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Labour sweeps to power in UK election

July 5, 2024

Analysis by Rob Picheta, CNN

London (CNN) — Keir Starmer will become Prime Minister in the coming hours after sweeping away a 14-year era of Conservative rule and leading the Labour Party to a massive landslide victory in Britain’s general election.

British rejected the Conservatives by a historic margin, and Starmer will be a very powerful prime minister.

But there are urgent issues needing his attention. And as the final results of the election are counted, a number of eye-opening trends are becoming clear.

Here’s what you need to know.

Labour’s huge, but fragile, landslide

Labour’s victory was seismic. It was very nearly unprecedented; only Tony Blair’s Labour Party has ever won more seats in an election.

As the sun rose over London, Keir Starmer told a buoyant victory rally that a burden has been “finally removed form the shoulders of this great nation.”

“Change begins now,” he said.

But Labour’s win was also fragile. The vote breakdown made clear that the election was as much, if not more, about the public’s anger towards the Conservatives as it was about excitement for Labour’s offer.

Keir Starmer’s party only increased its vote share by a few percentage points from its dismal 2019 showing, even though it may end up with almost twice as many seats. Starmer won a smaller vote share than his predecessor Jeremy Corbyn did in 2017, an election that Labour also lost. It was helped in seat after seat by a strong showing from populists Reform UK, who tore votes away from the Conservatives.

Those stats highlight the oddities of Britain’s first-past-the-post voting system, but also the dangers facing Starmer. He will govern with a powerful majority in parliament, but the public coalition he has built will not afford him a long honeymoon period.

He will be opposed by the Conservatives, but also by Reform, which challenged Labour candidates in several seats around the country. And a throng of left-wing support will also attempt to detract attention from Starmer; his predecessor Corbyn, who had been expelled by the party, won as an independent in Islington North and will become the face of that opposition.

Starmer was far more popular than Sunak, opinion polls showed, but he has never enjoyed the healthy approval ratings that Blair and Boris Johnson once did, lacking the natural charisma or campaigning prowess of those leaders.

“Election victories don’t fall from the sky. They’re hard won, and hard fought for,” he acknowledged in his victory speech. Starmer has promised “a decade of national renewal,” a pledge that nods to the deep-seated problems in Britain’s public services but also the lengthy stint he intends to spend in government. Whether or not he completes that goal could depend heavily on the early impression he leaves on the public as Prime Minister.

In a sign of the potential fragility of Labour’s landslide, turnout is on track to be the lowest for more than 20 years. Of the seats declared by early Friday morning, turnout is hovering just below 60% – down from 67.3% at the last election in 2019. If confirmed, it would be only the second time in more than a century that more than 40% of voters decided to skip the vote.

A devastating Conservative defeat

Unlike Labour’s victory, there are no two sides to the Conservatives’ performance. This was a woeful showing, after a dreadful campaign, and it has consigned the Tories not just to opposition but on the cusp on irrelevance.

Senior Conservatives fell like dominoes in seat after seat; the party was decimated by Labour and Reform in the so-called Red Wall swathe of battleground seats across North England and the Midlands, and by the Liberal Democrats in affluent areas in southern England that it had previously controlled for decades.

And a line of high-profile figures – the faces of a 14-year era of power – stunningly lost their seats. Penny Mourdant, Jacob Rees-Mogg, Robert Buckland, Alex Chalk and others were dumped from power. The outgoing chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, narrowly clung on.

And the most sensational defeat was saved until last: shortly after 6 a.m., in one of the final seats to declare, former Prime Minister Liz Truss lost her previously ultra-safe seat.

She refused to speak after her defeat, leaving the stage with her fellow candidates instead, attempting to retain a steely look on her face.

“I’m sorry,” Sunak told activists and voters after winning his count. There was not much more he could say.

Before this election, only three Cabinet ministers had lost their seat this century, and all were Lib Dems serving in coalition with the Conservatives.

It opened up a furious and bitter backlash within the party about what went wrong. “Our renewal as a party and a country will not be achieved by us talking to an ever-smaller slice of ourselves, but by being guided by the people of this country,” Mordaunt said after losing her seat, implicitly taking aim at the populist wing of the party, which has recently sought to pull it towards the right on issues such as migration.

Buckland was blunter. “I’m fed up with performance art politics,” Buckland told the BBC. “I’ve watched colleagues in the Conservative Party strike poses, write inflammatory op-eds and say stupid things they have no evidence for instead of concentrating on doing the job that they were elected to do.

“I think we’ve seen in this election astonishing ill-discipline within the party,” he added.

A battle for control of the Tories

For some of the Conservative lawmakers who survived the wipeout on Friday morning, there was little time for mourning.

A battle to seize the leadership of the party is already underway. Senior MPs who ran in the two recent elections for the post were pointed in their speeches, doing little to hide their ambitions.

And the fight could be bitter. Two wings have split the party over the course of the last parliament, and will seek to control it now – a populist bloc who have employed tough rhetoric on migration and sought to battle Reform for votes, and a moderate wing eager to drag the party back to its “One Nation” roots.

