The political infighting and instability in the Conservative Party have fuelled volatility, which in turn has led to voter disaffection.

Suella Braverman is the other striking example.

Initially appointed home secretary under Truss, she also breached the ministerial code by sharing an official document from her personal email address. Sunak later appointed her home secretary, in part to appease the hard right of the party. However, in office, she proved to be a political liability and was dismissed by Sunak.

The turbulence has been highly damaging for Sunak. Any political leader needs clean air to reset the agenda, but his government has been mired. He aimed to shape his agenda around five key priorities. One year on, one report card suggests he had only achieved one of these goals, and the critical ones (especially on immigration) are “off track.”

Immigration is the political battlefield the Conservatives will hope will help them, along with an improving economy, to help them retain office. The resonances here with Australian politics are all too familiar, and Sunak will be hoping for a repeat of the Liberals’ emphatic “dark victory” at the 2004 election. However, Sunak is widely seen as out of touch with the wider public; his and his wife’s vast wealth have been the subject of much commentary.

This year’s election, then, looks increasingly like one Conservatives will lose, but it remains to be seen how well Keir Starmer’s Labour can win it. For some time, Labour has held a solid 20-point lead over the Tories in the polls, yet to take office, Starmer will need a record 12.7% swing.

Starmer’s team will take inspiration from Anthony Albanese’s 2022 win in Australia, a solid election result off the back of a crumbling centre-right government but hardly an emphatic victory. The lesson there is that you need to win seats, not necessarily the vote share.

The dilemma for Starmer is that he was elected leader in 2020, promising to fulfil much of Jeremy Corbyn’s agenda. However, since that time, he has been seeking to recalibrate and reduce the range of his policy agenda.

Much of his energy has also been used to diminish the influence of the Corbyn-ite left in the party. While there is much long-term ambition in his five "missions," some are light on detail, and others rely on luck.

Long-term Labour politician and scholar Jon Cruddas’ lament is that Starmer’s vision is detached from Labour’s history. Labour looks set to take office, but it could be off the back of a large-scale disaffection from the wider public, with voter turnout likely to decrease for the third election running.

Rob Manwaring, Associate Professor, Politics and Public Policy, Flinders University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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