British elections: Majority without a mandate (plus statement by Anti*Capitalist Resistance)


First published at New Left Review.

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.

Anti*Capitalist Resistance: After the landslide — Resistance and realignment

First published at Anti*Capitalist Resistance.

1 – The overwhelming majority of people will be glad to see the humiliation and annihilation of the Tories. They have lost the greatest number of seats in their history. Conservative governments have given us 14 years of misrule, corruption, and dishonesty. Cameron and the Lib Dems’ austerity ended or devastated the lives of millions. In 2010 there were 35 foodbanks; in 2024 there are 3,572. Our health service, education, local services, utilities, and much else has been starved of vital funds or pillaged for private gain. Our rivers and seas stink and are unfit for swimming while water company shareholders have been lavishly rewarded. Johnson’s callous disregard for public health resulted in thousands of needless Covid deaths. Rules were imposed on us and not followed by the government. He gave millions to Tory cronies to provide unsuitable PPE. Liz Truss’s extreme neo-liberal budget led to millions suffering massive mortgage rises. Getting Brexit done has hit growth hard and stopped European freedom of movement. On Sunak’s watch, energy prices have soared and we have experienced the worst cost of living crisis for decades. The demonisation of migrants, asylum seekers, and trans people has been stepped up. We can at least savour for a moment the political defeat of the politicians responsible for it all. Truss, Shapps, Mordaunt, Gullis, Rees-Mogg, Jenkyns and other ministers are all gone. Sunak has suffered a reverse 2019, this time the Farage party damaged the Tories, not Labour.

2 – Starmer’s new government has been welcomed by big business. The Economist, the Financial Times, and the Murdoch press have supported Labour at this election. When Starmer said he changed the party so that he could change the country he was half truthful. One sure way to get into power is to destroy any possible left challenge to the power of the capitalist class who really runs things. Yes, he changed his party but his new partnership with capital for ‘wealth creation’ will not change the country for the many. It will help streamline profit-making for the few. Public money will be lavished on business to encourage ‘growth’ that will supposedly magically trickle down to improve wages and social spending. Corporate staff have already been embedded throughout his cabinet team to ensure this vision will be implemented.

3 – Labour’s big election victory follows the vicious counterattack of the Labour Party’s right and centre against any hint of a moderate left challenge to the power of capital. Starmer’s hold over the workers’ movement has been strengthened. Any re-run of a Corbyn-like left majority inside Labour is dead in the water – and will be for the foreseeable future. For a while, the new government will probably enjoy a honeymoon period in which it may be difficult for tensions or conflicts with the unions or the left to emerge.

4 – However, this result is a Conservative collapse as much as a Labour win. One journalist has correctly called it a ‘loveless landslide’. The unfair First Past the Post system massively distorts the degree of Labour’s triumph. Yesterday it got 9.6 million votes and around 34% of the vote. The Corbyn party he claimed was preventing any electoral victory got 13 million votes and 40% of the vote in 2017 and 10 million and 32% in a 2019 election that was distorted by Brexit and the de facto Johnson/Farage electoral coalition. In Cymru, there was little enthusiasm for Starmer. In fact, despite winning 27 out of 32 seats, Labour received nearly 150,000 fewer votes than in 2019 when Jeremy Corbyn was leader. In the poorest communities, such as Ely and Caerau, the turnout was only 23%. Everyone has noted the lack of enthusiasm for the Starmer project. Turnout is down seven percentage points on 2019 at around 60%. Workers’ struggles are more likely to develop in this climate where there is not a strong identity with the government. There is less enthusiasm than with Blair in 1997. However, this new government has already indicated that it will not pay public sector workers a decent wage, nor will it raise taxes on the rich to pay for Health, Education, Social Care, or local council spending needs. It is very likely that workers will strike against this government, and many others will campaign against the limits of its programme. It is unlikely to break with US imperialism with regard to Israel’s apartheid state. Unlike Spain and Ireland, it will not recognise the Palestine state now. The significant vote to Labour’s left shows there is potential for resistance to its moderate policies.

5 – We must support every struggle or resistance to the policies of this social-liberal government. We do not recognise any honeymoon. To start with we demand the immediate implementation of its very limited programme with no further backtracking – increased rights for workers from day one, the progressive taxes they have proposed on private schools and non-doms; ditching the Rwanda project, its measures for education, health, and the environment.

