Majority Without a Mandate

Was ever a country, in this humour, won? A majority without a mandate, and a landslide that isn’t a landslide. Labour won 64% of the seats with 34% of the vote, the smallest ever vote share for a party taking office. Turnout, estimated at 59%, was at its lowest since 2001 (and before that, 1885). When a soggy Sunak finally pulled the plug on his flagging, flag-bedraggled government at the end of May, every poll showed Labour with a double-digit lead, at over 40%. Sunak’s litany of unforced errors, as well as the massive funding gap between Labour and the Conservatives and the queue of businessmen and Murdoch newspapers endorsing Labour, ought to have helped keep it that way. Instead, Labour’s total number of votes fell to 9.7 million, down from 10.3 million in 2019.

The Conservatives plunged from 44% to 24%, feeding into a surge for the far-right Reform UK which, with 14% of the vote, took four seats. The combined Tory–Reform vote, at 38%, was bigger than Labour’s share. The latter would not have increased at all, as the pollster John Curtis pointed out, without the Labour gains in Scotland enabled by the SNP’s implosion. Meanwhile the country’s left, despite its tardiness and lack of strategic focus, did well. The Greens increased their vote share from less than 3% to 7% and took four seats. Sitting alongside them in the Commons will be five independent pro-Palestine candidates, including Jeremy Corbyn who defeated his Labour rival in Islington North with a margin of 7,000 votes. Intriguingly, George Galloway’s diagonalist Workers’ Party didn’t win a single seat – including Rochdale, which Galloway has represented since February.

Never has there been such a yawning gap between the fractal pluripotencies of the age and the suffocating politics at the top. Few governments have been this fragile coming into office. There will be no honeymoon. Labour and its leader are deeply unpopular; just less so than the Conservatives for now. Disguised by the commanding scale of Labour’s majority in Westminster is the drastic expansion of marginal constituencies, where the party barely clung on. In Ilford North, independent left candidate Leanne Mohamad came within 500 votes of unseating the incoming health minister Wes Streeting; in Bethnal Green & Stepney, the incumbent Rushanara Ali, who refused to back a ceasefire in Gaza, saw her majority reduced from 37,524 to 1,689; in Birmingham Yardley, the right-wing sectarian Jess Phillips was almost unseated by the Workers’ Party; and in Chingford and Woodford Green, where Faiza Shaheen was blocked from standing as the Labour candidate, she fought her former party to a draw – splitting the vote and allowing the Tories to retain the seat.  

How did Labour do so well, yet so badly? The party’s vote share usually falls during an election campaign. Yet the deeper issue was the basis on which it sought office. The decisive factor here was the cost-of-living crisis and its political metabolism. In periods of low inflation, price rises erode the consuming power of those at the margins of the economy, but in 2021-22, as a combination of supply-chain crises and corporate profiteering drove up costs, even some of the middle class felt the pinch, while the government’s attempt to scapegoat striking workers generated little sympathy. The Tories’ turn to open class war laid waste to their talk of ‘levelling up’ and belied their overtures to ordinary Britons.

The Conservative Party responded to this crisis by turning on itself and its charismatic yet wayward leader, Boris Johnson. The result was the catastrophic Liz Truss interval. Standing as an ‘anti-globalist’ reactionary, attuned to the concerns of a Tory membership protected from the worst of the crisis but stagnant relative to the soaring wealth of the super-rich, Truss crushed the media favourite Rishi Sunak. But her government, after a mini-budget with £45bn worth of unfunded tax cuts, was immediately subject to the kind of institutional aggression usually reserved for the left. The financial sector, Bank of England and national media made short work of her. Sunak was hastily ushered into office without a vote among Tory members, and an assortment of austerians appointed to the Treasury. The strategy since then, continued into the election, has been to combine fiscal sadism with ineffectual culture warring. The result was a realignment of the political centre behind Labour, transforming the electoral calculus.

From that point on, Labour could seek office without a mandate. It abandoned its most ambitious spending commitments, notably the £28bn to be spent on green investment. It positioned itself as a safe, managerial option for the establishment. Its offer to the electorate was telling: a politics that would ‘tread more lightly’ on people’s lives. In a campaign fought less on policy than on vibes, it offered an insultingly vague manifesto. Its tax and spend commitments amounted to just 0.2% of GDP: small change given the crisis of British infrastructure, health, schools, water and housing. But then ‘small change’ is Keir Starmer’s forte: small change on the last government, small change in spending, small change in the share of votes. Labour’s tiresome mantra has been ‘growth’. It was never explained how this was to be achieved, given Labour’s unwillingness to raise taxes on higher incomes or corporate profits to fund investment, barring vague references to planning law.

Late in the campaign, however, it became clear that Labour is hoping for asset managers to lead a spurt of private-sector investment. BlackRock boss Larry Fink, who endorsed Starmer, has positioned his firm as a means of providing resources for green investment without raising taxes on the rich. ‘We can build infrastructure’, he writes in the Financial Times, ‘by unlocking private investment’. This is the ‘public-private partnership’ boondoggle on a massive scale. BlackRock already owns Gatwick Airport and has a substantial stake in Britain’s crumbling, sewage-spewing water industry (70% of which is currently owned by asset managers). As Daniela Gabor writes, ‘the profits BlackRock will hope to generate through investing in green energy are likely to come at a huge cost.’ As Brett Christophers points out in his critique of ‘asset manager society’, owners are far removed from the infrastructures they control, and have little incentive to care for them. They just create vehicles for pooling investment capital, milk the asset for what it’s worth, and move on. This is the big idea on which Labour is pinning its fragile fortunes: no wonder they didn’t want to explain it to the electorate.

The obvious danger is that an unpopular government, made complacent by its grossly disproportionate majority, systematically imposes an agenda that the majority don’t want, and which will make most people worse off. Waiting in the wings to claim scalps, if the left doesn’t get its act together and stop merely coasting on transient mass campaigns, will be grifters of the farraginous variety, attuned to the darker side of public passions. Grace Blakeley has warned that Starmer may be the next Olaf Scholz – or, we may now add, Emmanuel Macron. Yet the left has been warning the centre for decades, to no avail. For all their feted ‘pragmatism’, centrists are at heart absolutists of necessity, even more rigorously deterministic and unilinear in their reading of history than Stalinism at its peak. They have repeatedly walked willingly into electoral oblivion to deliver austerity and war, their ‘morituri te salutamus’ echoing in the halls of power as they went. Starmer will do the same, and anyone on the left still hitching their fortunes to his will go down with him.

Read on: Daniel Finn, ‘False Compromise’, Sidecar.