Conservative Leadership Failure Leads to Historic Labour Win

The British Labour Party did not just win yesterday’s election. It destroyed the Conservative Party and initiated a profound transformation of the ideological map of the United Kingdom. Its outcome is historic: Labour will win around 410 of the 650 seats in the House of Commons. The Conservatives, 131.Never in nearly two centuries of history have they had such a small number of supporters.  The Scottish nationalists have also suffered a monumental defeat. Labor faces hardly any opposition. But the little it has will probably become more radical.

The conservative catastrophe

Keir Starmer, the Labour leader who will be appointed prime minister, is a brilliant man. For decades, he was a lawyer who excelled in championing human rights causes. He was tenacious, argued with endless patience, and was attached to the facts. From 2008 to 2013, he was a UK prosecutor; those who worked with him say he was a man obsessed with procedure and the standards by which allegations should be dealt with. But he has never had the ideological imagination of Tony Blair, the last great reinventor of the Labour Party. He is not as effective a rhetorician as Gordon Brown, the country’s last prime minister. Since being elected leader of the party in 2020, he has merely purged it of all the radical elements introduced by his predecessor, Jeremy Corbyn, and rolled out a moderate and deliberately dull program. His proposals are rational and realistic, but in times of political grandiloquence, they are unlikely to generate any enthusiasm. Now, those of us who hate polarization and radicalism should thank him for formulating his political program precisely in his last New Year’s address: “I promise this: a politics that hits our lives a little softer,” he said. “The problem with populism or nationalism, all politics based on division, is that they require your full attention; they require you to constantly focus on whatever enemy is this week. And that is exhausting.”

It is not Starmer’s personality or program, however, that has given him such a resounding victory. It is a fact that, in the last decade, the Conservative Party has been led by the most inept generation in its century-old history. In eight years, it has had five prime ministers: David Cameron, Theresa May, Boris Johnson, Liz Truss, and Rishi Sunak. Their terms in office have been an unprecedented display of improvisation and arrogance: Cameron defended economic austerity and free trade; May and Johnson defended the return of a social and nationalist state; Truss proposed an economic program so fanciful that her own party fired her after just forty days in office; Sunak is a classic conservative, but the polls have been so adverse to him that all his proposals smacked irremediably of opportunism.

Only three of those five leaders were Brexiteers, but all five made it their own and have recently faced a triple failure: Brexit hasn’t worked, and most of the country regrets the decision. The goal of placating the party that openly advocated Britain’s exit from the EU, Nigel Farage’s UKIP, has resulted in its current heir, the far-right Reform Party, also led by Farage, taking hundreds of thousands of votes and a handful of seats from the Conservatives. Some of these leaders are honest—MMay, Sunak; others are hopelessly frivolous—Clarson, Johnson, and Truss. Almost all of them have attacked a supposed intellectual, bureaucratic, and journalistic elite that, as they have repeatedly claimed, was preventing reform in Britain. But all of them, to varying degrees, came from the traditional educated—aand in most cases, wealthy—cclasses that have run the country for centuries. Its failure has been colossal. The first consequence of this is its historic defeat. But there is a second, more dangerous one: that the party will split between those who want to recover its moderate essence and those who wish to turn towards the nativist nationalism of reform.

An exhausted country

Today, the UK is a country exhausted by a succession of Conservative governments that have played on constant identity-based and polarizing mobilization. There is a widespread sense that nothing is working properly: neither the National Health Service, nor transport infrastructure, nor the most basic local services. The Conservatives have spent fourteen years promising a reduction in immigration, but it has increased. Taxes, measured as a percentage of GDP, are the highest since the Second World War. Public debt is the highest since the 1960s.

Labour’s majority in the House of Commons may seem excessive for a well-functioning parliamentary democracy. But Starmer is not going to have an effortless time of it. If he is true to his character and his program, he will not do anything revolutionary. That may be reassuring, but it may also be insufficient for a dispirited country in need of a new direction. In any case, the United Kingdom is now happy with a new government and a new, sensible, boring, and gradualist leadership. We must, however, pray that the failure of the Conservative Party does not give rise to a new monster of the radical right.

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