6 – But this is just the starting point for the workers’ movement to force the government to take much more radical measures – extending labour rights by abolishing all of Thatcher’s repressive legislation; a wealth tax and increased capital gains tax to pay for our NHS, education, and local services; taking the energy and utility companies into common ownership and using any surplus generated to develop a much more ambitious energy transition plan to tackle the climate and ecological crises in ways that ensure the polluters pay; removing the two-child cap and other benefit caps immediately and strengthening the 2010 Equality Act to better protect the oppressed (including trans people) while ditching the repressive Public Order laws. These are just a few examples, but such proposals go alongside the mobilisation of workers in these sectors to draw up action plans. We do not just put pressure on Labour but try and develop independent self-organisation on all these issues.

7 – Yesterday’s general election results show that up to 3 million voted to the left of Labour, either for a Green manifesto more radical than Labour’s or for left independents or candidates challenging Labour on Palestine. The Greens alone got 6.8% (up by 4), nearly 2 million votes, and now have 4 MPs. Independent pro-Gaza candidates won four seats and ran Labour close in seats like Wes Streeting’s in Ilford North. Andrew Feinstein got over 8,000 votes in Starmer’s constituency, Faiza Shaheen in Chingford got 25%, and would have won if Labour had not split the vote against Duncan Smith. Corbyn, in the end, won comfortably. We have never seen so many independents in parliament. A weakened left still remains inside Labour like the Grassroots Alliance, Momentum, and the Socialist Campaign Group. These thousands of activists inside and outside Labour provide the basis of a more structured network or movement of ecosocialist and climate activists who are prepared to resist Starmer’s failure to put forward the change we need. The direct action current of the green movement such as Just Stop Oil and Extinction Rebellion occupy this political space too. The greater-than-expected performance of all these forces provides us with some hope that a triumphant Starmer government will not steam ahead without any opposition. At the beginning of the campaign, he wanted to dump Britain’s first black woman MP. He was stopped by a grassroots campaign linking up with Left MPs, unions, and the world of culture. There is no reason that such alliances cannot be constructed on other issues. The big majority may make it easier for MPs to defy the Labour leadership – their rebellions will not bring down the government. Every commentator and poll have pointed to both a very strong desire to get rid of the Tories but combined with little enthusiasm for Starmer and his project. So people may be willing to challenge the government much sooner than we may imagine. Even the big success of the Lib Dems, up to 71 seats, partly reflects a desire to properly fund health and social care which goes beyond Labour’s limited spending plans.

8 – Farage’s racist Reform party was, after Starmer, the surprise winner of the night. It has 4 seats and over 4 million votes. The score is over 3 points better than its previous high point in 2015. Reform came second in hundreds of seats, including in some Labour ones. Farage’s main message after the vote was that he aimed to overtake the Tory party and become the main opposition to Labour. He is in a position to play a role in the realignment of right-wing politics, either through a reverse takeover of the Tory party or through a new movement that will confront traditional Toryism and win over some of its base and MPs. This process has already started. It is also a threat to the Starmer government. Farage has said he wants to be the real opposition leading mass protests. Given the small number of his MPs relative to the millions of votes he is in a good place to exploit the frustrations of his base who feel alienated from the political process. Labour, for narrow electoral reasons, did not challenge Farage, thinking he would wound the Tories more than Labour. Starmer even withdrew its candidate from the battle in Clacton. Labour, as much as the Tories, bear responsibility for the rise of Reform. Labour has normalised the racist framework of the debate on migrants. It will be up to the left and the workers’ movement to confront a rising Farage current. His success will also strengthen the confidence of neo-fascist street gangs led by Tommy Robinson and others.

9 – Ecological issues were mostly absent from the campaign. Labour had already diluted its Great British Energy project campaign and did not foreground it – being terrified that voters might be scared off by its costs. Both the Liberal Democrats, who soared beyond even the exit poll to 71 seats, and the Greens benefited from putting the environment on the agenda. The left needs to step up and lead on an eco-socialist strategy. The other great absence from the electoral campaign was Gaza. The mainstream parties barely mentioned it but the standing of independent candidates completely disrupted this. We salute the work of all those activists who succeeded in getting the voice of Palestinians heard in this election.

10 – The ACR will put itself at the service of building resistance to Labour’s social liberalism. We will support every campaign to defend trans, women’s, and democratic rights, Palestine, workers’ living standards, and public services and to push for strong measures to tackle the climate and ecological crisis along with a just transition to green jobs. Within the broad movement, we will argue for the need for an anti-capitalist eco-socialist current that can provide the basis for a strategic alternative to Labourism.