The UK 2024 General Election result is not quite what it seems

This blog is mainly about (social) science, but my interest in and concern about poverty and inequality makes it a bit about politics too. And this is just a brief post to explain the UK Labour Party’s landslide election win on 4th July 2024; what it is, and importantly is not.

On the progressive side of the argument, there are always two analyses of how to more forward. One (the brave new world approach) is that you have to offer something bold, visionary a thorough-going reform of all of our current institutions to capture and energise the broad, latent desire for a better life for most people. The other (the steady as she goes approach) is that you have to move to the centre, not scare the media or business, and propose more or less a continuation of the status quo, but with slightly better intentions, a bit more competence, and a promise that you will use your new-gained power and any windfall to help people disfavoured by the current settlement as and when you can.

On the face of it, Keir Starmer’s 2024 landslide represents a triumph for the second approach. This is particularly so when contrasted with Jeremy Corbyn’s in 2017. 2017 was a brave new world manifesto, and an other-wordly leader. 2024 was a ruthlessly steady-as-she-goes, disciplined message, offering very little actual reform of our institutions, no extra taxation and not much extra expenditure, and ruling out radical reforms like basic income and wealth taxes. It looks like the strategy was a triumph, winning 410 seats in the 650-seat House of Commons. My colleagues here in France are asking me how Starmer did it: how did he crack making the centre-left great again? A long article in yesterday’s Le Parisien was presenting Starmer as a determined genius, who has shown that you will win people’s votes and defuse right-wing populism by moving to the centre ground and being relentlessly sensible and orthodox. And lamenting, of course, that no-one has managed to do this in France, where we face the second round of legislative elections this Sunday, and the prospect of a right-populist government.

The UK result seems, in other words, to argue against the need for – or wisdom of – a radical reform agenda like one we just proposed in Act Now, and for an incremental, more centrist approach.

Not so fast though. The large Labour landslide last night is a very particular product of the way the UK election system works, and of the disarray of the other parties. It does not say anything very general about what people want from the state right now. There are very important ways in which Labour lost last night.

First, the votes. In 2017, Labour got 12.9 million votes. With 99% of the votes counted, in 2024, they have 9.7 million. So, they have lost about 3 million voters. (Even compared to Corbyn’s ‘worst performance since 1935’, namely 2019, Labour have lost about half a million votes). How could Labour possibly have done so well in terms of parliamentary numbers this time with such a low vote? It is simply because the other main party has lost even more: the Conservatives polled 14 million in 2017 and 2019, and only about 7 million last night. This is because they presided over a series of scandals and a lot of instability. If there is one thing people like about conservatives, it is that they conserve effectively, not lurch from crisis to crisis. And Labour also gained a lot of seats in Scotland last night, where circumstances are rather particular: the incumbent party there, the Scottish National Party, had had a series of scandals and changes and shed votes, allowing Labour to move from second place to first in a number of places.

Where have the lost voters all gone, three million from Labour and seven million from the Conservatives? Three or four million have gone to the populist right in the form of the Reform party. A smaller number have gone away from the Labour party to the left, in the form of Greens and independents, who have done well in this election. But the biggest beneficiary of all is ‘Did not vote’. ‘Did not vote’ had a better performance than Labour in this election by some margin: almost 20 million (non) votes to Labour’s 10 million-ish. At the 1945 General Election, 73% of all registered electors voted; last night it was more like 60%.

So, in brief, does Starmer’s victory say anything very generalisable or reproducible about how to advance the progressive cause in the reality of current electoral politics, and how to defuse the populist right? Perhaps not. The populist right has done pretty well in this election, just been kept from having more seats in parliament by the first-past-the-post electoral system.  And, it can hardly be said that Labour has been elected with a great surge of popular support. More like they are beneficiaries of the bizarreness of the electoral system. There is a large segment of the population disaffected with all of the current offerings, which may well be captured by other political offerings in the future, as they were in the Brexit vote (and as has happened here in France this year).

The truth is we still don’t know how many votes Labour could have got with a more ambitious, redistributive, green, Act Now style offering, because the experiment has not been done. Perhaps most critically, the election process seems to have done little to foster public discussion and deliberation about how society should actually be reformed to make things better. This seems like a missed opportunity. Perhaps, now that the election is over with, the democratic process can begin.