British elections ... The facts behind the figures

British elections ... The facts behind the figures

The UK election was more a bitter defeat for the Conservative Party than it was a victory for Labour (File/AFP)
The UK election was more a bitter defeat for the Conservative Party than it was a victory for Labour (File/AFP)
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Thanks to improvements in statistics and polling, last week’s UK election outcome aligned with projections. The British Labour Party won the elections handily, ending 14 consecutive years of Conservative Party rule.

The outcome of the early elections called for by Rishi Sunak, the outgoing prime minister, had been clear for a long time. Some even say that Sunak rushed to call the elections because he had realized that it would be futile to play for time and stand still in anticipation of a salvation that would never come. Moreover, the demagogues of the isolationist Reform UK party were ramping up their grandstanding during this time and the new moderate leadership of the Labour Party was getting its house in order to reassure the establishment, after having turned the page on the radicalism of its predecessors.

Deep down, Sunak felt that his party had nothing to offer but more futile tax bribes and infighting, which had allowed three different prime ministers to take power in five years.

Accepting the obvious in a country with deep-rooted traditions, Sunak realized that the UK’s institutions had stopped betting on his withering party. Rather, they welcomed the introduction of new blood with a stronger popular mandate that could serve their interests over a longer period. The clearest reflection of this shift was that some right-wing popular newspapers changed their stances, opting to endorse the Labour Party rather than the Conservatives.

The British people have seen this before, after growing weary of the long era of Thatcherism that spanned from 1979 to 1997 (including the John Major years) and the decay of its authority. At that time, Labour presented a new alternative that sought to marginalize left-wing activists, weaken the hard-line unionists, cooperate with the private sector and accept both domestic and global capitalism.

Last week’s election was more a bitter defeat for the Conservative Party than it was a victory for Labour.

Eyad Abu Shakra

Indeed, in early May 1997, Tony Blair led “New Labour” to a sweeping victory, receiving more than 43 percent of the vote and winning a 179-seat majority.

What happened last week was similar. The British people had grown tired of the problems seen over the past 14 years and a moderate Labour alternative that sidelined left-wing members emerged. As a result, the Conservatives were abandoned and they lost the election. I deliberately used the word “similar” and not “identical,” given the significant differences that make up the picture behind the figures. Last week’s election was more a bitter defeat for the Conservative Party than it was a victory for Labour.

Labour has won politically and it will govern for the next five years with an extremely comfortable majority of 172 seats. However, the party only received 33.7 percent of the vote, just a 1.6 percent increase from four years ago, when they suffered a painful defeat under Jeremy Corbyn … but they nonetheless won an overwhelming majority of the seats.

In my opinion, this can be explained by the following:

Firstly, after Labour ousted the radical Corbyn and chose the more moderate Keir Starmer as its leader, the establishment had no reason to worry about the Labour Party, which offered further reassurances by explaining its goals for the long term.

Secondly, Britain’s relationship with Europe has always been a contentious issue within the Conservative Party. Although the moderate wing that favors alignment with Europe temporarily won when the UK joined the European family at the beginning of 1973, the right-wing faction of the party has always opposed stronger ties and deeper integration. The Brexit faction was born of that wing of the party. The irony, here, is that right-wing Conservatives’ views on Europe converged with those of the Labour Party’s left, which was also against joining the European Common Market, though its opposition was premised on the grounds that joining this “bourgeois bloc” would harm the interests of the working class.

Later on, after Brexit advocates won the 2016 referendum and began to fear that a new referendum could overturn the result, they established Reform, which included staunch opponents of a return to Europe who took a strong stance against immigration and asylum seekers.

Reform then crystallized into a polarizing force, with some hard-liners veering away from moderate isolationism toward racism and xenophobia. Following years of internal crises in the Conservative Party, and after Labour had sidelined its leftist faction, Reform gradually grew in strength. In last week’s general election, it received 14 percent of the vote.

Finally, in Scotland, the Scottish National Party’s failed policies and escalating internal disagreements left it facing a collapse that paralleled that of the Conservative Party in England and Wales. Here too, the Labour Party benefited, winning most seats after having historically been a major force in Scotland before the rise of the nationalists over the past three decades.

Thus, we arrive at two conclusions:

The first conclusion is that the view that “Britain has moved to the left while most of Europe is moving to the right” is unfounded. The reality is that British extremism — both right-wing and left-wing — has become so robust and organized that it no longer needs to hide behind the Conservatives or Labour. Today, the Reform party is copying from the literature of similar right-wing movements in France, Italy and Germany.

The second conclusion is that the Scottish nationalists’ collapse could be a sign that support for a new referendum on Scottish independence is declining. Indeed, the number of SNP seats shrank from 48 to just nine, while Labour increased its seats in Scotland from two to 37.

Accordingly, the outcome of the British election is significant and it may have temporarily put the brakes on the shift toward far-right hegemony in Western Europe. However, the seeds of xenophobia and isolationism indicate that changes beneath the surface could have worrying implications in the foreseeable future.

  • Eyad Abu Shakra is managing editor of Asharq Al-Awsat. X: @eyad1949
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