“I’m sorry that my party didn’t listen to you,” Britain’s former hardline Home Secretary Suella Braverman said at her count, in a speech that could well have been addressed purely to the party members that will select its next leader.

“(The) Conservative Party has let you down. You – the great British people – voted for us over 14 years and we did not keep our promises,” she said. “We’ve acted as if we’re entitled to your vote regardless of what we did, regardless of what we didn’t do, despite promising time after time that we would do those things and we need to learn our lesson because if we don’t, bad as tonight has been for my party, we’ll have many worse nights to come.”

Kemi Badenoch will enter the leadership race as the favorite, if she runs. But the outgoing business and trade minister didn’t reveal much about her intentions in her speech, choosing instead to congratulate Labour.

The rise of Reform

The exit poll threw up a huge surprise, signalling 13 seats for Reform — but the real results weren’t as kind.

The insurgent bloc didn’t pick up all of the seats it was forecast, but it was a disruptive force throughout the night, leaping the Conservatives into second place in dozens of seats up and down the country.

Nigel Farage, the group’s leader who had tried seven times to win election to parliament, succeeded on the eight attempt and will become a noisy and trouble-making presence in Westminster.

“It’s not just disappointment with the Conservative Party. There is a massive gap on the center right of British politics and my job is to fill it. And that’s exactly what I’m going to do,” Farage said after winning the seat.

He pledged to “challenge the general election properly in 2029,” and promised to turn his rhetoric towards Labour as they prepare to enter government. Farage said the “Labour government will be in trouble very, very quickly and we will now be targeting Labour votes. We’re coming for Labour – be in no doubt about that.”

But in the short term, Farage will also be a prominent outside voice as the Conservatives decide on their next direction as the new opposition party.

Reform’s relative success follows a tone of populist fury across Europe, though it will remain a minor party in parliament. They benefited hugely from the Conservatives’ failure to control legal and illegal migration, an issue it nonetheless placed at the center of their campaign.

Scotland’s independence movement suffers a staggering setback

Ten years after Scotland voted to remain a part of the United Kingdom, the 2024 election left the prospect of another such poll dim.

Labour rolled back into place as the most popular party in Scotland, picking up several of its target seats from the Scottish National Party (SNP). The pro-independence  group has dominated Scottish politics for a generation, and had won the most seats in three consecutive Westminster elections.

But the SNP has suffered a torrid period in the last two years, cycling through three leaders in that time. And Labour, a pro-union party, capitalized on that trend, winning seats in Edinburgh and across southern Scotland. The Lib Dems also grabbed a handful of seats from the SNP, which may be left with fewer than ten seats. They won 48 at the last election, and became Britain’s third largest party.

The SNP still controls the Scottish Parliament, a devolved body that holds separate elections. The next election for the Scottish Parliament doesn’t have to take place until 2026.

But the party’s majority in Holyrood is very narrow, and they are in a deeply diminished position after Thursday’s vote. It means they cannot now meaningfully push for another independence referendum, which they would need the permission of the Westminster government to hold.

The once very real possibility of Scotland breaking from its centuries-long but occasionally awkward union with England, Wales and Northern Ireland will likely now be shelved for a generation.

Green Party quadruples its seat number – to four

It was a very good night for the Green Party which won four seats in the Parliament, three more seats compared to the last election in 2019.

While the party stood candidates in a record number of constituencies in this election, its official goal was to win four seats.

The Greens succeeded in all four. They won comfortably in Brighton Pavilion, their long-time and, until now, only stronghold.

But they also managed to take two seats away from the Conservatives, in the traditionally rural constituencies of North Herefordshire and Waveney Valley. The Greens also won in Bristol Central, which was previously held by Labour seat.

Anger over Labour’s Gaza stance

On a very positive night for the Labour Party, there were a handful of disappointments.

Labour’s shadow culture minister Thangam Debbonaire lost her seat to the Green Party, giving Starmer an early decision to make about a Cabinet post.

But more troubling was the party’s slideback in parts of the country with a large Muslim population, a continuation of a trend seen too in local elections since Israel’s war against Hamas in Gaza began.

Starmer’s stance against Israel’s military campaign has hardened over time but his initial, unequivocal defense of Israel’s intervention in Gaza was criticized by some on Labour’s left and has been exploited by the Greens and independents in some seats. Starmer has since called for a ceasefire and the return of Israeli hostages held by the militant group in the enclave.

Shockat Adam beat senior Labour figure Jonathan Ashworth in a stunning upset, after campaigning mainly on the issue. Labour only narrowly defeated George Galloway in Rochdale, where Galloway did the same.

Perhaps most shockingly of all, Labour’s shadow health secretary Wes Streeting clung onto his seat by just 528 votes, after a strong challenge by British-Palestinian independent Leanne Mohamad.

Labour will take extremely seriously the votes it lost across the country over the issue of Gaza. And a sizeable if disorganized throng of independents elected, in large part, over the issue may seek to unite to elevate their cause in Parliament.

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