Labour Won a U.K. Landslide. Why Doesn’t It Feel Like That?

Britain’s voters handed the Labour Party a landslide election victory this week, but one laden with asterisks.

Prime Minister Keir Starmer took office on Friday with a commanding majority in the British Parliament, yet in terms of the total number of ballots cast, his party won only a third of the vote, less than what it got in 2017 when it lost to the Conservatives. Labour made inroads across Britain, yet its wins were often eclipsed by the Tory losses, including that of Liz Truss, the unpopular former prime minister who was evicted from her seat.

The thundering mutiny of the voters may have been the single biggest message of Britain’s election. It has ushered in a new era of Labour government, left the Conservatives to nurse the worst defeat in their history, and stands as a warning to incumbents everywhere of the hazards of failing to deliver on your promises.

But Labour’s triumph was only one of several crosscurrents that revealed the extraordinary volatility of the modern British electorate: the rise of Reform U.K., an insurgent anti-immigration party, which won more than four million votes; the plummeting vote share of the major parties; the lowest voter turnout in decades, and the flare-up of the Gaza War as a campaign issue that stung Labour candidates, even Mr. Starmer.

While he comfortably held his own seat in London, Mr. Starmer won 17,000 fewer votes than in 2019, thanks in part to a challenge by an independent who channeled anger on the left over Labour’s stance on Israel and the war in Gaza.

It all added up to a complex election that defies easy categorization: a landslide, but not a straightforward realignment of the political map; a pivot to the center-left, but one that gave the populist right a valuable foothold; a thumping Labour win, but without the euphoria that suffused Tony Blair’s runaway victory in 1997. “A loveless landslide,” one commentator said on Friday morning.

“We wanted change,” said Anand Menon, a professor of European politics at King’s College London, summing up the complicated state of British politics, “but we aren’t inspired by Labour.”

At one level, Britain’s embrace of a center-left party sets it apart from the right-wing wave that is rising across Europe and possibly in the United States. When Mr. Starmer travels to Washington next week for a NATO summit, he will be a fresh presence amid a depleted group of centrist leaders: President Biden, President Emmanuel Macron of France, and Chancellor Olaf Scholz of Germany.

Yet some analysts said the election should not be interpreted as an embrace of left-wing policies. The magnitude of Labour’s victory is partly a function of Britain’s first-past-the-post electoral system, which tends to favor major parties over smaller ones. It also reflected the depth of the Conservative collapse, which was magnified by the capacity of Reform to siphon off right-wing voters.

“It’s not a big shift to the left,” said Tony Travers, a professor of politics at the London School of Economics. “Labour has massively moderated under Keir Starmer.”

On Friday, Mr. Starmer signaled that he knew he had no time to waste acting on his party’s lopsided majority: 412 seats, almost matching the number received by Mr. Blair in 1997. And he reached out to voters who had not backed Labour.

“You have given us a clear mandate, and we will use it to deliver change,” Mr. Starmer told cheering supporters after arriving at 10 Downing Street. “To restore service and respect to politics. End the era of noisy performance. Tread more lightly on your lives. And unite our country.”

Hours after traveling to Buckingham Palace, where King Charles III invited him to form a government, Mr. Starmer installed his top team, including Rachel Reeves as chancellor of the Exchequer, the first woman to hold that post.

Mr. Starmer, analysts said, will have to act quickly to satisfy an impatient public. He has promised to jump-start the economy by overhauling planning regulations and to shore up the overburdened National Health Service. But with Britain’s ballooning public debt, he will have limited tools to begin what he has proclaimed a decade of national renewal.

Moreover, the emergence of Reform — which won 14.3 percent of the vote, compared to 23.7 percent for the Conservatives and 33.8 percent for Labour — suggested to some that Britain is still vulnerable to the kind of hard right populism that is on the march in France, particularly if the new government does not score some wins quickly.

Nigel Farage, the populist firebrand who leads Reform and was an early champion of Brexit, appeared to be trying to reinvent himself for that purpose.

“There is a massive gap on the center right of British politics,” a jubilant Mr. Farage said to cheering supporters in the town of Clacton-on-Sea after he had won a seat in Parliament for the first time in eight attempts. “My job is to fill it, and that’s exactly what I’m going to do.”

Reform won only five seats, which will limit its voice within the House of Commons. But analysts say Mr. Farage could use his platform to torment the Conservatives at a moment when they are divided, dispirited, and open to the lure of the far right.

The centrist Liberal Democrats were another big winner on Thursday night, winning 12 percent of the vote and increasing their number of seats from eight to 71. They inflicted significant damage on the Conservatives in their heartland in England’s south and southwest. Among the priorities of the party, which was virulently against Brexit, is to forge closer ties to the European Union.

Reform U.K. and the Liberal Democrats underscored the rapid fragmentation of British politics. Together, Labour and the Conservatives won just 57.5 percent of the vote, their lowest combined share in the post-World War II period. In 2019, the two parties won 75.7 percent; in 2017, 82.4 percent.

Adding to the sense of political ennui was the voter turnout. At about 60 percent, it was the lowest since 2001, when Mr. Blair won a second term.

Mr. Starmer acknowledged the depth of discontent with traditional political institutions in his Downing Street speech. “It leads to a weariness in the heart of a nation, a draining-away of the hope, the spirit, the belief in a better future,” he said. “This wound, this lack of trust will only be healed by actions, not words.”

Professor Travers said traditional voting patterns had been upended in recent years, in part because of the rise of social media but also, he said, because dissatisfied people now use elections to send messages.

“It is a realignment from being rock-solid for one party to being open to new parties,” he said. “People don’t vote the way their parents did. People don’t vote along class lines anymore. They are simply less aligned to political parties.”

This election was different from the last two elections in another important respect: it was not dominated by the debate over Brexit. Britain’s 2016 decision to leave the European Union barely registered during the six-week campaign, with neither party eager to re-litigate the arguments of the last seven years. Labour kept its focus on kitchen-table issues like the economy and the N.H.S.

But just because Brexit did not figure in the debate does not mean it played no role. The passions the referendum unleashed divided the Conservatives, pulling them in more extreme directions on issues like immigration. Many voters blame Brexit for Britain’s economic ills, either because it hobbled trade with Europe or, in the view of Brexiteers, because it was never properly implemented.

“Brexit is still at the root of all this,” Professor Travers said. “The Conservatives damaged themselves because of it. Moreover, it’s now unpopular or thought to have been managed badly.”

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